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Group Work with College Students: Integrating Models of Psychosocial Development

Although developmental models lie at the foundation of counseling psychology as a discipline (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2009), there are few examinations of developmental models as they relate to group psychotherapy.

Jeritt R. Tucker, MS
Jeritt R. Tucker, MS

Jeritt R. Tucker, MS
Doctoral Candidate, University of Iowa

Although developmental models lie at the foundation of counseling psychology as a discipline (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2009), there are few examinations of developmental models as they relate to group psychotherapy. Of these articles, even fewer focus on the development of college students (Winston, Warren, Miller, & Dagley, 1988), despite the fact that late late-adolescence is a crucial stage in most identity development models (Evans et al., 2009) and that specialized support and guidance is critical for individuals in this stage (Theodoratou-Bekou, 2008). One foundational approach to college student development—psychosocial identity development theory (primarily Erikson, 1968, 1980; Marcia 1980, 1994; and Chickering & Reisser, 1993)—is particularly applicable to group psychotherapy. These models examine how persons successfully resolve developmental tasks through altering their view of self (self-concept), relationships with others (interdependence), and what to do with their lives (derivation of meaning; Evans et al., 2009).

Based on my own more thorough review of this literature, I would like to posit the following five primary recommendations for group work with college student populations:

  1. A critical task in college student development is corroboration of one’s internal experiences with peer reactions and group acceptance (Erikson, 1968). Emphasizing group norms early and often through open processing of “breaches” of group guidelines (advice-giving or obstinate silence) is recommended. Nonjudgmental appeals to other members, rather than directly correcting or identifying breaches, are preferred.
  2. Problems of intimacy (e.g. over identification or inappropriate self-disclosure) are developmentally appropriate for college students and may not be indication of psychopathology (Erikson, 1968). Cohesion building, rather than diagnosis and direct intervention, is a potentially effective antidote to such behaviors.
  3. Imitative behavior and defensiveness may be struggles for foundational identity that are common at this age (Marcia, 1994). Leaders are encouraged to not interpret such resistance but empathize and subtly address it through modelling behaviors.
  4. Fostering healthy interdependence with other members is an effective antidote for clients who exhibit continual needs for reassurance and support (Chickering & Reisser, 1993). Group leaders aware of these patterns may thus look at improving interpersonal communication as a primary means of intervention; perhaps through having other members identify and state specific interpersonal reactions.
  5. College students’ capacity for intimacy; ability to be flexible in tolerating differences in relationships; ability to develop a sense of self in relation to social, historical, and cultural contexts; and ultimately develop personal stability depends on an exploration of multiculturalism (Chickering & Reisser, 1993).  Didactic instruction or intervening at choice-points related to multiculturalism should occur early in group to establish their importance and normalize related struggles.

These recommendations come from consideration of the specific developmental needs of college student groups based on theories of psychosocial development. They generally emphasize greater empathy with college student clients through understanding their unique struggles with identity development and key differences from adult and adolescent populations. A more thorough examination of this rich body of literature may thus offer group therapists even greater awareness of when developmental needs may manifest as choice points and how to effectively intervene.


Chickering, A., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Erikson, E. (1980). Identity and the life cycle. New York: Norton. Erikson, E. (1968) Identity:Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Evans, N., Forney, D., Guido, F., Patton, L., & Renn, K. (2009). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Marcia, J. (1994). The empirical study of ego-identity. In H. A. Bosma, T.L.G. Graafsma, H. D. Grotevant, & D. J. de Levita (Eds.), Identity and development: An interdisciplinary approach (pp. 67-80). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Marcia, J. (1980). Identity in adolescence. In J. Adelson (Ed.), Handbook of adolescent psychology(pp. 159-187). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Theodoratou-Bekou, M. (2008). Psychological maturing and coping strategies: Study based on group process. Groupwork, 18(1), 76-98.

Winston, R., Warren, B., Miller, T., Dagley, J. (1988). Promoting student development through intentionally structured groups. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jeritt is a 4th year doctoral student in counseling psychology at Iowa State University.  His research objectives include 1) better understanding how stigma interferes with seeking psychological help; and 2) leader characteristics and interventions that best attend to multicultural concerns (particularly religious and spiritual content) and facilitate cohesion to improve client outcomes.

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