Group Adventure Therapy

This section is intended to discuss the use of group treatment and the application of AT to this type of treatment context, which is the most commonly utilized treatment format within the AT realm. Specifically, in this interpersonal context, adventure activities are used as the catalyst for the development of the group into a functional, effectively performing team. The group therapy context allows opportunities for group and individual goals to be addressed concurrently. Group members are provided the opportunity to work toward mastery in a variety of areas, such as addressing social or behavioral problems, self-efficacy, problem solving skills, modes of coping, communicating with others, or self-acceptance. Broadly, the group social context is thought to provide an opportunity for development of improved relational skills through shared experience, mutual goal accomplishment, the experience of authentic community, the experience of giving and receiving support, and the opportunity for immediate and ongoing feedback from others (Yalom, 1995 ; Berman & Davis-Berman, 1994; Corsini & Wedding, 2004; Neri, 2003; Newes, 2000; Newes & Bandoroff, 2004;Schoel & Maizell, 2002; Gillis, 1998; Gillis & Gass, 2003; Russell, 2004; Russell, 2003a; Newes, 2000). The majority of these principles are directly in line with established group psychotherapy theory and method and practitioners are encouraged to consider ways in which the process may be quite similar to group processes that occur in other contexts (Newes, 2000).

Practitioner Guidelines 

1. The basic tenets of standard group practice (e.g., social work, psychology, and counseling literature) also apply to adventure group therapy (Russell, 2003a; Newes & Bandoroff, 2004, Newes, 2000; Ethical Guidelines for Social Work, Counseling, Psychology and Mental Health literature).

2. The issues that unfold during the process of the activity are the primary focus of each treatment session. Adventure group therapists attend to the process and issues that unfold during the group session, not the pre-designed or desired plan of the facilitator. This guideline requires that the facilitator maintain the flexibility to deal with spontaneous issues that arise in the moment. Adventure group therapists intentionally focus on the dynamic issues during the course of an activity rather than exclusively attending to the concrete results, such as success or failure, of the group efforts (Lung, Stauffer & Alvarez, 2008; Itin, 2003). See the Treatment Applications section for more information regarding this.

3. Use assessment data to inform and guide treatment decisions. Engage in activities with the intention of gathering assessment data about individual clients, as well as about the functioning level of the group and the nature of the group environment (Russell, 2003a; Russell, 2003b; American Psychiatric Association, DSM-IVTR (2000); Schoel & Maizel, 2002; Gass & Gillis, 1995; Hoyer, 2004; Alvarez & Stauffer, 2001; Nadler & Luckner, 1992; Kimball, 1993; Russell, 2004; Schoel, Radcliffe & Prouty, 1988; Russell, 2001; Priest & Gass, 1999; Gillis & Thomsen, 1996; Gillis, 1998; Gillis, 1992; Gass, 1993; Itin, 2003). See Assessment for more information.

4. Apply a “theory of use” (Stanchfield, 2007) to the practice of adventure group therapy. That is, practitioners are urged to apply a preferred theory of human growth and change to their practice of adventure group therapy. It is the application of this theory and the connection to individualized treatment goals that differentiates adventure therapy from related fields such as recreation, education, outdoor education or youth development. For example, it is the practitioner’s choice of theory that will move the group sessions into addressing change at a meta-process level, which considers behaviors, cognitions, and unconscious processes that impede or support therapeutic change. (Itin, geocites_definitions web page, 2008; Newes & Bandoroff, 2004; Gillis, 1992; Hoyer, 2004; Ringer, 1994; Gerstein, 1992; Itin, 1999, 2001, 2003)

5. Attend to issues related to group composition.

  • Client Safety: The expectation that clients in an adventure therapy group will engage in self-disclosure during group sessions requires that facilitators vigilantly attend to safety issues throughout the process. This includes issues that arise within the session, as well as things such as appropriate group composition, the establishment of group norms and cooperatively developed decisions about what constitutes group safety in each activity (e.g., safe communication patterns, spotting, feedback).
  • Gender issues: Consider potential gender issues in both mixed and same-gender groups.
  • Homogeneity versus heterogeneity: in terms of descriptive factors of group members. Groups may be homogenous in relation to treatment issue, gender, age, etc. Group practitioners make intentional decisions about this aspect of group composition and plan corresponding interventions.
  • Size of the group: safety issues as well as type of activity and facilitation tasks are all affected by the sheer size of the client group. The group psychotherapy literature has identified group sizes from 6-12 as being the most effective (Yalom, 1994).
  • Personal and physical boundaries: issues related to boundaries are necessary to vigilantly attend to in order to create a safe environment that is conducive to change and growth. A lack of attention to this crucial issue can inadvertantly create situations that may be harmful to client's emotional and psychological well-being.
  • Diversity: factors of age, class, race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability.

6. Attend to issues related to the structure of the group, including closed versus open-ended enrollment, frequency and duration of the intervention, supervision expectations, and staffing.

7. Use activities to establish desired group norms and beliefs within the therapeutic environment. The beliefs and norms desired will vary depending on the developmental, emotional, and cognitive level of the clients, as well as the specific goals of the intervention. Refer to the Treatment Applications section for more information.

8. Work intentionally to develop client engagement and participation in a mutually agreed upon treatment contract. This is another tenet of "challenge by choice" (CITE).

9. Choose activities and interventions based on an assessment of the needs of the client and the conditions present in the group environment. See Assessment section for more information.

10. Focus on empowerment of the target population through use of the following techniques:

  • Allow clients to experience the consequences of their choices, within safe parameters. This tenet embraces the basic concept of experiential education that people learn more by struggling to work through problems as opposed to being given the solution.
  • Work intentionally to give clients control over their learning, which comes from a sense of perceived freedom and ability to make their own choices and therefore assume the consequences associated with their choice. This relates to Choice Theory (CITE). Use natural and logical consequences to support client change (Newes, 2000; Newes & Bandoroff, 2004).
  • Establish a protocol within the group for members to choose their level of involvement in activities. This is commonly referred to as "challenge by choice," although other variations are widely used depending on context (CITE).
  • Help clients to establish healthy boundaries that protect them physically and emotionally.

11. Use opportunities created by the shared nature of the activity within the group to model desired behaviors. Opportunities are available for modeling by practitioners and other participants. These may include:

  • Effective methods of dealing with and solving problems that are within the client’s sphere of influence.
  • Effective coping mechanisms for managing problems, both those problems that clients can change and those they cannot.
  • Effective communication skills.
  • Positive relationship skills, including accepting and giving feedback, addressing problems, negotiating boundaries and intimacy, and increasing authenticity.

12. Facilitate the development of awareness and integration of the experience of participating in a functional community where mutual aid is the norm. Through this experience, clients are more aware of how to manage failure, frustration, errors as well as successes, achievements, intimacy, and social relationships within the group context.

13. Facilitate opportunities for group members to work toward and experiment with skill development and/or mastery in desired treatment outcomes.

14. Work intentionally to provide a wide range of opportunities for clients to reflect on what they experienced in the group and connect and generalize this learning to other life situations. Reflection may come in times of solitude, times of discussion, opportunities to write or draw or construct something that represents their experience, times filled with music, and times of additional physical activity aimed at integrating the experience.