Fostering functional group behaviors

Group members perform two major functions as described by Austin (1991)— taskfunctions and social-emotive functions. When used as a description of group dynamics, the term task function refers to those activities that help members to achieve their goals, whether these are cognitive, physical, emotional, social, or vocational. The social-emotive function of a group is to promote and achieve a positive group atmosphere. In order for groups to perform both of these functions well, the horticultural therapist must provide effective settings, structure, and leadership, and also manage any nonfunctional behaviors that occur. The leader encourages behaviors that help the group reach goals and satisfy group needs (Schwartzberg et al. 2008). Horticultural therapists face many kinds of challenges in leading groups, including those associated with participation levels and disruptive behaviors. Exhibit 4.1 provides some questions to ask when participation is limited or interfering.

Table 4.1 Horticultural therapy practice: Leadership styles

Leadership style


Useful when


• Directive approach

• The group is newly formed

• May foster dependence

• There is limited time to accomplish the task

• Responsibility is with the leader

• High standards exist for task performance

• The group is very large

• Participants have limited social skills

• Participants have cognitive deficits

• Negative/disruptive behaviors occur

• Safety is paramount

• Structure is essential for group function

• Choices are threatening or overwhelming to clients


• Members involved in decision making

• Time allows for discussion to take place

• Needs time for discussion

• Social skills are key goals of the group

• Feelings of teamwork

• The group is functioning well

• It is important to seek full participation


• Nondirective approach

• Creativity is emphasized

• Open and permissive

• Trust and responsibility are goals

• Client centered

• Group members are able to give and accept social influences

• Group members initiate action

• The group size is small

• Emphasizes independence

• Group members need to set their own agenda

• Standards for the end product are flexible

Exhibit 4.1 Horticultural Therapy Practice: Participation Levels

Participation levels can range from nonattendance or lack of participation to domination of discussion and attention. Questions to ask in these situations include

  • • Do the facility staff and coworkers support attendance through transportation, scheduling, reminders, and so on?
  • • What factors motivate attendance and participation? For example, do the time of day, location, and use of end products contribute to full participation?
  • • Are horticultural therapy sessions voluntary or mandatory? Are the sessions tied to a reward system for clients?
  • • Do medications affect alertness?
  • • Are there other appropriate outlets for personal discussion, counseling, or problem-solving?
  • • Are quiet members encouraged to be involved?
  • • Do domineering members receive sensitive feedback regarding their behaviors?
  • • Has the client described a barrier that might prevent participation?
  • • Do financial concerns prevent attendance?
  • • Are activities appropriate and interesting?
  • • Are group members compatible?

Disruptive behaviors may include interruptions, displays of anger or aggression, or bizarre or socially inappropriate actions. For example, interruptions could consist of continually asking for help, shouting, walking away, or interrupting another's statements or conversations. Displays of anger or aggression could include shouts, verbal or physical threats, destruction of property, or crying. Socially inappropriate behaviors may involve approaching strangers with hugs, psychotic or delusional episodes, or overreactions to common situations.

In these and other disruptive situations, the role of the group leader or horticultural therapist is first to manage the behavior sufficiently to reduce the real or perceived threat to the perpetrator and the other group members. The group should be removed if there is immediate physical threat. Generally, redirecting the individual to appropriate action is effective. A person with dementia who is experiencing agitation may respond to the therapist's calm voice and a simple gardening task in which to be engaged. By recognizing signals that indicate that a group member's anger is escalating, the leader can take action before a crisis occurs. A physically active gardening task such as digging could be assigned. Conversation, appropriate expression of feelings, relaxation exercises, or other techniques could be used. Harvesting leaves or flowers from a scented plant such as lavender, whose fragrance is known to be calming, or a repetitive task such as weeding or cultivating the soil are examples of garden-specific tasks for eliciting behavior change. By understanding each participant, the therapist may also select a task the individual particularly enjoys, such as watering. The garden or greenhouse environment offers many options for calming and redirecting disruptive behaviors.

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