The power of classroom circles for fostering emotional intelligence, improving well-being and creating a culture of kindness is well documented. Circles are important tools for nurturing relationships and feelings of community and can be used in any classroom.

Schools with a focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) often use circles to help build a positive culture to reduce bullying. Circles work because they help all children to feel loved and encouraged while creating bonds between peers. They are especially important for nurturing feelings of belonging, acceptance and stability in troubled children.

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Circles help to acknowledge and celebrate, explore and share ideas, offer encouragement or address problems. They provide regular opportunities to practice respect for others, mindful listening, empathy and share appreciations and feelings of acceptance or loneliness. Children learn to communicate, discover commonalities, problem solve and adopt positive values and behaviour. 

Circles can also offer support and healing for children suffering a loss or be effective in addressing difficult or bullying behaviour. Circles can be serious or fun depending on the topic but it's important to keep them structured and to the point.

Research indicates that poor emotional intelligence and well-being impacts a child's future as a competent and successful community member. With this in mind, it’s worth taking whatever time it takes to create and practice a circle ritual.

Why a Circle?

The use of a circle format to should not be underestimated as it is an ideal formation for effective communication. A circle facilitates a positive connection which allows all students equal access to facial expressions and body language as others share ideas. 

When to Start

Circles are can be started with children in pre-school and used right through school. They are most regularly used in junior students who are generally more open-minded but their effectiveness does not diminish with older children.

Older student may view a circle as an organisation protocol more suited for younger students. If this is the case and they are reluctant to comply, you could relate the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The formation was used by King Arthur as a mechanism to promote equality among his knights and give them equal access to conversations and decision-making. Inviting them to form their chairs in a circle instead of sitting on the floor may also help to overcome any resistance.

Benefits

Participating in any type of circle helps foster emotional intelligence by learning:

  • patience while waiting for their turn
  • to listen to and respect the person talking
  • empathy and understanding another person's perspective
  • the importance of listening and not just talking
  • to open up and communicate in positive ways
  • emotional regulation and anger management
  • character traits to better understand their peers
  • about structure, limits and rules
  • to take responsibility for their words and actions
  • to work together to find solutions and resolve conflicts
  • to be part of and foster a positive and trusting community 

and

  • building confidence, self-esteem and resilience

Guidelines

It's important to set some basic guidelines for facilitating a smooth-running and effective circle:

  • The teacher leads the circle unless a student has been nominated.
  • Turns are generally taken in a clockwise direction unless otherwise decided.
  • When a student is speaking, they are not be interrupted by others. If children find it difficult to follow this rule, consider using a talking piece or stick. This is an object that is presented to the person speaking. It indicates that person has the floor and for others to be quiet and respectful during that time. Anything can be used as a talking piece/stick, even a stick from the garden but you may like to decorate it to make it feel special.
  • When it's time for group discussion, students should indicate they wish to speak and wait until they are selected.
  • Depending on the type of circle, students may be expected to contribute or may have the option to pass if they do not wish to speak.
  • Students are to be reminded that everyone opinion matters and that the circle is a supportive and non-judgemental space where no-one is put down.
  • If an issue is being discussed within the circle, students are reminded to keep their emotions in check and use positive language while working towards a peaceful resolution or course of action.
  • Students are to respect everyone's privacy and only speak about their own experiences, concerns or celebrations.

Types of Circles

Share Circle

Use to reflect on or share after an activity or to brainstorm prior to a project. This type of circle ensures students have a visibility and responsibility to participate in learning activities and contribute to the group experience. Each student is expected to share their thoughts and should be reminded to look at, listen to and not interrupt the speaker. Working around the circle prevents more confident or impulsive students dominating as they must wait their turn.

Discussions should be teacher directed but child focused. Frame questions to encourage students to consider experiences in a specific way to build conceptual understanding of a topic or issue. They will benefit by broadening and building their own perspectives by listening to others and testing their own thoughts with an audience.

Including the option to ‘pass’ allows quiet or unprepared students time to think. A few extra minutes lets them consider other responses before they speak when the class has spoken. It also reduces frustration and anxiety if their thoughts are not fully formed or concerns that they will be overlooked.

Care Circle

Daily care circles give children the opportunity to start a day of learning and socialising having ‘cleared’ anything important they need to share, unload or celebrate. It also provides teachers and peers with an insight into the child’s personal world and issues. This can help to build empathy and understanding of moods and emotions that may otherwise be displayed inappropriately.

Ideally, allow 5-10 minutes first thing each morning or in conjunction with roll-call. Be prepared to allow more time if important issues arise. If time is short, a note can be made to revisit anything complex at a more appropriate time.

It’s preferable for children to sit in a circle so that eye contact can be made with every speaker. Explain the reason for this as respect for others, respect for the process and tuning into visual and verbal information. It is not compulsory for students to share and they may elect to pass when it's their turn.

 Care circles can also help nurture new and existing friendships as children learn more about their peers so be sure to highlight commonalities. You may also like to point out the positive feelings people share and discuss how they can be achieved by everyone.
Restorative Circle

Use a restorative circle to address minor social issues or anti-social behaviour to reach a peaceful solution without the need for punishment.

They can be private to just include the conflicting parties together with the teacher or for whole group discussion to problem solve or offer suggestions. Direct discussions to gain insight into the problem and ensure that all parties understand the underlying issues. The teacher will then ask a question such as "how can this issue be resolved?" to allow children to offer suggestions for a peaceful resolution.

A follow-up circle can formed again later to check on progress and evaluate the effectiveness of the actions taken. If a positive outcome has not been achieved, use this time to re-evaluate the plan and actions to be taken.

Circles are a positive addition to any classroom regardless of their use. Many schools who advocate for social and emotional learning timetable daily circles as a positive way to nurture emotional intelligence.

The Ripple Kindness Project is a whole-school social and emotional learning curriculum which promotes circles as part of the program. Download an information brochure to learn how we can help your schools improve well-being to reduce bullying.

AUTHOR: Lisa Currie - Ripple Kindness Project
Lisa is the founder of Ripple Kindness Project, a community and outreach program, and primary/elementary school curriculum. Passionate about improving well-being and reducing bullying, RIpple developed a whole school, evidence-based SEL, kindness and mindfulness curriculum to build character and emotional intelligence to nurture positive, happy and safe school communities. 

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