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“Student wellbeing and socio-emotional learning is the foundation for student success in our schools, and Circle Solutions is an amazing vehicle to help our students build the connections and relationships that are so integral to our students becoming successful life-long learners.” – Matthew Vines (Assistant Principal, South Melbourne Park Primary School), October 2019
Circle Solutions is both a philosophy for healthy relationships and a positive pedagogy for learning them.
It is based on research evidence found in the fields of resilience, positive psychology and neuroscience. The framework can be used in many different ways and for all ages from young children to adult.
Circle sessions establish understanding, values and behaviours for learning to be and learning to live together that are reinforced outside these sessions in schools and community contexts.
Circle Solutions is based on the ASPIRE principles:
- Agency: Participants are given structured opportunities to take decisions on things that concern them and responsibility for making things happen. Students themselves build a positive emotional climate for learning
- Safety: No-one has to say anything if they do not feel confident or ready to do so. Safety is also enhanced by discussing issues not incidents and by using the third person. Activities are in pairs, groups or the whole Circle
- Positivity: The focus is on strengths and solutions – what we want, rather than what we want to get rid of. Circles actively promote positive feelings, including laughter. This enhances emotional resources and connectedness
- Inclusion: There is an expectation that everyone will work with everyone else. No one is left out and all are encouraged (without pressure) to join in. Every person is important to the group
- Respect: Participants isten to each other and do not take up more than a fair share of attention. There are only personal positives and no put downs.
- Equity: Everyone has an equal voice, no one person can dominate. Faciliators participate in all activities
These principles are reflected in the guidelines and the way Circles are facilitated. These principles also need to be modelled and reinforced outside the Circle.
This photo-film shows Circles in action across the age range. We hear from teachers, students and school principals about the difference it is making for individuals, classes and school culture.
You can download a copy of the film from the Videos page under Publications.
Circles are a safe and positive way of developing:
- self awareness, knowledge and skills
- knowledge, understanding and acceptance of others
- pro-social behaviours
- a sense of belonging and connectedness
- a focus on positive, solution focused thinking
- resilience, increased emotional resources and well being
- collaborative decision making, conflict resolution and problem-solving
Participants – including the facilitator – take part in a wide range of paired, small group and Circle activities, many presented as games. Participants are mixed up so everyone interacts with everyone else.
There are three guidelines based on the principles
- everyone gets a turn: when it is someone’s turn to speak everyone else will listen
- individuals may pass if they wish: there is no pressure to say anything
- there are only personal positives and a focus on strengths – and no put downs
Circle Solutions is an indirect teaching tool. The aim is for participants to think reflectively and creatively, discuss important issues (never specific incidents), grow to have understanding about themselves and others and over time develop social and emotional understanding and skills they can put into practice
If Circles are run with too didactic an approach, where adults tell children and young people what to think and do, they may not be so effective in the long run. Circles are intended to be fun!
Circles need to happen regularly to have an impact. The minimum is one session a week although some schools are providing a short daily session. Length depends on the age of the students but averages between 20 and 40 minutes. It is about building a sense of connectedness and the skills to relate well.
ASPIRE requires a positive approach from adults and skilled facilitation congruent within the basic principles. There are now many resources available for Circle activities though some may need adaptation
Evaluations indicate that relationships between students, class ethos, behaviour, confidence, communication skills and teacher student- relationships change in positive ways. The impact of Circles also generalises beyond the classroom. The quality of facilitation is central to these outcomes as is making the links between what happens in Circles and everyday life in the classroom, school and community
The Rationale for Circles – how they lead to a more effective learning environment
- Raising self-awareness and skills promotes emotional and social competence – increasing the chance of healthy relationships.
- Focusing on strengths and the positive makes people feel better about themselves and others. This enhances emotional resources and promotes resilience.
- Seeking what is shared increases tolerance and provides a threshold for friendship.
- This inhibits bullying behaviours
- Having fun together promotes a sense of belonging and reduces stress.
- Constructing solutions together raises responsibility for making them happen.
- Building on strengths supports positive change.
- Everyone gets a turn to contribute, promoting cooperation
- A happier and more connected class promotes an effective learning environment
- This increases student engagement and academic outcomes
What happens in a Circle Solutions session?
NB Not every activity will happen every Circle except where marked ‘essential’
- Reminder of the guidelines: Essential
- Greeting / opening activity
- Mix up activity: Essential
- Pair share or interview and feedback
- Whole group game
- Small group activity
- Calming activity to close: Essential
- The Activities
Successful circle sessions include a variety of activities, none of which goes on for too long. Circles usually take around half an hour, longer with older students. The content of Circles will depend on the age and needs of the participants.
Circles begin with a reminder of the principles followed by a greeting activity in the round such as introductions, name games, or ‘pass the smile’. An object such as a ‘talking stick’ can symbolise each person’s turn to speak
Sentence completions are safer in the third rather than first person. These can introduce the theme of the Circle or just be for sharing experiences, feelings or solutions, eg:
- The best thing that happened in the last week is…
- It helps someone to feel good at school when…
- A put down means…
Silent statements enable more difficult information to be shared in a safe way – eg:
Everyone stand up and change places if:
- you know someone who seems to be lonely
- you think people sometimes don’t know what to say in a situation
- sometimes it is OK to feel angry.
Mixing people up ensures students interact with those outside their usual social groups. This happens several times a session and can be done in a many ways such as asking those who have a particular eye colour to change places. Mixing up games add energy to the Circle. Young people like to be physically active and not sit still for long periods.
Pair shares are a regular feature of Circle Solutions. They are aimed at participants finding things in common and getting to know each other differently, eg talk about a film you have both seen – what did you think of it? What are you both good at? This breaks down stereotypes and promotes acceptance of difference.
Small group or paired activities can be creative activities, sharing experiences, finding commonalities, problem-solving, structured discussions, drawing or games. Small group work is particularly useful for developing actions to promote positive feelings and inclusion in the group.
Games are an essential feature of Circle Solutions. They are highly engaging for children and young people. Although sometimes the aim of the game is simply to have fun together to promote a sense of belonging others are meaningful at deeper levels of understanding and/or provide opportunities to practice developing skills. Some games are collaborative, others may have team competitions.
Stories trigger questions /discussion of issues with time for reflection. These can be visual such as You Tube clips
Role play explores issues, generates strategies, promotes empathy and provides opportunities to both think about issues and practice skills.
Closing circle sessions: the circle always ends with an activity that is calming and enjoyable, such as a relaxation activity, reflection or guided visualisation.
Circle Solutions is not a program: the content is flexible according to the needs and development of the group.
Circles build Solutions: A class may address an issue in one Circle and this leads to activities and decision making in subsequent Circles.
There are many ideas for Circle activities. A resource list is at the end of this handout though some activities may need adapation to be congruent with the ASPIRE principles. Circle facilitators are encouraged to share ideas on this site.
Suggested ways of enhancing learning in Circles
- Point out commonalities – what we all share
- Highlight positive feelings and how these are achieved
- Make links between games and real life events – focusing on the positive
- Use some games to develop actions that encourage students to take responsibility.
- Provide time for reflection and discussion on learning as a circle activity
- Structure the content of Circles so they build on each other and concepts are revisited, expanded and put into practice.
- Display work developed in Circles in public places
- Refer to Circle learning when incidents arise at other times – ask questions that require reflection
- Circle Solutions is not intended to be group therapy. The use of the third person, stories, discussing issues in the abstract and focusing on the positive helps maintain safety. This addresses one of the main criticisms of social and emotional learning.
The role of the Circle facilitator
The way in which Circles are run is central to their effectiveness: a skilled facilitator aims to do the following:
- guide the process to be congruent with the underlying principles and values
- participate fully in all activities and model expected behaviour
- emphasize the need for respect and safety for all
- have positive expectations
- choose activities appropriate to the age and stage of the students
- have variety in activities
- repeat guidelines to everyone rather than singling out individuals
- introduce activities so that everyone understands what to do, and give opportunities for questions and practice where appropriate
- comment briefly on aims of activities and summarize achievements
- make connections for students with real life situations
- acknowledge all contributions
- be aware of time issues and maintain an effective pace
- provide occasional energisers so participants move physically
- be creative and prepared to be flexible if the need arises
- be sensitive to individual circumstances where possible
- offer opportunities for students to lead
- offer choices to students who resist conforming to the basic guidelines.
- REINFORCE the learning whenever possible outside the Circle sessions.
No-one should be mandated to run Circles. If a teacher does not yet acknowledge that positive relationships make a difference to the quality of the learning environment, pro-social behaviour, resilience and wellbeing they are unlikely to run Circles effectively. This is also true if they believe that their role is to ‘control’ students rather than encourage their participation and agency.
A whole school approach ensures that teachers share their experiences, resources and ideas for Circles. It also means that the Circle philosophy is embedded throughout interaction in the school to build social capital. Circles are not seen as an ‘extra’ that can be jettisoned for other priorities.
On this site you can find links to:
- Circle Solutions Training, including flyers and booking forms for forthcoming courses
- some research reports and articles on the effectiveness of the pedagogy:
- Circle Solutions: a philosophy and pedagogy for learning positive relationships. What promotes and inhibits sustainable outcomes?, from International Journal of Emotional Education 5 (1) 36-55
- Aboriginal Girls Circle: enhancing connectedness and promoting resilience for Aboriginal girls: Final Pilot Report.
- Games as a pedagogy for social and emotional learning. ‘It’s fun and we learn things’, from Simulation and Gaming 40 (5) 626 – 644
- lists of the many people accredited to train, and the schools that have already been trained
- resources you can use in Circles: books, cards etc, and visualizations
- the resources that Trainers use – substantially updated January 2021
- a place to share your experiences of Circles and good ideas for others to use
- and more things yet to be added!