When people ask how they want to be treated by others, most say they want to be respected. When asked to define what respect means for them, they say being accepted, being listened to, not being judged, having confidences kept. We also believe that it means respecting people’s time and circumstances. Respect does not only apply to individuals, it also applies to contexts and culture.

Respect is incorporated in two Circle guidelines
  • When one person is speaking everyone will listen
  • There are no put downs.

When people ask how they want to be treated by others, most say they want to be respected. When asked to define what respect means for them, they say being accepted, being listened to, not being judged.

Although being respectful means listening to what others have to say, this can only happen when there are opportunities to speak. Young people who have been silenced or have little control in their lives might shout (and even scream) to be heard. What often happens in schools is that we shut these voices down. They are seen as disruptive. The students who get listened to are the ‘good kids’ who get onto Student Representative Councils. Although well meaning, SRCs are rarely effective in eliciting or presenting authentic student voice. Only those seen as leaders get elected and unless SRC sessions are run as Circles only the most confident or powerful get heard – like in staff meetings!

Circles provide opportunities for students of all ages to speak about things that concern them. Not personal incidents but issues that touch on their lives. Circles give ALL students an authentic voice. Some individuals might be silly to start with – especially if they are not used to being taken seriously. They will stop being silly eventually, especially when they know their turn will come to have their say.

Good listening is active rather than passive. You are not just there waiting your turn to speak but responding to what the other person is saying. Active listening is being interested and responding to what has been said.

CIRCLE ACTIVITY: You can either do this by going around the Circle or in a pair. Each participant asks their partner or the person sitting next to them a simple but open-ended question, such as “how are you today?”, “ What did you do last night?” The person answers the question and then asks the same or a similar question back. “I am fine, how are you?”, “I watched TV, did you see that programme on … ?”

Observe two people in a conversation. What happens? Although constant eye contact isn’t necessary to know someone is listening, it does mean turning your body towards the person who is speaking, showing that you are paying attention by nodding and encouraging the story such as saying ‘go on’what happened then? ‘that sounds really hard/ lots of fun/sad’. Non-listening behaviour is interrupting, turning your head away to pay attention to someone or something else or just waiting for the moment when you can start speaking yourself. Non-listening behaviour shuts people down.

CIRCLE ACTIVITY: Participants think of an important positive event in their lives that they would like to share – such as an outing or a birthday. They each have a turn to talk about this. For the first minute their partner pays attention and listens well using the listening behaviours above. After one minute, the facilitator gives a signal and they stop showing they are listening. How long is it before the speaker feels silenced and gives up? Then the other person has a turn. At the end of this activity get feedback from everyone about how they felt and what happened to their ability to continue. This could be Sentence Completions – When someone really listens … When someone stops listening …

Disrespectful behaviour is sometimes seen in a whole group where people have private conversations rather than listen to who is speaking. This can happen in staff meetings especially where teachers are not given structured and safe opportunities to speak. Politicians are often very poor role models for young people as they seem to revel in disrespectful behaviour. They talk over each other, put each other down and laugh with derision at what others are saying.

Respect is not just about listening but also in what in said. This includes what is said to others and what is said about others.

Talking with – not to or at

What is said to others needs to acknowledge their feelings, their efforts and their strengths. Personal positives are the opposite of put-downs. Validating feelings before problem-solving ensures that people feel heard. Students who are distressed do not have to find ways to express their feelings more loudly and emphatically! We know from Carol Dweck that praising effort encourages a growth mindset where people come to believe that they can improve – whereas commenting on ability promotes a fixed mindset where you come to believe that you either have it or you don’t’. As Malcolm Gladwell discovered, expertise lies in practice more than innate talent – though identifying and growing your strengths helps. Asking good questions is more respectful (and engages students more effectively) than telling – and information is easier to hear than accusation. This is why repeating the Circle guidelines is an effective strategy in facilitating Circles.

Helping people identify strengths they are developing is even better than talking about those they already have. The idea of ‘becoming’ is powerful as it gives choices to young people in establishing their identity – the sort of person they want to be in the future.

CIRCLE ACTIVITY: This is so simple but so lovely. Go around the Circle with each person saying to the next – I would like to thank you for… We did this recently in the Aboriginal Girls Circle and the responses were both thoughtful and heart-warming.

Talking about people

If bad-mouthing and put-downs are not allowed in Circles they are less likely to happen outside. The opposite is talking up people’s strengths, acknowledging their contribution and indicating understanding of their situation. It is standing up for people, showing that you believe in the best of them, accepting and valuing who they are even if you don’t always like their behaviour. In order to do this you need to appreciate diversity. We all are different but have much in common and importantly we all have something to offer.

CIRCLE ACTIVITY: Star of the Circle. One person goes out of the room (each student will have a turn over time). While they are out every other student says what they like or values about this person and this is written down. When this is finished the Star of the Circle returns and hears what the class have said about them.

Respecting diverse cultures

Messages of respect or disrespect are subtle and often silent – because it is about what does not happen as much as what does. When the language used refers to ‘these people’ it often positions the speaker as superior and ‘these people’ as inferior. It is where everyone is bundled together under a stereotype – it is making assumptions, jumping to conclusions, being judgmental and having low expectations – ‘what can you expect?’ It is what is written on the walls of schools as well as the conversations in the staffroom, it is what is offered or not offered in professional learning opportunities. This is the subject for a book, not a blog!

CIRCLE ACTIVITY: Put out a large number of photographs in the centre of the Circle – many of which are representative of the communities that the students come from. In groups of three, students pick up three cards that they all agree make them feel proud. They then each show one and say why the group chose this: We feel proud of … because … It doesn’t matter if the groups are culturally mixed – this will highlight commonalities and our shared humanity.



Carol Dweck (2008) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books

Malcolm Gladwell (2009) Outliers: The Story of Success. Back Bay Books

Sue Roffey (2014) Circle Solutions for Student Wellbeing. Sage Publications