Relationships are central to our work. In a healthy relationship everyone feels emotionally, physically and psychologically safe. Without this people cannot take risks for fear of making mistakes. Safety also implies trust. We will not offer what we cannot deliver, but may find someone who can.
It is critical that participants feel comfortable, know that they have choices about what they choose to say or not say and that they will not be singled out. Even discussing positives may be distressing for some individuals. Vulnerable students may have been seriously let down by significant people in their lives. This is likely to make it hard for them to trust anyone. School might be the only place in which they can begin to feel safe. It may take them a while to actively contribute. Until this happens they may either stay silent or be silly. So long as they are listening and not putting others down that is OK.
Safety is incorporated in two Circle guidelines
- There are no put-downs, only personal positives.
- You may pass
A safe distance
Safety is embedded in the Circle pedagogy in several ways. Issues are addressed in Circles but never incidents – there is no naming, blaming or shaming. It is not a space for sorting out a problem but a safe environment for defining and designing a class that is a good place to be. Students learn ways to handle experiences objectively rather than subjectively. Much of the time, issues are addressed in an impersonal, indirect way – perhaps using the third person rather than the first. So instead of a sentence completion: ‘I feel happy when …’, the sentence stem might be: ‘Children are happy when …’ Role-play, stories, games or hypothetical discussions are also good ways to reflect on issues. The skill of the facilitator is to make connections between these activities and the learning that is implicit in them. Although participants often choose to give a glimpse of their own narratives, the Circle is structured to inhibit personal disclosure. This addresses some of the criticisms that have been levelled at social and emotional learning.
CIRCLE ACTIVITY: Sad Ted – This is for young children. The Circle facilitator introduces a Teddy and says he is very sad today. Children are asked to think about why he might be sad and then complete the sentence: ‘Teddy might be sad because …’ When the sentence has gone around the Circle the facilitator points out that the children have shown that there are many reasons for being sad. We all feel sad sometimes. It is OK to feel like this. This activity ‘normalises’ difficult emotions and is a way of promoting resilience.
Extension activity: Pair share – what might help someone to feel better. Each pair comes up with two ideas and then shares one each with the Circle. The facilitator may points out that time often helps someone feel better. Sadness can get softer and not hurt so much. If this doesn’t happen then it is perhaps a good idea to talk to someone.
Safety in numbers
Many students are highly anxious about making a mistake or being put on the spot. Working with others increases a sense of safety. When you are with a partner or small group it is much easier to experiment, take risks and present shared ideas. This promotes confidence. It is also easier to make a stand or stick up for someone if this is a group effort.
CIRCLE ACTIVITY: Silent statements. Silent statements enable students to see who thinks the same as each other without anyone having to say anything.
Stand up and change places if you agree with this statement:
- We want to feel safe when we come to school
- Words can hurt people
- Being left out can hurt
- If feels good to be kind to someone
- In this class we look out for each other
Trust is a precious but fragile value in relationships, easily broken. The media is awash with stories, both real and fictional about people who cannot be trusted. Students may need to build up trust slowly over time. There are many trust games on the internet but most of these start too far down the track. Circles need to be embedded in the school day, not a stand-alone time. If trust is to grow in a class, Circle activities need to be at the right level. The following activities are safe.
CIRCLE ACTIVITIES: Ask students to talk in groups about trust. Ask them to imagine that Trust is a character. Younger students might draw a person who was trustworthy. What would they see on their face, what words would they say? What would their hands, feet and heart do?
Middle primary students might discuss what they would notice if trust was present in their class every day. What difference would this make? How would everyone feel?
In pairs students could decide how to complete these sentences:
- Being let down would make someone feel …
- Being able to trust another person feels …
For senior students:
In a pair share students might talk about what they could do to persuade others that they were trustworthy.
- What difference would this make to how they feel about themselves?
- What difference would it make to their relationships in the future?
- Can trust be broken by accident?
- What would help you forgive someone who had broken your trust?
A great book to stimulate discussion for senior students is Trust Unwrapped: A Story of Ethics, Integrity and Chocolate by Dan Collins.
If students choose to pass that is their right and they should not feel under pressure to speak. They are still watching, listening and learning. A facilitator may ask at the end of the activity if anyone who has passed now wants to say something but no-one should be asked directly. Choice is a critical component of Circles. It aligns with the principle of agency and therefore promotes responsibility.
CIRCLE ACTIVITY: Choosing Strengths. Students are in places in small groups. Each group is given a card from Choosing Strengths from Innovative Resources such as:
- I can choose to be brave
- I can choose to be forgiving
- I can choose to be decisive
- I can choose to be generous
- I can choose to be creative
Ask the group to discuss one or more of the following questions:
- How would you know someone had chosen this strength? What would you notice?
- What would be happening if someone made the opposite choice?
- Can you imagine a situation where one person might choose this strength?
- Can you imagine a situation where a group of people might choose this strength?
- What might be some positives and negatives about choosing this strength?
- The group creates a 5 minute play about this strength and then performs it for the Circle
- The group makes up a poem – this could be an acronym poem where the word is written vertically with one letter per line and each sentence begins with this letter and relates to the whole word and its meaning.