Roffey; Sue (2016): ‘Circle Solutions og understøttet læring’, i Kristensen, René & Szulevicz, Thomas (red): Understøttende undervisning og læringsmiljøer. Forlaget Dafolo

For those who don’t speak or read Danish, the following is the text in English!

Why we need a supportive and emotionally positive classroom environment

There are some students who will achieve well whatever the climate of the classroom. These fortunate individuals are likely to have strong, supportive families who establish clear boundaries with high, appropriate expectations whilst offering unconditional love (Newland, 2014). These young people will not be in the throes of family breakdown, bereavement, the establishment of newly blended families or experiencing other major life changes. They will not be struggling with poverty, violence, bullying, racism, homophobia, mental or physical health difficulties for themselves or those who care for them, nor experiencing any of the other adversities that life often presents. These children and young people will have predominantly positive emotions about themselves and their worlds that enable them to be curious, engaged and confident in tackling a wide range of learning tasks.

All teachers, however, will be able to identify students who are dealing one or more of the issues listed above. Some will have the personal and environmental factors that help them to cope (Werner, 2004). Others have fewer resources at their disposal. There will also be young people flying under the radar – who live within a less than favourable environment for their wellbeing but no-one at school knows what is happening for them and are unaware of the multiple factors that may be impinging on their engagement, learning, behaviour and social interactions.

For the many students whose wellbeing is either temporarily or chronically at risk, a positive emotional climate for learning is essential in order for them to make the most of their educational experiences. They need a curriculum that challenges thinking but also relationships that support, encourage and foster motivation. (Hattie, 2009). They need to feel valued. We know from research (Fredrickson, 2009) that predominantly positive emotions enhance creativity, problem-solving abilities and can help students cope with negative life events.

Myths of education and realities of life

Students and their parents are continually given the message that high academic attainment opens doors to more choices and this enables young people to get a good job that will bring them success in life. There are elements of truth to this of course but the reality is not so simple. The research indicates that although a university qualification can jump start a professional career, it is not high academic outcomes that matter most to whether or not someone lives a flourishing life so much as social and emotional competencies (Feinstein, 2015). Good marks on tests are no guarantee of a healthy mind, a strong and supportive relationship or a life well lived.

A strong belief reflected in educational policies is that competition is valuable and stimulates the desire to do better. Some students love measuring themselves against others – especially those who have a good chance of being a front runner – but for those who are always somewhere near the bottom of a graded list, competition may have the opposite effect. Such a young person may develop a self-concept as a loser and not bother to try. Personal bests in education are more likely to stimulate motivation (Arief et al, 2012). When you are competing against yourself you can often be a winner. Pink (2009) talks about the importance of mastery in motivation and asserts that left to our own devices we often want to improve our performance. Employee skills in teamwork are in demand by companies who want competitive advantage, along with the ability to communicate well and take initiative. Collaboration and relationship learning in the classroom can therefore be useful for future employability.

Until fairly recently the construct of ‘success’ was a given: no-one questioned that it meant having a ‘good’ job, a regular income and status in the community. We are bombarded with advertisements that sell us definitions of success, and acquisition goals have become the aspiration of many Western young people, often to the detriment of other values (Kasser & Ryan, 1993). Over the last few decades, however, several issues have brought this definition of success into question.

There is increasing concern about mental health in the West, where it is estimated one in four will experience some form of difficulty throughout their lifetime. This is reflected across the social spectrum, although more prevalent where there is deprivation (Due, nd). Many Western governments are now exploring ways to promote mental heath and resilience to reduce the economic and social costs.

We have high levels of family breakdown, often exacerbated by increased mobility and the loss of secure extended family and friendship networks. Positive relationships and having meaning in life are interrelated and both contribute to authentic wellbeing (Seligman, 2011). Individuals pursuing extrinsic rewards at the expense of all else may end up having no-one with whom to joyfully share them.

Positive psychology researchers are changing the paradigm from a deficit/ treatment model to one that seeks to discover the factors that enable individuals, companies, schools and societies to flourish and thrive. How can we foster resilience in the face of adversity and how can we become more emotionally intelligent, compassionate and live life to the full? The concept of wellbeing is therefore having an increased focus in research, conversation and government policy.

Student wellbeing

Most schools have welfare or pastoral policies that respond to the needs of those students who come to the attention of staff. This is usually because of their poor attention, negative attitude, behaviour or distress. Sometimes it is because they are simply not achieving as expected. The needs of these young people are usually addressed by senior staff and/or specialists. There will always be a need for additional welfare support for some individuals, but student wellbeing is a different construct in that it is pro-active, universal and the responsibility of all teachers.

Universal approaches: Everyone has a need for social and emotional wellbeing and we do not necessarily know which students are struggling. In a supportive learning environment everyone takes responsibility for the emotional climate. This means that wellbeing programs need to be universal – interventions aimed at a targeted population may not result in sustainable change. For example, where students lacking social skills are removed from the class for special training this may lead to a higher level of skill in those individuals but others still have the same perceptions: consequently when these students are re-integrated previous behaviours are expected and reinforced (Frederickson, 1991).

Pathways to wellbeing: The seven pathways to wellbeing in school as identified by the scoping study on student wellbeing in Australia (Noble et al, 2008) are:

  • Physical and emotional safety
  • Fostering a sense of meaning and purpose
  • Developing pro-social values
  • Building a supportive, respectful and inclusive school community
  • Encouraging a healthy life-style
  • Using strengths based approaches
  • Enhancing social and emotional learning.

Although these features are listed here separately for clarity it is inevitable that many are symbiotic. If you are developing pro-social values you will also be building a supportive school community, and a focus on enhancing social and emotional learning (SEL) is likely to lead to greater safety and less bullying.

Social and emotional learning

In 1996 the Delors Report for UNESCO outlined four pillars for learning in the 21st century. These are learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together. The first two are usually the focus of the formal curriculum but the second two are beginning to have more traction in education. Without pro-active intervention, the default position may be negative and the classroom becomes a toxic environment where bullying and other negative behaviours thrive. There is also increasing evidence that SEL impacts positively not only on social behaviours but also on engagement and academic outcomes (Durlak et al, 2011). Schools need to think through what is on offer for learning about the self and relationships, and ensure this takes place in a safe and supportive setting. As there has been some justifiable critique of SEL as ‘therapeutic education’ (Ecclestone & Hayes, 2008), the processes that underpin this learning need as much attention as the content. The Circle Solutions philosophy (Roffey, 2014) addresses this within a set of principles that provide a foundation for both a supportive classroom and an optimal pedagogy for SEL. Given the acronym ASPIRE, these principles are agency, safety, positivity, inclusion, respect and equality. An ecological analysis (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Roffey, 2008), asserts that what happens in the staffroom impacts on interactions in the classroom. We therefore need to embed these principles across all levels as a tool for whole school wellbeing (Roffey, 2010).


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. It also means simply being acknowledged (Roffey, 2005; Howells, 2012).

Although respect 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 to be heard. Often we shut these voices down as they are seen as disruptive. The students who get listened to are the ‘good kids’ who get onto student representative councils. Although well meaning, unless SRC sessions are run so everyone can contribute only the most confident or powerful get heard – like in staff meetings! One way of addressing this is to disband cliques and established groups by mixing people so they get to talk – and listen to – those outside their usual social circles. ‘Pair shares’ are intended to seek commonalities and ‘paired interviews’ to discover each other’s perspectives. When paired and small group discussions are reported back to the larger Circle not only does everyone have a voice but it becomes clear what values and proposals support the common good rather than individual agendas.

Students of all ages need opportunities to reflect on and discuss things that concern them: not personal incidents but issues that touch on their lives such as friendship and feelings. There are many resources to support such conversations in safe and fun ways using photographs, stories, statements, games and role-plays.

Good listening is active rather than passive. You are not just there waiting your turn to speak but paying attention, showing interest and responding to what the other person is saying. Giving students guidance and practice in active, respectful listening is likely to enhance all their future relationships as friends, colleagues, partners and parents.

Respect includes the words we choose in our interaction. This incorporates what is said to others and what is said about others. These demonstrate emotionally literate behaviours.

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 but these need to be specific. They can also initiate dialogue on learning eg. “I noticed you were very engaged with that assignment – what did you enjoy about it?” Commenting on 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” (Dweck, 2006). As Gladwell (2008) 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. Validating feelings before problem-solving ensures students who are distressed do not then have to find ways to express their feelings more emphatically!

Talking about people: If bad-mouthing and put-downs are not allowed in Circles they are less likely to happen outside. Rumour mongering and character assassination are the stuff of cyber-bullying. The opposite is acknowledging contributions, strengths and contexts. Respectful conversations about others demonstrate that you believe in the best of them, you accept and value 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 we all have something to offer. This includes how teaching staff talk about students and families as well as how young people talk about each other.

Respecting diverse Cultures: Messages of respect or disrespect are subtle and often silent, as they include what does not happen as much as what does. When the language used refers to ‘these people’ this positions the speaker as superior. It also encourages stereotyping, making assumptions, jumping to conclusions, being judgmental and having low expectations – ‘what can you expect?’ Respect or disrespect can be found in what is written on the walls of schools as well as the conversations in the staffroom and what is offered in professional learning opportunities.


Learning in school is often didactic – teachers delivering information to students. Giving students agency is more in line with Socratic learning – questions and discussion that lead to critical thinking and the development of ideas.

Much of the time young people are told what to do and how to do it. They are often told what to think. Although sometimes students are required to identify the application of their learning and occasionally asked to critique, exams are often based on memorising what they have been told. For some subjects this is appropriate, but not all, and especially not SEL.

Making decisions, taking responsibility: The word agency is commonly applied to an organisation that does things on behalf of others such as a travel agency or a real estate agency. When students have agency they make decisions on behalf of themselves. This is about choice, but also about taking responsibility. Where students decide on class values and ground rules, bullying is less likely to happen because everyone has thought about how we all want to feel here. A focus on group work and collaboration means the whole class takes responsibility for the emotional climate for learning. It is not up to one or two people but everyone.

Behaviour in school is often about control, students doing what they are told because they get into trouble if they don’t. They are encouraged to make the ‘right’ decisions and choose ‘good’ behaviour mostly because this is what pleases the adults around them. When teachers give students agency this helps them identify different options, reflect on these and then decide for themselves. This enables them to choose how to act and then take responsibility for the choices they make, including accepting consequences. It is learning from the inside out about how to be and how to live together well – not control from the outside in (Roffey, 2011).


Positive psychology and the burgeoning knowledge in neuropsychology tells us about the value of an optimistic perspective, relational values such as kindness and gratitude (Lyubomirsky, 2007; Piliavin, 2003) and the connection between feelings and learning. It makes sense on many levels to promote the positive.

Strengths: Many young people do not think of themselves well: even those from supportive backgrounds may feel they do not meet expectations. Others may perceive classmates negatively and not be able to acknowledge the strengths they do have. Students need to tune into their own and others’ strengths and be able to use these in their relationships and in their learning. There are many ways students may identify, develop and find ways to use their own strengths and recognise others. This is about who you are ‘becoming’ and making choices about this.

A solution focus: We live in a problem-saturated culture. Although there are challenges to be overcome, it might be better to start with a solution rather than the problem. This might sound back to front but when people focus on ways to get rid of something they don’t like (such as bullying) rather than what needs to happen instead (inclusion, friendship, support) they spend too much energy on the problem itself. A solution focus envisages where you want to go and what you want to happen. This gives you a much better idea of what steps you might take.

It is easier for people to do things than to stop doing them. The language is of the positive is also helpful. Compare what happens to the picture in your mind when you say ‘don’t run!’ and ‘walk quickly please’. You have the mental image of whatever is being talked about and are more likely to enact the image.

Positive Emotions: Positive emotions promote an effective climate for learning. They not only enable students to focus but they also facilitate creativity and problem solving. (Fredrickson, 2009) Positive emotions include a sense of belonging, feeling valued, safe, comfortable, cared for, respected and loved. Positive emotions are also experienced in moments of exuberance, excitement and shared humour. Laughter releases oxytocin into our bodies – the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. This promotes connectedness and resilience. Promoting shared humour in Circle sessions is one of the main reasons students love them. They also respond positively to the playfulness that is embedded in many of the activities (Hromek & Roffey, 2009). All emotions are highly infectious – we have mirroring neurons in our brains that make us ‘catch’ what other people are feeling. Wherever possible learning should be fun!


The Circle pedagogy uses energetic games to mix everyone up. This happens several times in a Circle session. The expectation is that everyone will work with everyone else. This does several things – it breaks up cliques, it helps people get to know those they would not otherwise communicate with and in doing that it facilitates new perspectives on each other. This happens most actively when pairs are looking for things they have in common. There are no individual activities or individual competition in Circles, everything happens in interaction with others, in pairs, small groups or in whole group activities.

Belonging and resilience: Feeling that you belong is one of the most important factors in resilience and psychological wellbeing (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Most of us have feelings of belonging to our family but that is not the only place where you can feel you matter – at a sports club, in a youth group, in a faith community, at work or in a school. We know what it feels like to come into a place where we are warmly welcomed and some of us know what it feels like when the opposite happens. Connectedness in school matters (Blum, 2005): it is critical that this connectedness is inclusive and not exclusive – everyone matters, not just me and my gang (Roffey, 2013).

Keeping challenging kids connected: It is the most vulnerable children in our communities who are most likely to struggle to be included and often find themselves on the margins. Students are vulnerable because they have experienced negative events in their lives. Some of these are chronic and on-going, others may be acute and temporary. Some children may not have good role models for healthy relationships and others may be tolerated rather than loved. Such students may not be compliant, courteous or conform. They may be aggressive, distracted and insolent. It can be difficult to like young people who behave in ways that are unacceptable in school. High expectations for behaviour are appropriate but rejecting poor behaviour is different from rejecting the student. Adults need to convey the message to all students, but especially those who struggle: ‘you are important, we want you here, it is not the same without you’.

Equality / Democracy

Democracy is about sharing power and in a supportive classroom the teacher uses their authority to empower students rather than control them (McCashen, 2005).

Equality is embedded in the Circle pedagogy, where participants and the facilitator sit in a Circle together to promote equality – and everyone participates in all the activities, adults and students alike. The quality of facilitation makes all the difference to both long and short-term outcomes for SEL (McCarthy & Roffey, 2013).

Citizenship: The international research on wellbeing provides evidence that where there is more equality in a society there is more wellbeing for all (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). In a school where everyone has an authentic voice this promotes equality as well as responsibility towards what is in everyone’s best interests, not just an elite few. Unless students experience democracy in school they are unlikely to realise what it means in practice at the socio-political level when they are old enough to vote. Circles promote citizenship.

Rights and responsibilities: Alongside the important value of freedom is the equally important value of responsibility. One person’s freedom to play loud music at 4am impacts on the freedom of others to sleep. Working out what is fair can be complex but we need our young people to learn how to negotiate and resolve conflict to reach as close to a win-win outcome as possible (Cornelius and Faire, 2006).


Safety in numbers: Many students are 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. Cooperative learning is valuable across the curriculum but especially so in SEL (Johnson & Johnson, nd).

A safe distance Safety is embedded in the Circle pedagogy in several ways. Issues are addressed but never incidents or negative individual experiences – there is no naming, blaming, shaming or opportunities to share highly personal information. Students learn ways to handle experiences objectively rather than subjectively. Issues are addressed in an impersonal, indirect way – perhaps using the third person rather than the first. 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 matters of a confidential nature. This addresses some of the criticisms that have been levelled at social and emotional learning.

Trust: This 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. Some students may have learnt that others are unreliable. They may need to build up trust slowly over time both with fellow students and with teachers. Discussing what trust means, looks like and feels like is a way of exploring how to establish an environment where people can feel safe in trusting each other.

The right to silence: Some students do not have the initial confidence to speak up in a public forum and a class or Circle is not a safe place for them if they feel under pressure to do so. They need to be given the choice to ‘pass’. They are still watching, listening and learning and for the most part will be engaged in paired or small group activities. Evidence suggests that students will speak when they feel safe, have confidence and believe they have something worthwhile to say.


We are social beings; our identity and worldviews are constructed in our interactions with others (Habermas, 1990). The emotions we feel, manage and respond to are situated within a social context. Relationships and feelings matter and are the lynchpin of a supportive environment for learning. When a school, is run on the basis of the principles above this builds an emotional and relational climate where both teacher and student wellbeing are likely to be enhanced (Roffey, 2012). When wellbeing becomes core school business there will be greater student engagement with learning and therefore increased academic outcomes, more pro-social behaviour and higher levels of resilience.


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