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Developing community through classroom circles

New York Teacher

Imagine a moment in the school day when a child acts out in an inappropriate way. In response, you could spend time explicitly teaching your students expected behaviors (certain students with disabilities need explicit instruction) and reminding them of the consequences of not complying. Or you could hold a classroom circle and have students themselves come up with solutions.

Classroom circles serve as a way to build relationships and resolve conflicts in classroom communities. They help students understand their own role in, and take responsibility for, creating and maintaining a happy and peaceful classroom. When my co-teacher and I learned about the theory behind classroom circles, it wasn’t long before we began making them part of the weekly routine in our 2nd-grade integrated co-teaching classroom.

The use of classroom circles to teach restorative practices begins with a change in mindset from punishment-based responses to challenging inappropriate behavior. Instead of creating lists of consequences, we focus on ways to change behaviors in order to alleviate problems in our classrooms. The goal is for students, teachers and all members of the classroom to build a positive and peaceful community.

In a classroom circle, all members feel valued and all members have a voice in improving the situation when something goes wrong. In turn, we help our students develop empathy for one another as well as an understanding of how their behavior affects their classmates. As students develop a greater understanding of other people’s feelings, they develop stronger social and emotional skills.
Classroom circles can also support conflict resolution when students discuss how to correct mistakes and prevent future damage to relationships. Students learn how to generate ideas that lead to the resolution of problems.

Some specific components to a classroom circle must be prepared in advance. The first rule is that all members should be sitting or standing in a circle where everyone can be seen and heard. This promotes the dialogue necessary for an effective circle. It also ensures that all circle members have a sense of accountability.

The members of the circle must create a “community agreement” at the onset of a classroom circle routine, where all members negotiate the terms for a safe and respectful circle. Although no circle member can be forced to participate, the agreement within the circle should ensure that members rarely choose to “pass” on speaking.
Physical Arrangements: The shape of the circle is very important. It is imperative that all members can be seen without having to turn around or lean over. Therefore, it may be necessary to move furniture around before circle time.

Centerpiece: A centerpiece such as a mat or small tablecloth can be used to hold any objects of focus in the circle. The goal is to make students aware that circle time is special.  

Talking Piece: Anything that can be easily passed from one student to another can be used to designate a speaker. If you are trying to establish circle time as a special or sacred moment in your day, it helps to choose a talking piece that has some sort of “history” or value. Talking pieces can be brought in by students and kept in a special area or basket, and they can be rotated over time.

High-Quality Prompts: The circle-keeper’s starting questions or prompts are the focus of the circle. Consider the needs and trust level of your students when choosing a prompt for a classroom circle. All quality prompts must be relevant and meaningful to students and should be open-ended to promote deeper conversations. Prompts can vary from low-risk starter questions to higher-risk questions that help students explore relationships and feelings.

Structure of Events:The sequence of events in a classroom circle is important. The circle should have an opening, followed by community-building work (usually connected to a prompt) and then a closing. You can find materials online that detail the specific architecture of a classroom circle and offer a variety of prompts for all age and grade levels.

If you are looking for strategies to help build a strong and welcoming classroom community, exploring the restorative practice of a classroom circle may be a great next step. A word of caution: Classroom circles provide behavior support, but they don’t eliminate the need to teach strategies explicitly for some students, particularly students with autism.

Additional resources are available online at the International Institute for Restorative Practices and the Orange County Department of Education