Do Circles promote social and emotional learning? Yeah. Youbetcha.

I use restorative pedagogy in my college classroom. By restorative pedagogy, I mean that we spend time in Circle. During our first class, we spend about an hour building relationships and learning about each other. Then we move into course content: how do you feel about this course? What do you think about standardized testing? What are the qualities of a good teacher? We then do other activities, including some lecture, some videos, class discussion, and then end class in Circle again, with questions like: What’s confusing for you? (Circle as formative assessment) How are you feeling right now? (emotional literacy) What are you plans for getting everything done by the next time we meet (life skill/time management). By using Circle pedagogy, I show students that I care, that I listen to and am interested in what they have to say, and that what they are thinking and feeling matters. I also teach them – through experiential learning – how they can keep Circle when they become teachers. On my course evaluations, students often write that the best part of my class were the Circles.

I am writing a book on restorative justice in education (check out Creating Restorative Schools from Living Justice Press, early 2018). I know that Circle pedagogy is good teaching. I know the theories behind it and how Circles help students develop social and emotional competencies. I know that students with disabilities benefit from being in Circle. I know all that. In my head.

Last summer, all of my head knowledge was put to a test when I had a very unique student in my summer fast track course. I’ll call her Sally. Sally contacted me via email three weeks before the course started to tell me she was a student with disabilities and wanted me to have an understanding of some of her issues. I appreciated that. Sally was extremely intelligent (possibly off the charts), diligent, and very communicative – both verbally and in writing. But she was “different” and she knew it. One day in Circle she cried as she told stories of being bullied and having to drop out of school because kids had made school a living hell for her…She also shared information with the class about her specific disability. This helped us all to understand her better.

Now, I am not going to lie because Sally – for all of her brilliance – was hard to deal with. Part of her disability was that she processed everything out loud…what she needed to do, when she was going to do it, how she was going to do it – and then repeat that about four times. In class during lecture she seem compelled to comment on her processing after every slide, slowing down the pace and dominating the conversation so that other students didn’t feel like they could chime in or ask questions. It was trying. For all of us.

But here’s why Circle pedagogy works. First, because we built relationships with each other, we all treated her with respect and compassion – not out of pity, but because we had spent time in Circle together as a class building community. Sally was part of the mojo and personality of this class. It was helpful for me to see how other, more patient students, would look at her with love and compassion – they modeled for me what I needed to be. That was SEL for all of us.

Secondly, Sally changed when we were in Circle. She was much more capable of regulating her outbursts and comments when the talking piece was in play. The talking piece was a helpful tool for her. And when she chimed in out of turn, all I had to do was say “talking piece” and she immediately understood. In fact, it got a little bit hilarious sometimes because if she was really excited about something, she would put her hands over her mouth so that she wouldn’t speak while waiting for the talking piece to come to her. She was really trying, and Circle helped her learn to listen to others, to wait for her time to speak, and to control herself.

Where restorative pedagogy really came into play was in the relationship I developed with Sally. I found myself acting as an encouraging coach (“you’re smart – you totally got this!”) and a behavioral coach (“Sally, do you think you can work on not calling out so much so others have a chance to speak?” or “You’re having an anxiety attack – just take a few deep breaths and it’s all going to be ok”). Sally always responded positively, and soon I could just give her a nod or slight hand motion and that was all the reminder she needed.

I remember visiting a school in the UK that used restorative justice with severely emotionally challenged kids. One girl I met had no impulse control, and the headmaster explained to me that due to severe abuse and trauma as an infant, she never would have it. But when they adopted restorative justice, they stopped punishing her for not being able to control herself. I thought of her when Sally became my student. I realized that Sally’s brain worked certain ways and she couldn’t control that. But I also saw how the Circle and talking piece helped her control her outbursts. That is Circle pedagogy and SEL in action. That’s evidence, folks. That’s the stuff we talk about and write about in our books. And it’s real.
When the course was over, Sally had one of 2 As in the class. Her work was absolutely outstanding. She grew more confident about her abilities as I called attention to her many successes and things she did right. It is highly unlikely in this cruel world we live in that Sally will ever be hired to teach in a school, and I could see that. But Sally has a good grasp of technology and is a wonderful communicator in writing. So one day before class, I asked her if she ever considered teaching online. No one had ever mentioned that to her and she had never considered it an option. She was upfront about her anxiety around working in a school, especially since she dropped out. I don’t think we could have had that before-class conversation had we not spent time in Circle, and time exchanging a multitude of emails, where we built a relationship with each other. And I even told her I was thinking about blogging about her transformation in Circle and she gave me permission (and was quite flattered!)

Dorothy Vaandering recently shared her mantra with me: she asks herself many times a day, “How am I honoring this student and not measuring them?”  There is no better way we can honor our student than by sitting in Circle with them, building safe and respectful classrooms, and cultivating trusting relationships that aid us when we sometimes have to have those difficult conversations. I couldn’t measure Sally. She was her own person. But I could honor her for who she was and help her find her strengths so she might obsess less about her disabilities.

So I ask my restorative justice in education community: Why do we spend so much time doing professional development workshops that focus on changing behavior, and not on Circle pedagogy that builds relationships and promotes self-regulation and other social and emotional competencies? Belinda Hopkins taught me that if you do the relationship building, the behavior problems take care of themselves. The summer course with Sally proved this true for me. Sally was a gift.