How circle time can turn learning around
At the heart of happy, calm and successful schools are children who feel valued and respected for their social, emotional, creative and academic qualities. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to concentrate only on the last of these.
We all know we have to strive to meet attainment targets (this has been etched into the minds of even the most free-spirited and forward-thinking teachers and leaders) but schools can become too focused on this aim.
Circle time is one way to avoid falling into this trap. Essentially, it is time set aside to talk or interact as a group in a mutually respectful way - to tackle issues between students or to socialise and collaborate on a set activity. Over the past 35 years I have visited thousands of school halls, staffrooms, classrooms and playgrounds to promote the benefits of the technique. I have also written circle time guidance for the Department for Education's Seal (social and emotional aspects of learning) and Sead (social and emotional aspects of development) programmes.
What I am witnessing is schools struggling to create circle time amid the pressures of the education system. In primaries, weekly circle time is much more common with younger children - perhaps because their teachers have more timetable flexibility. In the older years, it tends to happen only after a problem has occurred between students. As for secondaries, I'm not sure if circle time is now used regularly at all - other than by a few brave and enthusiastic PSHE or special educational needs teachers.
This is despite the strong evidence that strategies such as circle time are incredibly effective - not just for student well-being but for achievement, too. Public Health England's 2014 paper The Link Between Pupil Health and Wellbeing and Attainment (bit.lyWellbeingPaper) quotes research showing that "effective, social and emotional competencies are associated with greater health and well-being, and better achievement".
It certainly makes sense that happier children will be able to learn better; a number of articles at circle-time.co.ukresearch-reports suggest that circle time can be central to this process.
The government also encourages such strategies. In June 2014, in its guidance on mental health and behaviour, the DfE urged schools to proactively support children to be resilient and mentally healthy, and pointed to the potentially strong role that PSHE could play in this (bit.lyBehaviourAdvice).
So how can we bring circle time back to the forefront of what we do in schools?
The answer lies in keeping to the vision of holistic education, which demands that we maintain a balance. Yes, children need academic rigour and to be supported to become the best that they can be, but they also need schools that make time to value and develop their strengths and qualities. If active, empathic peer-listening disappears from schools' agendas, some children will no longer feel as safe and cared for as they used to.
We also need to address teacher training: I regularly meet teachers who have never been taught how to implement circle time or active group work of any kind.
Circle time needs to be planned, too. Timetabling weekly sessions is as vital to children making progress as timetabling academic subjects. And this is true for all children, not just the youngest in the education system.
Finally, we need to ensure that circle time is conducted in the right way. The technique is not "show and tell" - it needs to be planned and underpinned by the children's developmental priorities. Here are my six top tips to ensure that your weekly circle times are vibrant and well-paced:
1 Prepare carefully
You need to be clued up about circle time: get a book on the approach out of the library, talk to teacher friends who have tried it or go on a course. Also, schedule weekly circle time at a point when you can shut the door, put up a "do not disturb" sign, push back the tables and arrange a circle of chairs.
Sessions must be planned - topics and activities should be carefully thought through and tailored to particular students in the class. Engaging resources need to be made or collected. Treat it as you would any other lesson.
2 Facilitate broad aims
I recommend using circle time to promote the aims set out in subjects and initiatives such as PSHE, RE and Seal. The circle time format provides an enjoyable, emotionally safe and accessible way for such topics to be addressed. Incorporate the targets at the planning stage and see how they can be woven into circle time activities and discussions.
3 Set ground rules
Every session has five key rules:
l Everyone has the right to be heard.
l No child may mention an adult or another child in a negative way. Ask them to say "somebody called me a nasty name" or "some people are ganging up on me", so that everyone can address issues without the conversation becoming personal.
l Everyone has the right not to speak.
l The teacher or facilitator should be relentlessly positive.
l Circle time should be timetabled weekly.
4 Structure circle time
Provide pace and structure. I advise a progression of five steps: meeting up, warming up, open forum, cheering up by celebrating successes and a final calming ritual to close the session. Teachers often start with just three of the steps and build up to five. Always finish on a positive note.
Some classes have damaged dynamics so it is impossible for the teacher to run circle time safely and productively. Bringing in role models from other classes can change those dynamics. We call these sessions "family circles", as children of different ages take responsibility for helping each other.
5 Teach behaviour
In the first few circle times, teachers should focus on the five essential learning skills: looking, listening, speaking, thinking and concentrating. You can develop these skills through games - for example, teach concentration by passing a tambourine silently around the circle, remembering objects on a tray or picking out musical instruments in a song. Continue referring to the learning skills throughout the normal teaching day, not just during circle time.
6 Enjoy yourself
Most importantly, I would highlight the need to enjoy circle time. It can give you a chance to relax and have fun with the children, to solve problems together and to build self-esteem. The technique works best as part of a whole-school approach where positive and respectful relationships are at the heart of learning and achievement; where adults are kind to each other and ideally engage in regular circle time for themselves.
Of course, despite the gradual decline of circle time, there are still great teachers and schools striving to maintain the balance of a curriculum dedicated to the whole child, and they are using many strategies to achieve this aim. It is my great pleasure to travel around the UK to engage with these wonderful educators. To all those people still flying the flag, I give a huge thank you, and I ask you to tell others how essential circle time can be.
Jenny Mosley is an author and educational consultant in the UK and abroad
Use these circle time cards to prompt lively discussion.
Ensure your circle time is effective with these lesson plans.
Try these activity ideas to engage students in circle time.