Study shows staff need more training to avoid the pitfalls of circle time. Helen Ward reports.
It sounds easy and looks simple, but circle time is a technique full of pitfalls for the unwary teacher, a new report has found.
In the worst cases, teachers risked losing their authority or creating stressful situations for children, said the study of 71 schools by the National Foundation for Educational Research.
* One child talked about a pet dying - provoking several children to start crying.
* One teacher, without circle time training, had learnt to be more sensitive after asking everyone to choose a friend. One child was not chosen and then became very upset.
* One nursery class girl claimed that her baby brother had died, but when the teacher checked this out, she discovered it was untrue.
In circle time, teachers sit with their pupils and all take turns to share their opinions.
The study found that teachers' training for this often consisted simply of observing others or reading a manual.
"Although it may appear straightforward as a pedagogical tool, circle time holds professional and personal pitfalls for some teachers, with respect to loss of authority and disclosure," said Dr Monica Taylor, the report's author. "Just watching another colleague or reading a manual seems inadequate professional preparation."
Dr Taylor found that circle time worked best where it was part of a structured personal and social education programme which focused on specific values over several weeks.
Jenny Mosley, one of the leading circle time trainers, said: "There are misconceptions: circle time does not just mean sitting around having a chat. It needs to be a structured lesson."
Dr Taylor found that training was only available to a few staff in most schools and often this was very informal. Several teachers without training felt they did not need it.
Dr Taylor warned teachers that sensitive topics could be raised.
In one of the schools, a girl told her circle time group: "I don't like it when uncle touches me."
The teacher replied: "Yes, it's horrible being tickled, isn't it?" and followed the matter through after the session.
Circle time has been around since at least the 1960s and Dr Taylor said the technique's strength as a teaching aid was its ability to motivate children because they found it fun.
The main aims of circle time in the schools studied were to develop communication skills, enhance pupils' self-esteem and improve behaviour.
Most teachers felt the technique had brought about improvements, but not necessarily in the targeted areas.
There is no known major published research or evaluation in the UK of its effectiveness.
Going round in Circles: implementing and learning from Circle Time. pound;20. Available from the National Foundation for Educational Research.