A Quick Guide To Proactive Circles

Step one to a successful classroom: Build connections and relationships with and among your students. This is not just something to do during the first week of school, it truly is the most important part of teaching. One way I connect with students throughout the school year is through a Community Circle, which I’ve been learning is a restorative practice and is PROACTIVE rather than REACTIVE. Whatever you want to call it, this is a time for you and your students to build relationships and for everyone to share their voice and feel valued.

PROACTIVE CIRCLES: Let me just start by saying that before you think this is “one more thing,” to do in the classroom in your already busy day, you should really think of this as one more way to connect students to each other and the curriculum. I first learned about a Community Circle during grad school. With my cohort of about 12 other future teachers, we met with our advisor once a week as a team and participated in a Community Circle. Wherever we were, we arranged the chairs so we could all see each other and really got to know one another in talking about topics ranging from happiest memories to injustices we had faced. 

The second time I experienced Community Circle was in my student teaching placement in an 8th grade english class. The students would push their desks to the perimeter, stand in the middle and briefly check-in with each other once a week either saying or acting out their response–each with a turn.

The reason these are called PROACTIVE Circles are because they allow students to CONNECT and BUILD healthy relationships with one another. To be clear, they will not eliminate ALL unexpected or unwanted behaviors in your classroom all together, but they will decrease them. Similarly, they will benefit you when a student does affect another student. At a recent training on these circles, the woman explained a time when she was driving behind the slowest car ever on a Monday morning. She expressed that this car was driving like it was a leisure Sunday with nowhere to be and her anger got the best of her. As she sped around the car, she recognized it was a woman she knew who had recently given birth. She described that the moment she realized she knew this woman, a sense of empathy consumed her. She suddenly felt bad for being upset with her, and now presuming that perhaps she did not get a lot of sleep with the new baby, causing her to drive slowly on the road.

The more connected we feel towards one another, the more we care about them. So these proactive circles play a role in the way students will interact with each other throughout the school day, and when someone ends up causing harm to another student, they are more likely to feel empathy and understanding toward that individual. The goal is to shift their attitudes towards one another to be more positive!

You're invited to try out a Community Circle!

Watch how TooCoolForMiddleSchool runs Community Circle in her classroom!


Prepare these materials: a talking piece, topics, an area in your classroom to sit or stand in a circle.

The 4 Intentions: Speak from the heart, listen from the heart, speak leanly (get to the meat of it), and you have the right to pass. **You can make your own variation of these, but this works well for me. Keep it short and sweet! At this time, you would also introduce or reinforce the use of the talking piece–it will be sent around the circle and the person who has it has the floor to speak, while everyone else listens from the heart. Your first couple of circles, you will really need to talk about and model this! It’s also important to talk about body language as a put down when others are speaking. One might discuss the impact of an eye roll.

An opening ritual: To open in my class, we put right our hands out (right hand on top of the person next to you and left hand below the person next to you) and we go around. When the clap has been passed all the way around we all clap our hands once and say hajime, meaning to begin in Japanese. Make it something special to you and your class!

Check in/Mixer Upper: Depending on the time of the year your check ins can be any of the following. Remember to pass the talking piece around.

  • Favorite color, favorite food, favorite place, etc.
  • One word to describe your weekend, one word to describe someone you love, etc.
  • Would you rather scenarios.
  • A word that comes to mind when you hear ____ (insert the topic of your circle here–trust, empathy, 5th grade, fractions, exploration, etc)
  • “The Wind Blows If..” game seen in TooCoolForMiddleSchool’s video, “Never have I ever” game, line up in order of last name, sit in order of foot size, etc. The point of these mixer uppers is so that the students don’t just end up sitting near their friends where they will be likely to chat with each other.

Presentation of the topic and open sharing: This is the biggest part of the circle time. At the start of the year, or if you’re just starting Community Circle, I use relatable topics so the students can get accustomed to the routines and care more for each other. For example: talk about a time when you felt really proud of yourself, talk about a time when someone else helped you, talk about a time when you felt afraid of something, etc.

As time goes on, I incorporate more content, relating it to the themes of the novels we read, to reflect on a science concept, or even to share their progress on a given project. 

This is when the talking piece comes in handy because students have a visual cue of who is talking and when they pass the talking piece on, you know they are done talking. The student has control over how much or little they share. I always share with my students that listening from the heart also means you are not thinking about what you want to say while someone else is talking. I express that it is ok to get the talking piece and need some think time! I’d actually prefer them hold on to it for a moment and think than just quickly pass it off thinking they have nothing important to share! The awkward silence will be a part of your first few circles, but the more you do it, the less awkward that silence becomes.

Speed Round/Closing the circle: I like to do a speed round where everyone shares one word to describe something they heard or a word that stood out to them. This gives students a chance to feel validated by their peers. For example, let’s say I talked about how the novel we’re reading reminds me of my grandpa and shared the similar experience he had. Then during the closing speed round, someone said “grandpa” as their word. I know that person was listening to me and perhaps even thought deeply about what I had to say.

Sometimes though, the things students share are so powerful, I want to leave it at that. I thank the students for participating, make a quick closing statement and, choose specific roles for moving our classroom furniture around. Lastly, we participate in our ending ritual, which is to clap our hands once and say pau, meaning done in Hawaiian. 

With all that said, by the time the students put their tables and chairs back, they are ready to learn. For many of my students, their social and emotional needs have been met in a way that they can now have an open mind. I’ve done this in both elementary and middle school classrooms and see it as a great structure to build into my class as often as I can. One last thing, what is shared in Community Circle stays in Community Circle is an important mantra I repeat to my students, so that it is a safe space to share without the fear of others talking about what I shared later or what turns into gossip.

DEBUNKING THE MYTHS, if you’re still not convinced.
It takes up too much time. ACTUALLY, if you invest some time in the first few circles, your kids will have set up and closing down to just a few minutes. My students can set up for community circle (move chairs and tables aside) and re-set up our classroom in a about two minutes. It’s all about practice and routine. And a little incentive to race the clock.

We don’t have enough space. IT DOESN’T MATTER whether you stand or sit–but that you’re in a circle-like shape so everyone can see each other.

I need to teach my curriculum instead. INTEGRATING curriculum topics is a part of Community Circle! Use circles with your content and you’ll be surprised to hear what the kids have to say!

Or if you’d like to read a little more about this, click here for a book or here for a useful handout.


Happy Circle Time!

Click the button below for your own copy of my Community Circle Intentions Poster!

Upload the PDF to a printing website such as Staples and print them out on 18 X 24 " blueprint poster paper for just a couple of dollars.

Refer to them at the start of every circle meeting!

If you're still unsure about how to incorporate circles in your class, drop a question in the comments below!

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