Circles of Adults

Circle of Adults Article



Circles of Adults Article


Adult Circles of Support:

Reflecting and Problem Solving Around

Emotional Needs and Behaviour


By Colin Newton and Derek Wilson




When in doubt build a team!


Circles of Adults are based on this idea. The more complex the problem the more diverse the team needs to be if understanding and relationships with challenging young people are to be at their best. We developed this approach in the face of intractable behaviour problems in schools, a rising tide of exclusions from school and a deep instinctive attitude that a high number of pupils ‘ just don’t belong here’. Building on earlier attempts to develop group work and mutual support among teachers this model has evolved  in which regular meetings are held between a concerned circle of adults, as diverse a group as possible. In these groups emotions are shared, personal feelings and reactions explored as well as deeper understandings of individual young people and what they bring, gained. Aspects of the system which help and hinder are explored, and detailed problem solving is engaged in. These groups are powerful and do make a difference. 


The task facing teachers and other professional carers and educators of understanding and coping with emotional turmoil and hard to manage behaviour is not an easy one and processes which can offer front line staff essential support and supervision must be welcomed.


Circles of support can and do make a difference to us all.  They are an inescapable and significant part of life.  Our circles may include our families, staff groups, professional organisations, friendships, social groups and so forth.  Some we choose, some we are stuck with.  Likewise young people find themselves in families or care situations, class groups, friendships and other forms of social grouping in and out of school.  These groups may have a very significant impact on the way any of us think about ourselves and the social world of which we are a part.  Peer pressures as well as peer support are critical factors in human behaviour. More than any other factor pupils rate peer influence as affecting their involvement in truancy, drugs, and a range of what are viewed by society as anti social behaviour. Circles can be vicious or virtuous. This book is about working with adult circles of support, particularly groups of school staff or multi agency support staff, but is applicable to work with other groups such as young people and their carers or parents.


Why Circles of Adults?


Whilst mental health workers in the Health Service and social workers in Social Services in the UK have increasingly benefited from individual or group support and supervision carried out in a structured way, it is clear that in the Education service for individual teachers and other front line workers this has either been not present or much more erratic and infrequent despite an increased interest in Emotional Literacy and national recognition in the UK and the United States by Government and Unions of the stresses faced by school staff in relation to pupil behaviour..


Few school managers have been able to put in place a stable organised and effective means of support and supervision for their staff.  This is despite widespread acknowledgement and recognition that many individuals are experiencing a strong sense of low self worth.  Also many are finding out that trying to meet the emotional and behavioural demands of their pupils can be personally and professionally debilitating. Many individuals working in and with schools find themselves increasingly exposed and vulnerable with little opportunity to engage in reflection on their own relationships with individual pupils or to think and plan proactively about what might be the best strategy in a given situation.  Despite this it is well known that teachers need to strive to become ‘reflective practitioners’ if they are to tackle effectively the full range of individual needs to which they are exposed daily.


Other approaches to Group support


Gerda Hanko in her book ‘Increasing competence through collaborative problem solving’ provides wonderful insights and detailed guidance for teachers and others on how groups can be structured.  Her approach is well placed to form the backbone to any work with groups of staff.  Gerda stresses the need to ask answerable questions and encourages groups to find their own educational answers to the difficulties presented by the behaviour and emotional needs of young people.  By this, she means that rather than simply advising individuals or groups, consultants need to ask questions which empower and lead  people to find their own way forward drawing from their own resources, knowledge and experiences.  Thus a group might well be asked “Where do you instinctively feel this pupil needs emotionally to move to?” or “What ideas do you think might be worth exploring if we are going to improve this pupil’s educational experience?”  Such questions do not prescribe, but rather invite perspective and experiences.


‘Each case was jointly explored, with consultative guidance towards asking oneself the kinds of questions which might lead to better understanding of a child’s exceptional needs and which might enable teachers to adapt their approach to the children in the course of their daily encounters.  This took account of the teacher’s needs for immediate support as well as of their need for information, which would highlight issues and evoke the skills necessary to put insights and principles into practice beyond the immediate difficulty.  The solutions which they attempted were their own and arose from their active involvement in the joint exploration of workable alternatives.’ Gerda Hanko (1999).



Gerda Hanko Consultation Group Process


  1. Welcome and ground rules
  2. Review of previous cases/issues
  3. Prioritisation of concerns
  4. Problem ‘holder’ or consultee outlines their issue in some detail
  5. Communication check. Another group member re-states the problem to check for accuracy
  6. Exploration of the concern. Here the group ask questions to elaborate the concern
  7. Ways forward, suggestions are framed as possibilities that can be rejected
  8. Process review



In our work we add to this the importance of stating hypotheses and seeking linkages and synthesis between what is found out and explored about the situation and its history. We, as does Gerda, like people to stay with the uncertainty, to reflect on the question ‘why’. Deeper reflections may span a whole range of perspectives from ‘within person’ considerations, to situational or systemic possibilities. Health or emotional issues can be reflected on alongside organisational or transactional aspects of what is going on.


The better the understanding the better the strategy or actions which emerge from these meetings. Quality hypotheses with a close fit to reality lead to more effective practice in the real world. We encourage ‘loose’ thinking, a search for connections, deeper listening, an ‘open mind’, speculation and exploration without moral judgements. From this stance self reflection as well as reflection on the situation can produce remarkable insights. The quality of hypotheses generated is directly influenced by individual’s experiences and the models of learning, behaviour and emotion, systems, educational development, change and so on that they have been exposed to. 


Peter Hawkins and Robin Shohet in their book ‘Supervision in the Helping Professions’ provide a model for group support and supervision, which, like Gerda’s is unapologetic in being psycho dynamically, referenced, yet which seeks to avoid becoming too esoteric, impractical or impenetrable. They describe a range of forms of group supervision describing four styles:


  1. supervisor led
  2. process focused
  3. group led
  4. task focused


Good group supervision needs to be able to move flexibly through all these areas, depending on the needs of the group and the stage of group development.(Hawkins and Shohet p. 134)


Problem solving approaches and  consultation contain processes of situational understanding, problem analysis, hypotheses generation, target setting, strategy development, review and evaluation has continued to be for many UK educational psychologists  key processes when working with teachers. ‘Brief therapy’ or ‘Solution Focused’ intervention has influenced this work considerably, emphasising problem free exchanges, focusing on miracle change, small steps, scaling questions and so on. The inclusion movement has also brought its own very powerful tools and strategies which are increasingly used such as MAPs, PATH, Solution Circles, and Circles of Friends and so on.


Before Setting up a Circle of Adults


Prerequisites that should be in place


  1. Agreement from senior managers in a school that this work will take place and be supported
  2. A group of staff commit to attend a number of sessions. An initial session may be needed to demonstrate the power of this process. Following this a series of sessions should be agreed. Between 4- 8 sessions on a regular basis across one school term would be rich for developmental or professional development purposes. Building the process into ongoing pastoral processes of staff and pupil support and guidance, a much bigger goal, would be even more likely to bring about major change across as school system.
  3. A place to meet which is safe from interruption, offering some privacy, a true ‘place to be’, or ‘place to talk’(ref…) as one UK organisation has helpfully described therapeutic gathering places in schools. Key is some degree of quiet, comfortable seating, low lighting, a clear wall space that a large piece of graphic paper can be taped to.
  4. Time to meet. Possibly the toughest requirement in today’s overheated school weeks. At least 90 minutes is required to do such a meeting real justice.
  5. Two facilitators available to lead the sessions. Initially these may well be recruited from outside agencies visiting schools such as psychologists and behaviour support teachers. Longer term the aim should be to develop the skills in house to run such sessions. Year managers or other senior pastoral teachers could take on such facilitation role following the described processes with training, support and preparation. Support and supervision for such leaders would also be extremely useful and desirable if not essential.
  6. A graphic as well as verbal facilitator.  A fresh development of this work has been to use ‘graphics’ to visually represent what is said during the session. This role allows for deeper listening as well as providing an excellent visual set of prompts for the group and a shared record of proceedings. Linkages and synthesis are made much easier for all to see when exploring complex emotional situations. The graphic facilitator is able to lead the synthesis stage of the process by listening carefully while producing a colourful graphic of what is being discussed.

In one Nottingham city secondary school we set up a teacher support group to allow reflection and problem solving regarding pupils presenting behaviour difficult to manage and emotions difficult to understand.  The group met approximately three times a term for four terms, each session lasting for 90 minutes after school.  Colin worked together with a support teacher who also worked with the school to allow  more opportunity for reflection, planning and evaluation, as well as for mutual support and help when we inevitably made mistakes.


Next Steps

The group members were then provided with a professional development opportunity to lead other smaller groups taking other staff through the same processes as we had been going through.  Being committed to giving away psychology and keen that such an approach could become embedded within the school culture, we were keen for this to occur, especially as the number of pupils worrying the school was seemingly never ending. We unpacked the process for the group by explaining the core theories and ideas underpinning it.  They were then given a chance to run small groups in school focussed on pupils with severe emotional and behavioural needs.  This work had mixed success highlighting the need for clear processes and ground rules.  The follow up debriefing session was very valuable and gave clues as to the way forward.


Aims ( key staff and managers should understand these)

To provide opportunities for:

  • Shared problem solving in a safe exploratory climate in which the group will find its own solutions.
  • Individuals to reflect on their own intervention methods and receive feedback from the group.
  • An exploration of whole-school processes and their impact on individual staff attempting to meet pupil needs.
  • Emotional support and shared understandings of issues at a pupil, family, school and community level.
  • Feed back to school staff on issues, ideas and strategies that are agreed to be worth sharing with them.



Ground Rules (negotiated early with the group)


Effective group work requires clear boundaries and one way of providing these is to agree ground rules.  Groups can usually create their own rules which helps their ownership but what follows have worked well in our experience. We suggest the following emphasising the need for individuals to take personal ownership of their own comments and to avoid giving others in the group ‘good advice’.  Many writers have described in detail the horrors of groups pouring helpful advice upon one member who ends up feeling deskilled, disempowered, dispirited, resistant or simply overloaded.  The following works:


  • Speak from your own experience. ‘Own’ your statements!
  • Don’t give ‘good advice’/don’t preach.
  • Give feedback to other group members that is owned, specific and balanced. Speak for yourself and of your own experiences in detailed and precise terms, providing both positives and negatives in balance.  For instance: ‘For me, my feelings about Paul are that he can be both likeable and totally infuriating.’
  • Maintain confidentiality regarding all personal materials unless agreed otherwise. Don’t discuss outside group unless clearly in interests of those concerned


Aarons Story

Key staff from a small city primary school gathered to explore the problems thrown up by Aaron. This 6 year old KS1 child had been abandoned by his mum with her ex partner Aaron’s dad. This dad had immediately turned to school for support. He was employed by the army in dangerous overseas operations and had a very strict approach to child discipline. At school and when he had begun living with dad Aaron began to have extreme temper outbursts and was spending a lot of time under desks. He was also extremely violent to other children especially those perceived as weaker than himself. School staff were considering exclusion having explored their usual resources. They were already a skilled and experienced staff.


Using The Circles of Adults process the story was fully explored, relationships and feelings were examined. The emerging synthesis and hypotheses provided a much deeper understanding for all involved with Aaron of his emotional needs and situation. The resulting strategies then were put in place with renewed confidence and his behaviour calmed significantly over the next term despite a change of teacher.


Emotions were reflected among the adults, communicated by Aaron in the strongest forms as anger and frustration. He had experienced rejection, loss and separation and was very insecure about the safety of his dad when working away, haunted that all his loved ones would leave him forever, that he was unlovable. Strategies that reaffirmed his security included the importance of actually holding an emotional talisman that represented his dad, when he was away and also one for his teacher so that she could see him even when not looking. It was agreed that for the time being going under the table was OK, and other children would not find this unfair if it was what he needed. A key strategy to lift his self esteem was to work to support more vulnerable younger pupils in class.


Understanding was deeper as a result of the session; strategies were rooted in this and deepened the good practice already present in the school. Aaron gradually merged back into the peer group, with some continued issues but no longer exceptional.



Step-by-Step guide to running Circles of Adults



  1. Group members are welcomed:
    Introductions are carried out, ground rules and aims clarified whilst coffee is drunk.
  2. A recap from the last session is carried out:
    To follow up developments and reflections after the last meeting.
  3. New issues are gathered from the group:
    One case is selected that appears to reflect shared concerns: For instance, the case of ‘John’ who was mentioned by several group members.  He appeared to be pushing a number of staff to shout, reprimand, exclude or in any way reject him.  At 14 years John still regularly soiled himself at night, was greatly underachieving in schoolwork and was hated by other pupils.  He was at great risk of permanent exclusion.
  4. One person is asked to volunteer to provide the ‘child’s voice’. They are briefed to listen from the perspective of the child being discussed and will have an opportunity to speak from this point of view later in the process.
  5. Case presentation:
    The teacher who raised the concern is asked questions to elicit the child’s ‘story’, including their looks, and metaphors to describe them.  The teacher is asked to keep a clear focus on the child and is guided so as not to let their own ‘ideological editor’ allow judgemental thinking or inaccurate generalisations.  The teacher sis asked to make observations about what it is like being with the pupil.  Positives and negatives about their behaviour are elicited.  ‘What does it feel like being with the child?
  6. Additional questions/information from the group about pupil is gathered:
  7. Ground rules may need to be observed carefully here.  Individual staff need to be kept focused and prevented from leaping to premature conclusions or to making ‘helpful’ suggestions about strategy.  What is the child’s family situation?  What other experiences of teaching him/her can others share?
  8. The process of relationship is described:
    The story of the teacher’s relationship with the young person is described.  Metaphors and analogies are invited.  How would a fly on the wall see your relationship?  If you were alone together on a desert island, what would it be like?
  9. Impact of previous relationships/spillage from one relationship to another

(Transference/Emotional resources explored): Teachers are asked who or what situation they are reminded of?  They are asked whether there has been any transfer of past relationships onto the child or projection of their feelings into the child?  For instance, does this situation remind you of any of those angry but helpless feelings you had with your own son when he was and adolescent?
Exploring the child’s possible transference, questions are posed such as, is any role being transferred onto teachers by the child?  For instance, are you being treated as if you were her dad? Is any emotional material being projected?  For instance, are you being blamed for not liking or hating the pupil?  Is she projecting her own anger into you? How much is being taken in?  Are you beginning to feel that you too want to reject or exclude him just as his parents have?

This provides opportunities to reflect on how emotions rub off on other people. The teacher feels really frustrated, and on reflection we can see that so does the child. In one example a teacher reported feeling that she was worried about being watched trying to manage Karl’s behaviour in the classroom. Karl it seemed wanted to be watched all the time.

In another example all teachers dealing with Jamiel felt hurt by him and his behaviour. He had a history of being abused and there were concerns that he still was being hurt.

These fascinating reflections where emotions or preoccupations are mirrored between adult and child are worth naming and reflecting upon.



‘ I remember one Circle meeting brought me back to when I was an Residential Social Worker (RSW) with Daniel after he had just spat at me, or weed on me, or hit my car and dented my new car all that stuff when I felt so close to tears and so frustrated and so vulnerable. I remember coming out of one of those meetings thinking ‘God you know I feel I’ve just gone through the mill’, I was just completely shook up. I got far too involved in this meeting. For someone who doesn’t actually work with Daniel directly I got really involved with this, it was all about my feelings as far as I was concerned. At one point it was getting that way and I remember other people looking at me and thinking… you don’t even work with him, you just go through his timetable, what are you so concerned about? But it got me to… that point, again it brought me back to places I’d been before as an RSW for Daniel and I found it quite startling really, how vulnerable you could feel when you’re working with Daniel. I think it really made me identify with other people again a lot more.’ Senior Social Services Manager.



  • Counter transference:
    What feelings actions or thoughts are being used to counter this transference from child to the teacher?  For instance, are you doing anything to avoid being treated as if you were his parent?  Perhaps being extra strict or extra indulgent?


  • System/Organisation factors:
    What aspects help or hinder this pupil’s emotional/behaviour development?  What areas of the curriculum provide successful experiences for the child?  For instance does the pastoral system of the school provide space, or time and skilled personnel able to counsel this young person and work actively with their parents?


  • Voice of the child: The volunteer who has been listening as if they were the child in question is given an opportunity to feedback to the group how they feel about what has and is happening.


  • Synthesis. At this stage the Graphic facilitator summarises what they have heard. They then go on to describe linkages and patterns in what they have heard. This can be very powerful. The person doing the graphic work has been able to listen throughout the presentation process and will have been struck by strong messages, emotions and images as they have arisen. The story and meaning of what is happening in the situation may become a little clearer at this point. Typical links may be ‘mirrored emotions’ mentioned in Step 8 above, strong themes such as loss and separation issues, or repeated processes such as actions triggering rejection. This step provides an excellent grounding for the next process of deepening understanding.


  • What understandings/hypotheses can we draw out from above?
    Developing hypotheses has a scientific background and psychologists have long found this a useful process when thinking about behaviour and emotions. In George Kelly’s words “All behaviour is an experiment” .Staying with uncertainty and not falling into the trap of jumping prematurely onto solutions is definitely valuable in our experience. The better the understanding the ‘better fit’ will be the action and strategies that emerge at the next stage of the meeting. Also this process allows for self reflection and exploration at the level of emotion and practice.


The group at this stage has an opportunity to ask ‘why’, a time for deeper reflection. Hypotheses sometimes referred to as ‘theories’ or simply ‘understandings’ can range from reflections as to what a child or teacher is feeling inside, through family dynamics, to aspects of the system or situation that are maintaining or impacting upon the problem situation. The richer and the more hypotheses generated the sounder the likely grasp on the situation.


Hypotheses are influenced by individuals’ reading, studies, experiences which will include models of behaviour, change and development. The richer and more divers these are in ythe group the more powerful the impact on practice.


This is an important stage and it is essential to keep thinking rich and open ended, inviting as many hypotheses as possible.  Participants need to be led through a creative brainstorm of their understandings, and theories that might partly explain what is happening. The facilitator needs to avoid the thinking ‘locking in’ prematurely to a single way of understanding what is going on.  Equally, either/ors need to be avoided, such as, ‘exclude him or give him ‘one to one’ support all day long.  Such thinking becomes rigid and unfruitful and will be unlikely to lead to practical educational responses to a young person’s needs.
Hypotheses might include the young person’s need for love and attention, the impact of the loss of their father, perceived rejection from their mother, the influence of the peer group, lack of support at school, physical abuse two years ago and so forth.

  • What alternative strategies/interventions are open to be used? Brainstormed and recorded.
    ’Either/ors’ need to be avoided at this time also.  This needs to be a shared session in which the teacher who is presenting the concern contributes as much as anyone.  Care is needed to ensure that this person is not overloaded with other people’s strategies.


  • The final selection of strategy or strategies from the brainstormed list is the problem presenter’s choice.  Strategies might include: a special time for the young person with her head of year, a meeting with the pupil’s parents to explore how she is being managed at home and to share tactics, a home-school diary, counselling, or an agreed action plan that all staff are aware of, agreed sanctions and rewards and so forth. Strategies may productively involve processes of restitution and restoration, when ‘sorry’ is not enough. Making it right, rather than punishments or rewards, may then becomes the focus.


  • First Steps. The problem presenter is finally asked to agree one or two first steps which they can carry out over the next 3-7 days. It can help to assign a ‘coach’ who will check in with them to ensure they have carried out the action they have named. This is a time to be very specific. Steps should be small and achievable. The person is just ‘making a start’. A phone call, or making an agreement with a key other person not present at the meeting would be ideal examples.


  • Final reflections. Sometimes referred to as a ‘round of words’ help with closure for all involved. Reflections are on the process not the problem. In large groups this is best done standing in a circle. In smaller groups all can remain sitting. Passing around a ‘listening stick’ or something similar such as a stone or light heighten the significance of the process ending and improve listening. 


  • Finally the problem presenter is handed the ‘Graphic’ this is their record of the meeting and can be rolled and presented ceremoniously by the facilitators for maximum effect!




John’s Story

Key themes that emerged during a typical session regarding ‘John’ included:

  1. This had occurred with both his parents, but there were many attempts by the young person to trigger rejection from pupils and teachers by behaving in a totally unacceptable way when at school.
  2. Separation and loss. His mother had left the parental home at a critical point in his life and then his father had remarried and was working away a lot.  A year manager who he was close to had less time for him as he moved year groups.
  3. Desperate need for attention and acceptance. John was coming to school giving cash and sweets to other pupils, a desperate form of gift-giving.  He was grossly underachieving and often clowning about in lessons.
  4. Confusion, fluctuating between hating/rejecting and accepting/valuing. Staff related to him positively at one level but could not bear his behaviour and so wanted him out of sight.  Adults described their pity whilst other pupils said they actually hated him.  The group remembered other adults, about whom they had felt the same ambivalence.
  5. What can we do, these difficulties are too immense and unfixable?
  6. Testing out limits. Those who cared for him and taught him were constantly being pushed to see what would happen if all the boundaries were crossed.
  7. Being ‘not there’/’scary’/’switched off’/’matter of fact’. John was regularly described in this way, a child who had developed a mask to hide his inner pain. 
  8. Not fitting in. Adults and pupils felt that John did not fit into the culture of the school.  In some ways he was considered too tidy, too smart and too well spoken.
  9. The group were aware of how they had behaved and felt about a fellow teacher who had eventually left the school.  He reminded them of John and vice versa.  The emotional issues regarding this colleague had been left unresolved for the teachers.  Some members of the group remembered a similar child to John whom they had successfully taught.
  10. Transference for young person from past ‘rejectors’ to key adults in his life in and out of school. This was well encapsulated by actual comments from the young person such as, ‘You’re just like my mum, I hate you’.


Pupil Planning Meetings


These shorter 40-minute sessions are deliberately designed for school staff members to use when making Pastoral Support Plans for pupils or to inform Individual Education Plans in the UK. Pupil Planning Meetings are key to successful reflective inclusion of challenging pupils and key staff need to learn how to carry these out most effectively.  The suggested design is based on what had been learned already about the group processes of reflection and problem solving within a restricted time frame.  Heads of year and other pastoral leaders are encouraged to lead these groups and time has to be made available for this critical work to occur. Making time available to them for this work still is the biggest obstacle of all.


Who attends such meetings will vary. There will be times when a core of key staff will need to have an extremely clear, coherent plan that they need to work at around a table.


Richer and more creative will be meetings that are diverse in membership. Such meetings will deliberately include the focus young person and their friends, extended family members, community and wider school representatives. 


Brief Step by step guide


This process not unlike what has been described earlier consists of the following steps:

  1. Accurate description of the situation gathered outlining the young person’s story so far and their present relationships.  Both positives and negatives are listed. The emphasis should always be upon the young person’s gifts and capacities, rather than an overemphasis on deficits, problems and needs.
  2. Key worker’s relationship with pupil explored and action carried out already is described and reflected upon.
  3. Other information from the group members on the present situation and their relationship with the young person is shared.  Strategies tried and implemented are shared, including any action plan already carried out by the pupil’s core support group. Focus should be mainly on what has worked or showed some indications of possible success rather than on what has failed.
  4. The group members generate hypotheses.
  5. What do we want to see happening?  Both dreams of future possibilities and grounded positive and possible goals are stated and recorded.
  6. A brainstorm of strategies is carried out, each one being carefully minuted.

    Immediately After Meeting
  7. Action Plan – the pupil’s key worker completes this, with support from another group member.  This is negotiated with both the parents and the young person if they have not been involved in the group.
  8. A fortnightly follow-up of the action plan implementation occurs, which allows for reviewing and amending as appropriate.

    One Month After Meeting
  9. Follow up review of Action Plan is called, to involve the key worker, young person and their parents or carers.  The action plan is amended and updated with new targets, and strategies, selected and agreed.

Does it work?

Whilst such sessions are not without tensions, rivalries and conflict we are usually able to stick to the structure of the process and when things go well the discussions are well marked by the honesty of individuals, the open admission of mistakes, quality insights into classroom, school and family dynamics and mutual support. Understanding and tolerance at many levels appears to be increased and tolerance also as the process allows deeper exploration of individual stories.  Self-reflection and exploration of transference and counter transference has often struck us as particularly rich.  ‘Yes he reminds me of my sister, I really hated her …’


We have often explored unfinished emotional business brought to mind dramatically by individual cases where it is unconsciously affecting teacher behaviour.  All the time it is important to draw a careful boundary between what we are doing in the interests of the young person and for professional and personal development of staff and what could have been a full blown ‘therapy group’ for staff.

Group of American Teachers feedback on the process


We recently worked with a team of American teachers and community leaders at a conference in Boston, December, 2002 and received this feedback about the Circle of Adults process:



  • Love the process, methodical and artistic


  • like bringing clinical and educational together – seeing the child as a whole person over time


  • completeness of it, quickly pulled into it – helpful


  • wish I could have done this with a student I had felt very alone in trying to support


  • child’s perspective – loved it


  • ‘tricks’ don’t know what elements might pop out e.g. fly on the wall questions – makes a change from the usual script e.g. desert island – changes things – wonderful


  •  wonderful process – every IEP should involve this instead of the meaningless targets





Simply asking good questions, such as ‘what would it be like if the two of you were on a desert island together?’ seems at the heart of the success of what goes on  as does having a structured process for discussion.  We continue to be unsure whether simply broadening the understanding of the group to the situation of the young person is sufficient, or whether it is crucial to agree strategies and plan  action.  Similar ponderings and echoes can be found in the work of Hawkins and Shohet (1989) when they talk of having the courage not to know the answer.  Similarly, Hanko (1990) talks of the problem solving process making it less likely that there will be a premature jump to a solution before the issues have been fully explored.


Evaluation of one Nottingham Secondary Teachers group


Evaluation was carried out by interviewing those involved, interviewing the deputy head that manages the pastoral team and by qualitative analysis of written notes maintained over the sessions with the group.  An observer educational psychologist (E.P.) who sat in for one session provided further information. All participants rated the process very highly and positively, as did the EP observer and the school’s management term.  Comments made indicated that the work had been found supportive to individuals as well as developmental in those new skills and understandings had been acquired.  Specifically, participants by the end of the process reported themselves better able to effectively chair ‘pupil planning meetings’ and more able to ask questions and to reflect on situations where pupils were presenting emotional and behavioural problems.  The EP who observed one session made this comment about what was going on.


            ‘A troubled teacher able to talk through a major and threatening problem in

safety.  Realisation that her problem is not unique.  Recognition of her efforts  and successes however minor and encouragement to enable her to carry on.’


The only really negative issues that emerged related to frustration regarding the lack of time available for such work, and the value placed upon it in the school.


Two years later two members of staff who had been involved were randomly approached.  They both still valued the experience positively, had felt the work to be ‘therapeutic’ to them, that they had learned more about emotional and behavioural needs and also a lot about how to get staff to ‘open up’ about pupil problems and personal, professional responses to these.




Specific Outcomes of the work included:


One pupil was included longer term in school and brought back from the brink of certain permanent exclusion, by one of the participants in the group going out of her way to ensure that his social and emotional needs were better met in school.


Pupil Planning sessions were carried out by all key participants in school with other staff concerned regarding individual pupils.


Additional time was provided by the Service Management Team of the school to allow for ‘Pupil Planning Meetings’ to occur as part of the ongoing pastoral process.


On balance the work had some impact upon this school and ironically even more impact on a school down the road that took the approach on wholesale and now spends much more time engaged in such work that the target school itself!


 Feedback from a UK  group of facilitators being coached


A very inspiring and nurturing experience I can develop the process as best I can…


This is truly the most useful course I’ve had in X years of teaching. I hope to use it in many places – wherever I end up


..the sessions have developed my thinking in so many areas..


…every single minute of this course has been inspiring….


I hope to ‘make inclusion happen’





As if to validate our own work a study in 2002 by Bozic and Carter on Teacher Consultation groups based on application of Hanko’s work reported the three strongest effects of such work as being:


  • To make teachers think more deeply about the way they worked with individual children in their classes (92%)
  • To raise awareness of strategies that could be used in the classroom (80%)
  • To try something new as a result of being in the group (64%)


They conclude:

…the main effects of participation were an increase in time to reflection and learn about approaches to teaching children with SEN, a reduction in feelings of isolation and self blame regarding teaching problems.(p199)


Other Circles

Group work or circle work would seem to have a promising future and is only really in its infancy after 30 years or so exploration. The following circles may hold some very important educational keys for young people whose emotions are difficult to understand and behaviour difficult to manage.


  • Circle of Friends/Support
    This Canadian idea (Pearpoint, Forest and Snow, 1992) is concerned with maximising the inclusion of pupils and minimising their exclusion, by enlisting peer group support from individual’s classmates. Working with colleagues we have found this to be a very powerful approach to the effective inclusion of pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties (Newton and Wilson 1999,2003).
  • Mixed Circles
    Groups that include parents, carers, teachers, the young person and some of their classmates, plus other valued adults meeting with a facilitator to explore ways forward in a context of mutual support.
  • Circles of Parents
    Mutual support and problem solving can be very rich between parents if set up supported and structured appropriately and seriously.
  • Circles of Teachers and Parents
    Mutual support and shared learning can occur in such ventures if all involved are granted equal group status and encouragement.
  • Community Circles
    Networks of statutory and non-statutory agencies can work together in mutual support if they share a set of aims and objectives.  These can greatly improve and strengthen the effectiveness of individual efforts.


Surely money spent on mutual support and understanding to promote understanding and inclusion of young people must be to everyone’s long-term benefit?  The alternative may be much less effective and is likely to lead to the spending of even more thousands of pounds on segregated options for pupils when their behaviour becomes too challenging.  We all exist in and rely upon groups, but participation in them requires encouragement, support and development.  What price well integrated, well included adult group members of society?



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