Circle of Friends

Children Helping Children

Circle of Friends is one of several ‘person-centred’ planning tools developed initially in North America and Canada to promote the inclusion of pupils with disabilities in mainstream schools. It is used to normalise the life experience of disabled pupils who, as a result of their disability, are seen as vulnerable and at risk of being excluded from the typical pattern of friendships and extended relationships that are so critical for all of us. Those who developed the approach describe it as being for those who are at risk of being isolated, institutionalised, left out, kicked out and locked out of the mainstream of life (Pearpoint et al, 1992).

Inclusive tools are now being used more and more in the United Kingdom. In particular work around the use of Circle of Friends has been lead by Colin Newton and Derek Wilson, former educational psychologists with Nottingham City Local Education Authority and founders of Inclusive Solutions. It was through my work as an educational psychologist in Nottingham that I was introduced to this powerful and potentially life-changing tool and was involved in setting up Circles of Friends for children and young people from 7 years through to 14 years with a wide range of needs.

Through the various education support services, both in Nottingham and increasingly further a field throughout the U.K., circles have been set up for children with a whole range of needs including: children with physical disabilities; children with autism; children who are moving from a special school placement to a mainstream school placement or children who may be attending part-time at each; children who are at risk of exclusion because of challenging behaviour; children who are socially vulnerable for a combination of reasons.


Circle of Friends, as with all inclusive tools, is based on certain assumptions:

  • That all people belong
  • That all people can learn
  • That everyone benefits from being together
  • That diversity is one of our most critical strengths

In light of this it’s impossible to truly understand the development of this approach without seeing it in the broader context of the movement towards inclusion – inclusive principles came first, the practice followed.

Inclusion is values based and is about recognising that we are ‘one’ even though we are not the ‘same’. Those who believe in full inclusion believe that until everyone belongs and has an equal place in our schools and wider communities social justice does not exist. However no-one who advocates these values would claim that they are easily obtainable. Herb Lovett, an American clinical psychologist and writer on inclusion, talks about how most people will draw the line somewhere for their ‘criterion of belonging’. However this line is continually moving. In the UK as recently as 1973 children and young people with IQs measured as being below 50 were deemed to be ‘ineducable’ and excluded from the school system (Newton and Wilson, 1999). This was happening just 20 years ago.

Natural Supports

Children are the natural supports that already exist within the classroom and yet they are often the forgotten resource that is not recognised by the many professionals and adults who are involved in the life of a child with disabilities and who are more often than not the people making the critical decisions for how that child is to be best supported. A peer support programme such as Circle of Friends recognises the tremendous power of the peer group and that children who are labelled and marginalised can become increasingly isolated from this rich resource.

The Aims

First and foremost the aim is to develop a support network for the child. The process also aims:

  • To give the child more choices
  • To enable the child to deal successfully with victimisation
  • To reduce a child’s challenging behaviour (if such behaviour exists)
  • To help the child make more friends

These are by no means easily achievable aims. In particular the last one can be very challenging. And yet the need for healthy relationships can be at the heart of the needs of many vulnerable children.

The core concept

The core concept on which the process is built is that we all have main circles of support in our lives that can be pictured as four concentric circles:

  • in the central circle are our anchors (the people who are closest to us, usually our immediate family;
  • in the next circle outwards are our allies (our best friends or close relatives, the people we confide in)
  • in the circle outside that are our associates (people we are happy to spend time with, people who come and go in our lives)
  • finally, in the outside circle, are our paid associates (people who are paid to be in our lives such as teachers, medical staff, social workers)

Often as adults we may not reflect on the support circles in our own lives. They can be so interwoven into the fabric of our lives that to identify them and recognise the strength they give us is not something we make the time to do. To ask the question to a group of 9 year olds ‘what makes a friend’ can bring responses that are funny, warm, insightful, and that carry a resonance with our own adult responses, for example ”my definition of a friend is one who knows all about you and won’t go away” (anonymous)!

Through the process of Circle of Friends the child’s peer group is guided in reflecting on the importance of their own circles and how they would feel if these circles were not so full and how this in turn might effect how they behave. Once empathy has been created towards the focus child, where previously there might have been wariness, a lack of interest or downright animosity, a circle of volunteers is set up to support that child.

Getting Started

Both the literature and my own experience of setting up a circle is that within the school there needs to be at least one member of staff that believes that the child should be included, understands the process and values it. If that person exists then generally all other obstacles can be overcome. The commitment of this person need be no more than “well we’ll give it a try”. Some effort and planning may be needed to identify and encourage such a person.

  • Time needs to be available each week for the group to meet. It helps to have management on board so that they can give support around freeing up some time for the member of staff who is facilitating the group.
  • The child’s parent or carer needs to have given their permission and support.
  • The child needs to have had the process explained in basic terms and needs to have given permission for the process to be set up. This relates particularly to the initial whole class session where the focus child is not present. Often the job of explaining what is being proposed is done most effectively by a member of staff in the school who has the trust of the child.

Once permission from the various parties has been given there follows a 4 stage process:

  1. The initial meeting with the class
    This is where someone with the necessary skills works with the child’s whole class to establish what the difficulties are for the focus child, to evoke empathy and to highlight each class member’s critical role in helping to move things forwards. It’s not essential that the person leading this session is an outside professional – it could be the class teacher or another member of staff within the school (the class teacher may be needed to contribute to the process as a participant). It is important that it is someone who can be objective about the situation and who the class trust and feel they can be honest with.

    The focus child, having given their permission for the session to take place, does not attend. Often one of the most sensitive moments of the process for the facilitator is informing the class of the purpose of the meeting – to talk about another child who is not present. This goes against the message that we give children that it’s wrong to talk about someone ‘behind their back’. It’s vital to emphasise that the child has given their permission for the meeting to take place because they believe it will help them. My experience of this part of the process is that without exception class groups will respond to this in a respectful and responsible way. They, the class , feel pleased that this trust and responsibility is being placed in them. Linked to this is the importance of spending time talking about confidentiality, what this means and why it’s so important.

    The initial meeting lasts about an hour and covers the following points:

    • Introduction
    • Ground rules
    • Establishing who we will be talking about and why
    • Confidentiality
    • What are the things we like about him/her?
    • What is happening when things don’t go so well?
    • Our own circles – identifying these and thinking about how we would feel and act if we did not have them (developing empathy)
    • Helping ideas – getting the class to be problem solvers

    All the steps and the children’s responses are written up on flip chart paper so that they can be referred back to.

    At the end of the whole class session the children are asked to volunteer if they would like to be part of a circle of friends for the child that will meet every week. Generally 6 – 8 children can be selected to be part of the group. Again another risky-feeling moment is waiting to see who and how many will volunteer to be part of the group. And while a concern of school staff or parents might be that no-one volunteers, this has rarely, if ever, been an issue. In the past I have had situations where every member of the class has volunteered and often one of the best parts of the process is being able to tell the child afterwards how many of his/her classmates wanted to be part of the group.

    The group can be selected based on various criteria including: their contribution during the whole class session; the teacher’s knowledge of the children who they feel might be a helpful member; children that represent a cross section of friendship groups within the class. It certainly should not be made up of only the ‘good’ kids within the class. Children with their own issues have been seen to benefit greatly from being part of the support group. A group that is about supporting one of its members gives the message that it’s ok to have needs, that it’s ok to find some situations difficult and that when that happens it’s ok to look to others for support. All members of the group, not just the focus child, will experience acceptance as a result of being part of the group.

    Following the whole class meeting a member of staff talks to the focus child about what has been planned and who will be part of the group. It is absolutely vital that the child agrees with this before things can proceed.

  2. The first meeting of the circle
    This session can last for 30 – 40 minutes and covers the following:

    • Facilitator introduces themselves
    • Agree ground rules and explain confidentiality
    • Agree aims of the group
    • Invite group members to tell the child why they volunteered to be in his or her group
    • Elicit and list positives and areas the child needs help to work on
    • Brainstorm strategies
    • Agree which strategies can be tried and ensure commitment to these from the group. Be clear with the group about responsibilities, disclosures and boundaries. Let them know what is expected of them and the limits to this
    • Agree a name for the group, avoiding the child’s name
    • Describe meeting and follow-up arrangements and encourage support from the group.
  3. Subsequent meetings of the group
    Meetings then take place once a week with a key member of staff. The meeting runs for 30 – 40 minutes and focuses on problem solving to help the focus child. It also gives space for positive things that have happened that week to be recognised and celebrated and difficulties to be named and solutions, tactics and supportive ideas generated. The role of the facilitator is to establish ground rules, set and maintain boundaries, and generally ensure there is a safe space for the group to share feelings and be creative around ideas for helping the focus child. The aim is that the atmosphere is one of trust, honesty, openness and mutual support. Ideas generated by the group for support and intervention are often very simple but significantly more effective than more complex interventions drawn up by a group of professionals.

  4. A review
    The facilitator of the original whole class session should then return around the end of the term to find out from focus child, the circle, the class as a whole and any staff involved what they feel the impact has been of the circle.

How the rest of the group benefit

As mentioned earlier the benefits of being part of a circle are not just for the focus child. Other children in the group can benefit hugely from taking part and can show development in empathy, problem solving skills, listening skills, their ability to identify and express feelings, their ability to understand the links between feelings and behaviour and an increased awareness of an individual’s power to change.

Why does it appear to be so effective?

The leaders in this field have put together a number of hypotheses on why this approach can be so effective. These include:

  • The focus child gets a lot from having additional attention focused on them
  • Being made to feel more accepted can radically alter behaviour
  • Children can be more effective at bringing about change for other children than adults can – the child is more likely to listen to his or her peers
  • A structure is put in place for problem solving and support
  • The openness of discussion that takes place through a circle of friends provides a model for other relationships more generally within the class and school.

In my own experience of doing this work I think that there are two other key aspects to the process that make it so successful:

  • One is the fact that all the children involved , both the focus child and all others, are given a sense that their opinions really matter, that the adults around them are really listening and that they can play a real part in changing someone’s life in a positive way.
  • The other is the fact that the process facilitates the children involved making a connection, that can be difficult for both adults and children alike to make, between feelings and behaviour, which in turn leads to a strong sense of empathy.


I have had the great privilege to be part of the process of setting up circles for a number of children and young people with a range of needs. As an educational psychologist it was the singularly most rewarding aspect of my work and lead to a number of those ‘goosebump moments’ when you hear other children express their feelings and thoughts on how and why life is the way it is for the focus child with an honesty, empathy and insight that often eludes the many adults who are working with that child. It can be a very humbling experience as an adult to hear this. The process is about respecting the great capacity that children have to be effective problem solvers and giving them the opportunity, with adult support, to put this ability into practice in a way that is safe for all involved. At best it has the potential to transform the day-to-day lives of some of our most vulnerable children.

Circle of Friends is not concerned with what is ‘wrong’ with the focus child but rather is based on the assumption that acceptance can lead to change. It recognises the role of the peer group and the power of ‘pupil culture’. It is an effective tool for inclusion and building community but at the same time is light on additional resources. It does involve risk taking (anyone who has set up a circle of friends could not deny the sense of risk at the start of that initial class session!) but ultimately it is likely to make everyone feel more included.

As someone relatively new to working life in Ireland, I am struck by the energy and interest there is currently in issues relating to disability and equal rights. The process described here, and the use of peer support more broadly, fits with this current climate of optimism and the desire for radical change around how things are done for children and young people with disabilities. It offers a positive approach, already in use internationally, that ultimately will reduce segregation and increase inclusion.


Leyden, G. (1996) ‘Cheap Labour or Neglected Resource?’ the role of the peer group and efficient, effective support for children with special needs. Educational Psychology in Practice. 11, 4, 49 – 55.

Lovett, H. Learning to Listen: Positive Approaches and People with Difficult Behaviour (1996) Brookes Publishing Co, Inc

Newton, C., Wilson, D. and Taylor, G. (1996) ‘Circles of Friends’: an inclusive approach to meeting emotional and behavioural needs. Educational Psychology in Practice, 11, 4, 41 – 18

Newton, C., and Wilson, D. Circles of Friends (1999) Dunstable: Folens Press

Pearpoint, J., Forest, M. and Snow, J., (1992) The Inclusion Papers: Strategies to make inclusion work. Toronto: Inclusion Press

Bronagh McCloskey, Educational Psychologist

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