Circle of Friends

Circle of Friends Article

Circles of friends By C. Newton, G. Taylor and D. Wilson


This article describes the background to and the actual setting up and running of ‘circles of friends’ . We outline this approach to the inclusion of children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties. In this paper we wish to:

  1. To share our experiences of setting up circles of friends
  2. 2 To invite reflection and discussion around the whole area of involving pupils in the social support of vulnerable or difficult individuals

‘It’s no use giving up ….’

This insightful comment comes from a Year 5 pupil who has been part of a support network, a “circle of friends” for a fellow pupil in his class, Darren. Darren had shown difficult to manage and distressed behaviour throughout his school career. Over the past term a group of eight pupils from Darren’s class have been brought together (with the help of their class teacher and school educational psychologist) to give time and thought to how they can be supportive towards him in the things they do and let him know that they care about who and how he is. For his part Darren has responded by doing less of the things; refusing to work, running out of school and hiding, “calling” other pupils, becoming tearful at “slight” provocations that had previously made him so challenging for pupils and staff to live with and had led to his referral to the Educational Psychology Service.

Here we describe the thinking behind this approach to meeting emotional and behavioural needs and the process by which the child’s peer group can become a source of support.

The rationale behind the circle of friends approach is a simple one and, once understood, almost embarrassingly obvious. It recognises that a significant consequence for someone who shows distressed and difficult behaviour is their likely isolation from their peer group both in and out of school. Teachers will describe such pupils as” having no friends”,”unable to make or sustain relationships”, “always fighting or arguing with other pupils”. Pupils will describe them as “a nutter”, “mad”, “always getting done for something” – although as we shall see later when encouraged they are able to give much more balanced descriptions.

When this kind of situation is viewed systemically and with an awareness of the powerful processes of circular causation (Dowling and Osbourne 1985, Miller 1994.) it is easy to see how increasing isolation from your peer group can lead to increasing despair and bad feelings about yourself which are then reflected in your behaviour. Once you internalise the message that nobody likes you or wants to be your friend, feel that they think you are mad, feel that they will do things just to wind you up, it is easy to conclude that you have nothing to lose by giving full vent to your feelings and distress in the way you behave. And when you do, the subsequent behaviour of your classmates simply confirms your worst fears about yourself and how others see you. So is created a very vicious circle in which the effects of your behaviour have become the subsequent causes of your behaviour.

The adults around you and their interventions may accelerate this process. You may find yourself on the receiving end of a behaviour programme which is founded on ignoring difficult behaviour; in case it is reinforced by the reward of attention. (How we came to believe that there could be anything helpful or therapeutic in being ignored by others suggests a further study.) You may not have qualified for a “programme” as such but it is very likely that the message given to the rest of the class by the adults around you will be along the lines of “don’t get involved”,”it’s not your business”,”just ignore him”. You may find yourself in Time Out or Isolation and although this may be helpful in letting you save face and in limiting your public, it is unlikely in itself to address the unmet needs that are fuelling your behaviour.

The circle of friends approach is at the opposite end of the continuum of interventions from approaches based on ignoring difficult behaviour. It is a systemic approach that recognises the power of the peer group (and thereby of pupil culture) to be a positive as well as a constraining or exacerbating influence on individual behaviour.

If we accept that peer group isolation can worsen things for an individual then it follows that efforts to increase that individual’s inclusion within his peer group are likely to help that same individual. If circles can be vicious they can also be virtuous if efforts are made to set and maintain a context for this. For schools the resource implication of this approach are minimal and this is because the key resources – other pupils – are always and already there. Adult time is however needed both to mobilise the friendship circle and to facilitate its problem solving skills as it develops.

This is a relatively new approach to working with emotional and behavioural difficulties within UK schools, but has been used in parts of North America and Canada for a number of years to promote the inclusion of pupils with disabilities in mainstream schools. (Pearpoint and Forrest 1989.) Within the North American work the circle of friends approach is used as one means of normalising the life experiences of disabled pupils who are recognised as vulnerable to isolation from the ordinary pattern of extended relationships and friendships. Such isolation is seen as a risk associated with a system of segregated schooling where students’ opportunities to know and be known by the wider peer group in their community are limited by their institutional and often geographical separation. This impoverishment of the breadth of relationships that people who are not disabled and segregated would take for granted remains a major and uncounted cost of any system of separate special school education (Gold 1994).

In terms of support initiatives currently in use in the UK the circle of friends approach has links with the “No Blame” approach to bullying described by Barbara Maines and George Robinson which looks to pupils themselves for their solutions to episodes of bullying. There are also links with work taking place at Acland Burghley Comprehensive School in London ( ) Here pupils in Year 8 and above have been trained in basic counselling skills to enable them to offer support to other pupils who are experiencing bullying. The circles of friends approach also sits comfortably with many of the declared aims of the typical Personal and Social Education curriculum (ref) and overlaps are described in later sections of this paper. The common ethos of these approaches lies in staff sharing responsibility for problem solving with pupils.


In this section we describe the process and procedures we have gone through to enable the formation of a circle of friends. We do not have evidence at this stage that would highlight what the key parts of this process are and this section should be read with this caveat in mind. What we have tried to do is emphasise what seem to us the overriding aims of this intervention- those that seem fundamental- the actual means used to achieve these aims could be varied without necessarily losing their impact.

Key Stages

  1. Establish the support of the school and the permission of the parents (and child*) for the approach. The commitment of the class teacher or Form Tutor has been a part of each circle we have worked with to date. This has often been no more than a willingness to “give it a try ” in the initial stages, but without this we would be doubtful of the longer term prospects of the support circle becoming established.
  2. Work with the whole class or tutor group to define the “problem” , evoke empathy and affirm their role in helping move things forward.
  3. Share the content of the above session with the child in question.
  4. Meet with the circle and child together to reiterate the above and discuss ways forward.

These meetings should then be held at regular intervals to continue and strengthen the circle , celebrate progress and problem solve as necessary.

Circles of friends in Action

The aims of the approach include the following:

  1. 1 To create a support network for the child
  2. To reduce the child’s challenging behaviour
  3. To enable the child to deal successfully with victimisation
  4. To increase the child’s understanding of their own behaviour and give them more choices
  5. To help the child make more friends

These aims would be communicated to anyone interested in setting up a Circle of Friends approach. They largely speak for themselves but as can be seen include very challenging aims such as helping with the making of friends. This aim has both haunted and thwarted most educationalists and psychologists over the years and yet is often at the heart of many vulnerable young person’s need for healthy relationships.

Where best to start: The prerequisites for this approach

It is essential that a key member of staff understands and is committed to using the approach with the young person targeted. They will need to be able to give sufficient time to supporting the circle of friends on the weekly meetings that follow the initial meeting with the pupil’s class or tutor group. They may also have to deal with issues that arise from the work for the young person, the group of pupils, for parents or even for other staff.

The child’s parent or carer will need to have had the approach explained to them and given both their assent and support. New issues may emerge for them, when for instance children come knocking on the door requesting that their child comes out to play or join in an activity.

The child themselves need to have the approach properly explained to rhem in basic terms and need to accept what is about to occur. We have debated among ourselves whether the approach could continue with less than acceptance from the individual but the reader will have to make their own mind up on this one. Clearly when such an approach is described to a child emotions can range from angry resistance through ambivalence to over enthusiastic! Generally we have not found this to be an issue and we have usually entrusted this discussion to a teacher who knows the young person very well.

Setting up Circles

Initial meeting with class
Circle of friends : the small group itself

Process for running initial Circle of Friends session

  1. Introduce self
  2. Agree ground rules and explain confidentiality
  3. Agree aims of group eg: To help Craig make and keep friends and to help him get back on track with his behaviour
  4. Invite group members to tell child why they volunteered to be in his or her group
  5. Elicit and list positives and areas the child needs to work on, from the group
  6. Brainstorm strategies
  7. 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
  8. Agree name for the group, avoiding child’s name.
  9. Describe meeting and follow up arrangements and encourage mutual support in the group.

A weekly meeting with a key member of staff , is set up with the 6/8 volunteers. The meeting is initially initiated by an outside facilitator, the educational psychologist in our work, with the teacher who is to run the group observing and helping record responses. The meeting runs for 30-40 minutes and primarily uses problem solving approaches, although also allowing space for the exploring of issues, the celebration of positives and the examination of negatives. A main purpose of the meeting is to generate tactics and supportive ideas. The facilitator meets with the whole class and with the circle by the following half term or term end to follow up progress.

The educational psychologist or teacher facilitating the group acts as chairperson containing, holding boundaries and ground rules and ensuring safe space for the exploration of feelings and ideas. The role is also to provide rich positives and praise building the esteem of the individual and the circle. The facilitator attempts to encourage mutual support, trust, honesty and openness among the group members.

First meetings of a circle of friends can be chaotic and difficult for the adult to manage constructively, sometimes angry feelings towards the focus child are expressed or discussions begun that have no obvious relevance to helping the child. The adult needs to be active at this stage in reminding the group of the ground rules, the reason why they are meeting and of the need to listen to each person’s contribution. For younger children ( Year 3 and below ) it can be helpful to structure the group meeting in ways that make the listening and turntaking roles clearer e.g. by having set warm-up and closing routines, by asking for the group’s comments on set questions, by allowing group members to talk only when in possession of a special object. Further ideas for strengthening the circle and facilitating its problem solving can be found in Bliss and Tetley(1993), Mosley (1991) and White (1993). These authors describe activities for use with children which promote the P.S.E. curriculum via the use of group exercises known as “circle time”. Amongst the key areas of concern are: relationships with others, issues of individual identity, responses to challenging experiences – the overlap with the issues typically debated within a circle of friends is obvious.. We have found that teachers are able to use a wealth of Personal and Social Education ideas to both ‘warm up’ and develop group processes.

The circle quickly becomes a learning experience for all the children in the group as they talk about feelings, problem solve, listen, empathise, challenge, and work out better ideas for dealing with adults.

We have found that there is a need for clear boundaries throughout and clarity regarding how group members should be dealing with disclosures from the child they are supportingGroup processes and content can vary enormously largely being affected by the style and strengths of the facilitator and what they feel able to handle or pursue. This can range from deeply emotive material to ‘straight forward’ behavioural strategies.

There is an important need for maintenance, support and follow up sessions and for the outside facilitator to keep in touch, especially in a new situation.

We have been greatly impressed by the quality of the rich discussion and process that has taken place in such circles. Such discussion regularly out classed adult problem solving and mutual support. We were also struck by the power of very simple interventions from other children. For instance:

I just say forget it … and he does


We just follow him out of the room and quietly ask him to come back…

Other interventions range from the rich and varied to the mundane and adult oriented. We were fascinated by interventions occurring outside the classroom :

We saw him getting angry with the dinner lady…we went and started talking to him ….told him it was not worth it….he walked away.

and even outside the school:

I leant out of the window and shouted’ do you want to come swimming Craig?’ He said he couldn’t, but now he comes every week with us.

Preventative in class strategies were interesting:

We’ve invented a ‘three tap code’…..if he starts talking on the carpet one of us taps the floor near him… then he shuts up.

Active interventions with the adult world revealed new insights into pupil perspectives on supply teachers, class teachers and midday supervisors, but were also excellent ways of calming difficult situations:

To an annoyed teacher, as John comes dancing and singing loudly into the room…..’He’s just feeling a bit excited at the moment, Mr Newton just praised him up’…

Whilst clearly not therapy groups, some of the circles appeared to be offering therapeutic input for individual children who found themselves sharing their deepest secrets , sufferings or vulnerabilities.


We have at the time of writing set up circles of friends for children aged between 4 and 14, although we believe there is no age bar on the approach; cradle to grave. We have focused primarily on pupils with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties where other approaches have been tried and found to fail. We have set up circles to prevent permanent exclusions, segregation in special education or to support a return or start at school for a new pupil leaving another special or mainstream school, in short to promote inclusion. We have been involved in the setting up of about 20 such circles so far. Further afield there are now many such circles running as we have been involved in a number of local and national conferences as well in providing training to EPS services and schools to enable them to carry out this approach.

Case Study

Christopher year 6

Negatives listed by Christopher’s own class before the circle:

  • loses temper quickly
  • if you go against him he gets angry
  • annoys you to get attention
  • can’t lose in any game
  • swears, says bad things
  • if you are better than him at something he holds it against you
  • physically and verbally aggressive
  • pushes you out of the way
  • marches off in a huff
  • bullies
  • throws chairs etc.
  • unstable…

Teacher’s description of Christopher:

  • major temper tantrums
  • no co-operation
  • learning difficulties
  • no self esteem
  • we think physically and emotionally abused by dad but can’t prove it

Frustrated Educational Psychologist involvement:

  • 4 years of involvement
  • Lots of work with each class teacher
  • Tried wide variety of consultative and behavioural approaches ‘in the best possible taste’
  • Worked with parents as far as possible, but faced antagonism
  • Suggestions of abuse but nothing substantive
  • Aggressive response from dad
  • One teacher nearly had breakdown/left profession
4 months of circle: Circle of Help

Christopher initially agreed to the group, but then changed his mind on the day of the first meeting. But when he heard the group members saying why they wanted to be in his group he ‘opened like a flower’. Later he wanted a cure and was disappointed at the lack of instant results. Still later he wanted out, but changed his mind when calmer.

Outcomes reported by his class and teachers:

  • No tantrums at all lately
  • No chatting out of turn
  • Better at sports, takes the stress, not a bad loser
  • Stopped swearing and throwing
  • If not happy..he tells group
  • New close best mate

‘The approach has been very successful’


‘Like a very good person now’

Group member

‘Every body feels closer’


A year later:

At secondary school Christopher was randomly selected to join ‘Jane’s’ circle. After a while he openly admitted: ‘I used to have a circle because I used to hit and bite and I had no friends, but now I don’t and I’ve got friends’

Outcomes for other Children

It is not only the target children that are likely to gain from being involved with a circle of friends, the process can also be a rich learning experience for all members of the circle. During the life of the group it is evident to the adults involved that the group as a whole is having an experience of problem solving which contributes to their own interpersonal skills and their understanding of the links between feelings and behaviour.

A common concern amongst teachers at the outset of this process is that it is in someway “unfair” to the other children ; that they are being used in some way and that their time is being wasted. Teachers have also voiced concerns over how they could justify the process to the parents and carers of these children. Our response has been to reframe the circles of friends approach as the Personal and Social Education curriculum in action. For us there is something ironic about a school which subscribes to the values implicit in the P.S.E. curriculum – caring for others, mutual respect, equality and fairness etc.- but when one member of the class community needs support- then questions how this can be justified. The circles of friends process enables children’s personal and social development to occur within meaningful and lively situations that are already part of the life of the class.

We have not, as yet, made any systematic attempt to describe the benefits to children of being involved in this process but our initial impressions are that these involve much of what is best about open and honest human contact. Some of the key themes seem to us to be:

  1. Developments in empathy
    It is noticeable and often moving to see the members of the group gain in their understanding of the focused child’s point of view. This is shown in their comments during the circle meetings; “I know a bit more about how David feels because I have talked to him more” and “I feel angry when Jane gets picked on because I know it hurts her”.

  2. Developments in problem solving skills
    Each week the group discusses issues and difficulties that have arisen, celebrates successes and thinks through other possible solutions and approaches to the problems that have been identified. The following extract from a Year 7 circle of friends in an inner city comprehensive details their discovery of the difference between “telling” and “asking” if you want someone to listen to your advice.

    Facilitator: What are the ways we are going to try and help Jane this week?

    Child in group: Tell her to be good when she does something bad.

    Another child: We shouldn’t tell her we should ask her.

    First child: If we ask her she might not listen and swear and hit us.

    Another child: We should try and advise.

    Facilitator: What do you mean by advise?

    Child in group: We’ll ask her to be good and not tell her – she might get angry if we tell her what to do.

    Jane: People make me cross when they tell me things.

    Another child: If we just suggest things it will help Jane.

  3. Developments in listening skills
    Few circles that we have worked with have had ready-made skills in this area. Most have needed the support and prompting of the adult facilitator before they have been able to listen to each other’s contributions and agree on ways forward.

  4. Developments in ability to identify and express feelings
    The gains that all members of the circle of friends are likely to make in this personal skill go hand in hand with the developments in listening skills noted above. By being part of a group dedicated to supporting one of its members, each individual is given the implicit message that it is safe to have needs, to find coping in some situations difficult and that when you do you can rely on others for support. This is important because it is unlikely to be the focus child alone who has feelings that are difficult to manage or behaviours that others find antagonising. For some these feelings and behaviours may have remained unexpressed. The group can provide a vicarious experience of acceptance for all its members and this may go some way towards explaining the enthusiasm and high motivation typical of successful groups- to a greater or lesser extent each member is there for themselves.

    Facilitator: ‘How can we help here when she loses her temper?’

    Delwyn: ‘Talk to her…help her calm down….be with her…comfort her’

    The facilitator later shared that she felt that this was more about what Delwyn needed and wanted when he lost his temper than the focus child and yet the contribution was rich for him as well as for her.

    Despite these observations the current climate in our school system maintains that there is a dichotomy between the needs of the individual and the needs of the wider community or group. It is this belief that is used to justify the exclusion of troublesome pupils throughout the system. Within the circle of friends approach this dichotomy is seen as false and it is recognised that all children have more in common than otherwise.

  5. Developments in understanding the links between feelings and behaviour
    This is a difficult connection to make for adults and children alike. The circle of friends approach is rich in opportunities for children to learn that other’s behaviour, and indeed their own, is a result of how they are feeling; that actions cannot always be taken at face value because sometimes the most aggressive are those that are feeling the most lonely or sad. These insights can give children a delightfully generous view of other people, even though they still want the unpleasant behaviour to stop. These extracts from discussions at various circle of friends meetings illustrate this theme.

    Facilitator: How’s it been going since last week?

    Child in group: Yesterday Craig was very excited and a bit bad, he lost it in Maths.

    Craig: It was because I was excited about the new kittens. My cat has lots of kittens and we are keeping some……

    Child in group: Jane sometimes feels left out and wants attention.

    Facilitator: How do you know when she’s feeling like this?

    Child in group: Because she goes and sits by herself and talks in stupid voice.

  6. Increased awareness of an individual’s power to change
    Outcomes for School Staff

    Whilst we have not attempted any rigorous or systematic evaluation of outcomes we have encouraged teachers to keep notes of what has been happening and have collected feedback. Emerging themes have struck us at times powerfully. They include the following:

    • Teachers feel more supported by the active involvement of an outsider. The active involvement with the class, the child of concern and with the small group in a direct way that involves ‘rolling up the sleeves and getting stuck in’, appears supportive to the teacher. As educational psychologists this often felt highly risky, none of us had ever fronted a rogue tutor group in a comprehensive school in our entire careers!
    • The approach encourages more emphasis on positives for the teacher and pupils. Everyone soon appeared to be seeking out good news rather than negative especially the circle of friends themselves and this seemed to brighten thinking and remind teachers of the possibility of change.
    • Teachers appear to experience an increase in self esteem. staff appeared to feel good about what was happening for the individual, the group and for their teaching. As their role in running the circle is so essential they feel good in themselves when the new venture is bringing them success.
    • This approach validates earlier PSE and Pastoral work that may already be taking place in the classroom. ‘We do this kind of thing all the time… have just brought more structure and focus…’We have been pleased to hear teachers making such strong links with other forms of personal and social development activities and they have felt good about having their own work validated from outsiders.
    • Class teachers and tutors feel an increased sense of pride in their class. This theme may sound a little old fashioned or even patriarchal but has been quite striking. The progress of a teacher’s class or tutor group reflects on them as does the groups struggles, stresses and strife. Thus when the circles have worked well and individuals have really shone and impressed the teacher feels very good about this for themselves and for the group, a very positive set of emotions indeed.
    • Good spin offs in other directions. Parents have been reported to have been influenced by the increases in empathy encouraged by this work. Some parents have been actively challenged by their children when heard verbally insulting or denigrating the behaviour of a fellow pupil! General levels of empathy throughout the class group and school have been seen to increase.
    • Teachers feel reduced isolation as they now have many more Allies! Children in this work have become in effect active interventionists supporting their teacher in the challenging task of getting one of their group members back on track!


Why does this approach appear to be so effective?

We are beginning to develop theories about this emerging from our experience of this work which require qualitative evaluation to follow up and explore further. Our emerging hypotheses at present include:

  1. children gain much from the additional attention focused on them
  2. children feel more accepted and liked and this affects their behaviour radically
  3. other children can be much more effective interventionists than adults. Children are more likely to take notice of them and change their behaviour as a result
  4. peer group pressure and encouragement to change is as powerful with individual children as it is with adult groups, perhaps more so
  5. providing a framework for problem solving, support and active intervention is the ideal way of enhancing and mobilising a small community’s impact on one of its individuals
  6. honest and open discussion with children about an individual’s pain, about isolation and lack of friends combined with the difficulties adults face in dealing with certain behaviour encourages empathy and provides a model for healthier relationships in the classroom and beyond

We have found that this work radically challenges so many of our core constructs about how we operate as professionals. We have welcomed a fresh approach to speaking openly about feelings, vulnerabilities, emotions and behaviour with children an adults. We have appreciated the inclusive drive of the work and its challenge to segregation and exclusion. We feel we are working with an approach which strengthens the individual’s place in the community without the trappings of a within child model. The approach is systemic but involves the individual and their peers. We enter the messy world of human relationships but without the curse of feeling artificial or that we are engaged in social engineering. We are impacting on behaviour but are not being controlling adult behaviourists. Perhaps Circles of Friends is the antidote to so much social skills training and ‘assertive discipline’ style approaches to behaviour management which have left so many of us feeling cold and had so little impact on the most vulnerable individuals in our society?

The ideas implicit in the approach lend themselves to so many situations. Why should not every child in a special school have their own circle of friends in their local mainstream school? Every new entrant to a school who has had problems previously would surely benefit? What would circles of adults look like for vulnerable or challenging individuals? (See for instance Newton, 1995).

The bigger picture

This is primarily a tool to support inclusion. The approach can be used with young and old for those with the most severe disabilities as well as those with the most severe emotional and behavioural needs. It is an approach which can be used to strengthen community networks for vulnerable individuals in and beyond school settings (see for instance the work of the Circles of Support group in Bristol). It stands at the cutting edge of optimistic, international approaches to reducing segregation and increasing inclusion.

‘Its no good giving up.

Keep on inviting him swimming.

I’m inviting James to my party.

I’m inviting James to my disco later this year.

I’m inviting James trampolining.’

The Listening Group (23/3/94)

Pupils aged between 9-10 years


Asher, S. and Cole, J.(eds.) (1990) Peer Rejection in Childhood Cambridge University Press

Bliss, T. and Tetley, J. (1993) Circle Time. Lame Duck Publishing.

Dowling, E. and Osbourne, E. (eds) (1985) The Family and the School: A Joint Systems Approach to Problems with Children. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Field, T., Miller J. and Field, T. (1994) “How Well Preschool Children Know Their Friends

Early Development and Child Care Vol. 100. pp. 101-109.

Hall, C. and Delaney, J. (1992) ” How a personal and social education programme can promote friendship in the infant class.” Research in Education 47. pp. 29-39.

Gold, D., (1994) ” We Don’t Call It a “Circle”: the ethos of a support group.” Disability and Society 9 (4) pp. 435-452.

Mallory, B.L. and New, R.S. (1994) “Social Constructivist Theory and Principles of Inclusion: Challenges for Early Childhood Special Education” Journal of Special Education Vol. 28 no.3 pp. 322-337..

Miller, A. (1994) “Parents and difficult behaviour: always the problem or part of the solution?”, in P. Gray, A, Miller and J. Noakes (eds) Challenging Behaviour in Schools London Routledge.

Mosley, J. (1991) The Circle Book Positive Press.

Newton, C. (1995) ‘Circles of Adults’, Educational Pychology in Practice,

Pearpoint, J., Forest, M. and Snow, J., (1992) The Inclusion Papers Inclusion Press.

Perske, R., (1988) Circles of Friends Abingdon Press

White, M. (1993) ” Developing Self Esteem.” in Bovair, K. and McLaughlin, C. (eds) Counselling in Schools – A Reader D. Fulton Publisher

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