Circle of Friends

What is a Circle of Friends?

“In an intact group the pool of shared understandings is like a shared bank account of the group wealth…

Since it is spiritual or psychological wealth, it does not diminish by being spent. Rather, the more lavishly it is circulated, the greater inner wealth and security each single member feels.

Ted Hughes- Winter Pollen 1994

Circle of friends is an approach to enhancing the inclusion, in a mainstream setting, of any young person ( known as ‘the focus child’), who is experiencing difficulties in school because of a disability, personal crisis or because of their challenging behaviour towards others.

The ‘circle of friends’ approach works by mobilising the young person’s peers to provide support and engage in problem solving with the person in difficulty. ‘Circle of friends’ is not the same as ‘circle time’ but many of the skills and techniques used by teachers in ‘circle time’ can be used to support the ‘circle of friends’ process. Over the past five years the authors have been encouraging the use of ‘circle of friends’ in a wide variety of primary and secondary schools, often with very successful outcomes. A major advantage of the approach is that it does not involve a major commitment of time from teaching staff. This is because the true work is done by the peers themselves, not the adults. The adult’s role is to meet with the circle and the focus child for around 20-30 minutes weekly to facilitate their problem solving in the early stages. Successful circles will often become largely self- sustaining and provide support for the focus child without the need for regular adult input. When there is careful planning and real commitment form the facilitator, results from the process are seen very quickly.

Who Is Circles of Friends For?

This is a book for everyone because it is a book about relationships and their importance in all our lives.

However, the authors are educational psychologists and work with schools and the communities they serve. Our focus is therefore on the people we are asked to work with, the children and young people who are labelled and marginalised in various ways and the people who are paid to teach and provide for them. If you are a special educational needs co-ordinator, a form tutor, a primary class teacher, a youth worker, a support assistant and you are concerned about the isolation of young people you know with a disability or difference, then this is the book for you. If you are a parent of a child labelled disabled, it is likely that you already know the difficulties facing your son or daughter in achieving the breadth of friendships and relationships that others take for granted. This is the book for you. You may also be aware of your own need, as an adult, for support and perhaps have a wide circle of friends upon whom you can rely. The work described here will help you reflect on this need and consider ways in which you can strengthen these relationships.

This book is not about any one label or disability, it speaks to anyone at risk of being excluded because their needs are not typical of the majority. Ultimately, it is a book for everyone because at some time in our lives, and especially as we age, all of us are likely to have needs that are not typical.

Values Base

This is not just a “how to“ book, although it will give you all the information you need to begin the circle of friends process around an individual in your school or in your family. This book offers an invitation to consider the values that inform your work with young people and to spend time considering why we do what we do and where we are heading with our work in schools. This section makes explicit the values that underlie circle of friends’ work. The values we advocate are those of full inclusion for all; the belief that there is no social justice until each belongs and has an equal place in our schools and communities. But having said this we must also say that- We do not yet know how to bring this state of affairs into being.

This fact is put clearly by Herb Lovett, an American clinical psychologist and writer on inclusive and person-centred planning in “Learning to Listen”;

…the idea of a completely inclusive community in which everyone belongs is far more radical than it first appears. In the abstract, many people subscribe to the notion of an inclusive community whose criterion for belonging is that you have to be breathing. In practical fact, however most of us draw lines some-where.. For example among those who are breathing, I would exclude people who commit serial murders. I don’t know how to include such people in my own life safely. But if we did know how to help people never to act upon their homicidal impulses, their presence would excite fewer passions because we would have confidence that we could safely move past the behaviour and find the person.

Lovett 1996 p.8

Notice also that where the line was confidently drawn can, in a short time, become indefensible and unjust. It is easy to forget that, as recently as 1973 children and young people with IQs measured as being below 50 points were deemed ineducable and were therefore excluded from the school system in the UK. Few if any would now defend such a state of affairs, but we are slow to learn and every gain has been hard fought for by those excluded from the mainstream. Inclusive thinking is not easy.

Independence, Interdependence and Diversity

“When you hear the word ‘inevitable’ Watch out an enemy of humanity has revealed himself”

Stephen Vizinczey 1970 ‘The Rules of Chaos’

Most of us have grown up in a culture which has taught us that competition is a good thing and that independence is a virtue to strive for. We have been taught that those who are unable to “win” or be independent have something wrong with them and need fixing by experts. This is a “top down “ model of society and has produced a hierarchy in which there are those who know best and those who are deemed to know least. Little wonder that it is hard for us to envision what true collaboration and cooperation might look like. We are also aware of the paradox that is implicit in saying this- after all this book was written by individuals who, as educational psychologists, are key players in the hierarchy we are describing as part of the problem! It follows from this that we are the ones who are likely to have most to learn.

The quote from Ted Hughes which starts this chapter is a reminder of the difference between “spiritual or psychological wealth” and monetary or material wealth. The value of material wealth lies in keeping as much of it as you can for yourself, whereas spiritual wealth is enhanced in value only to the extent it is shared with others. Notice that Hughes is careful to specify that this can only happen in an “intact group”. We take this to mean a group from which no one has been excluded. There are virtually no such intact groups existing at the present time in Western society. Our mainstream schools contain only those for whom this setting is deemed “appropriate” and the remainder are sent elsewhere. At the other end of the life cycle many of the oldest members of our families live another kind of segregated existence in nursing and retirement homes. Such forms of exclusion limit our ability to generate and circulate spiritual wealth and experience interdependence.

Intact groups will include a diversity of voices and there will be some present who do not use language to express their awareness of the world. The following story makes it clear that their contribution can be vital to others;

An illustration of the value of diversity in everyday settings was given to one of the authors recently by an Infant teacher who is successfully including a pupil with Down’s Syndrome in her class. This child communicates by Makaton signing and the class as a whole is learning to use these signs . They are active and enthusiastic in encouraging their classmate to use them also. The benefits to the disabled pupil are plain. However, there is another pupil in this class who benefits from signs being in everyday use by the group. She is a girl with a profoundly deaf mother and she is bilingual in British Sign Language and in spoken English Before the arrival of the child with Down’s Syndrome, she had felt embarrassed by her untypical signing proficiency and reluctant to admit to having this skill or share it with others. Since the arrival of another child using sign (the most important thing about the child with Down’s Syndrome in her eyes) she has lost this uneasiness and is happy to share her ability and become a kind of dictionary of sign expertise. In a very real sense she has experienced “interdependence.”

Tales of Inclusion

‘I can’t myself raise the winds that might blow us into a better world. But I can at least put up the sail, so that when the wind comes I can catch it.’

E. F. Schumacher author of ‘Small is Beautiful’

Despite our professed ignorance of exactly what we are heading towards and how we might get there we will be able to bring you some “tales of inclusion” as signposts on the journey and some glimpses of the bigger picture. We will be able to say something about interdependence and tell stories about how everyone benefits when we try to include. It is important that these stories are told because they are an antidote to so much of what is usually written about difference and disability. And because we know that there are many more such stories waiting to be told. If this book lets someone out there know that they are not alone in wanting a world where all have a voice and can be heard, then it will have been worthwhile.

Unless you are able to subscribe to these values and beliefs at some level then ‘circle of friends’ will be just another name for a bit of imposed social engineering where those in power, decide what is best for those who are marginalised.

Lessons we are Learning

The ‘circle of friends’ process takes a wider look at the relationships in a person’s life. As we have looked at this bigger picture, it has dawned on us that our usual professional perspective on those relationships has been one dimensional. We have focused on the child or young person solely as someone with special needs who must access the curriculum. But this child is also a son or daughter and a grandchild and also likely to be someone’s brother or sister, a cousin, a next door neighbour and so on. If we extend this network to include people who potentially share the same interests as the child in question (who love the same pop group, support the same football team, like the same kinds of pets etc.) then we can begin to see that many perspectives on the child are available if only we look widely enough.

Circles of Relationships

Figure One takes a wider look at these relationships. In this model relationships are seen as being at four different levels of closeness to the person at the centre of the concentric circles.

(This account is based on the work of Jack Pearpoint, Marsha Forest and Judith Snow. For a personal essay on the philosophy of circles, see -Snow 1994)

Circle One – The Circle of Intimacy

This is made up of those who are our ”ANCHORS” the people in this circle are those who are closest to us, the people whom we could not imagine living without. They will typically be members of our immediate family but not invariably so. Younger children may include their pets as members of circle one, especially if they talk and tell secrets to them.

Circle Two – The Circle of Friendship

This is made up of those who are our “ALLIES”. The second circle contains people who are friends or close relatives but who did not quite make it into circle one. These are people we would confide in and would expect to be on our side and stand up for us in a difficult time. These people are key to our psychological life support systems and if our circle two is sparsely populated we are prone to feelings of isolation, anger and depression.

Circle Three – The Circle of Participation

This is made up of our “ASSOCIATES”. The third circle lists the people we are involved with because we see them regularly in school classes, at clubs, organisations, in church and so on. These are the people an individual “hangs around” with; they come and go and may not always be people we see very often. Circle Three is typically the circle with the largest number of individuals within it. Some individuals who later figure in Circles One and Two will often have been encountered first within Circle Three. “We met at Dance Class and were married six months later” – is a common progression of relationships in Western society in the twentieth century. Circle Three is the seed bed for close future relationships and, as we will go on to describe in later chapters, it is the members of Circle Three that provide us with the key participants in a ‘circle of friends’.

Circle Four – The Circle of Exchange

This is made up of people who are “PAID” to be in our lives. Doctors, teachers, dentists, social workers, therapists, hairdressers, car mechanics and the like make up the numbers here. They are paid by us or our caregivers to provide us with services. Children with disabilities and those in care will tend to have higher than usual numbers of people in Circle Four and this skewing relationships is a serious barrier to their participation in ordinary community activity (see John and Connie Lyle O’Brien’s 1997 book “Members of Eachother” for a full account of what is …”lost when people with developmental disabilities grow up excluded from the web of memberships and connections that define community life, their social universe limited to the orbit of their family and the sphere of specialised services” (page 1). Notice that there is a taboo in Western society that discourages the people who make up this circle from moving any closer in relationship to the person at the centre. Sometimes known as maintaining “professional distance”, the result is that the individuals in this circle are unlikely to become close friends or allies of the focus person. The individuals in this circle also have their own agenda as far as the focus person is concerned and it may not always be the agenda the focus person would have chosen. Appointment times, caseload management, agency policies, resource availability and promotion prospects set the terms of the relationship with the focus person.

In Chapter Three we will describe how this picture of relationship circles can be used in the school situation to begin the process of forming a ‘circle of friends’.

Circles of Support are for Life

Friends and family: past, present and future…Some of the most important people in our lives are no longer present with us on a day to day basis. They may live a long way away, rarely be seen or indeed may actually be dead. Present or absent friends and family members continue to play a critical support role in our lives and act as anchors for us as we take risks in our daily lives. They build our self esteem and are constant internal reference points. These reference points can guide or they can limit, disturb or distort our experiences. Past experience of abuse, loss, separation or rejection may haunt our waking lives and unconscious fears. We may rerun old videos of past relationships in which key people cross in front of our internal eyes and powerful emotions are played out. Still images in sepia, grainy icons of the past may be current reference points within our circle of living and dead supporters and friends.
Our circles of support change over time. Today they may appear extremely full while tomorrow we can feel terribly alone and exposed, experiencing loss, isolation, anxieties or depression.

This perspective although focused primarily on children provides lessons for us all. We all need friends, allies, and associates to surround and support us through life. Our families whilst important will never be entirely sufficient if we are to reach out and extend our human potential and experience.

Aims of this Book

  1. To provide a highly accessible resource that is both practical and meaningful
  2. For users of this resource to be able to set up Circles of Friends feeling they have sufficient support and guidance
  3. To inspire and encourage interest in creative approaches to the involvement of children in the inclusion of vulnerable and challenging peers
  4. To provide tool that can reverse pressures to exclude and segregate an individual from their school community
  5. To strengthen the processes which help create and maintain school communities of acceptance to which children truly belong. All of them.

What Differences will it make?

We hope and dream that the successful use of this resource will lead to the following:

  • Disabled and challenging pupils will be successfully included in mainstream schools
  • Head, teachers, SENCOs, parents and support assistants will feel they have an approach which actually works; increasing friendship opportunities, helping individuals to belong and which decreases behaviour difficulties
  • Pupils will feel valued and involved in the support of other pupils that they know are finding school life difficult. They will have become allies in the support of their peers and will feel safer as a result knowing that they too one day will need such support in their own lives.
  • Other creative developments in peer counselling, mentoring, mediation and circle time
  • Deeper insight and understanding of disability issues, emotional and behavioural needs and the possibilities of change
  • Greater understanding of the need for peer support and teaming by teachers and other professionals
  • Reflection and discussion on the themes of inclusion, circles of support for adults, peer involvement and friendship.

Contact Us

Colin Newton

0115 955 6045

Doug Newton

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