Peers can be extremely important when it comes to tackling issues around bullying and behaviour.
Children and young people may listen to others of their own age when they will turn down the interventions of adults. Other children and young people are also able to recognise more closely the issues that someone being bullied is facing and how, in this context, they might be addressed.
How can teachers and support assistants make the most of the power of the peer group?
There are different solutions. However, ‘Circle of Friends’ is one method that has been used successfully to engage pupils in helping each other to overcome the difficulties they are facing.
The Circle of Friends is a mutual support group. The group is intended to support the pupil in:
- increasing acceptance in the school community
- increasing the child’s contribution to the school community
- enhancing social cohesion.
Children cannot be forced to be friends with one another but, by involving them together in a process of problem solving and helping them to understand why another child behaves in the way that they do, progress can be made. The Circle of Friends becomes like a support network in a structured setting. It is an environment that can be particularly beneficial for children with autism.
Creating a Circle of Friends includes the following stages.
1. Discussion with parents
The first step is to discuss the possibility with parents. You will need to have their consent to proceed. You will also need to involve the child at some point, although you should speak initially to the parents. Reactions can include some anxiety and possibly resistance. In some cases, children can be over-optimistic about what the results will be.
The dialogue with parents should continue during the process of identifying the Circle of Friends and administering it. It is usual to let parents know who the actual Circle includes once you have decided.
Some parents can be concerned about the sharing of information. It is not essential to the working of the Circle that the diagnosis is shared. Others in the class will be aware of the behaviour they see on a regular basis and need only be made aware that these symptoms sometimes cannot be avoided.
2. Discussion with staff and other professionals
People in the school should be kept informed of the progress of the Circle. The SENCO should clarify and ensure agreement with senior leadership for this approach to be used. Awareness of the initiative means that other staff who are in contact with the child can report back on any changes that they note and might also feed in useful information to help its progress.
If any external support is already in place with the child, those involved should also be consulted. If there are other interventions that are taking place, you might want to wait until these have concluded or check with those organising them that the Circle of Friends is not prejudicial. It can usually work very effectively alongside other initiatives but this should be checked before implementation.
3. Discussion in class
The next stage is to discuss the Circle with the class and to select the Circle members. This should be done without the focus child being present. During this meeting, you will explain the purpose of the Circle of Friends and ask for volunteers.
You should select a mixed group from the class if possible. It should include both girls and boys ideally and a range of abilities. Be clear at the outset about the time commitment needed (around 20 to 30 minutes a week for 6-8 weeks) and the fact that children can withdraw from being in the Circle at any time.
However, you should also emphasise the responsibilities that children who decide to volunteer have in helping the child to address his or her problems. If there are more children who want to volunteer, you can have a reserve list. This can be particularly important as you have informed children that they can withdraw from the group. Note, however, that participation is not casual and does require a commitment.
4. The initial meeting
This is a crucial time for the success of the project.
The meeting format should follow that indicated in the associated toolkit. Emphasis is on establishing relationships between the focus child and the members of the Circle. It is important that you have clear boundaries for the meeting.
5. Follow on meetings
Following the initial meeting, there should be a meeting every week for approximately 20 to 30 minutes. These should run for around 6-8 weeks depending on their success and the needs of the child.
It is important that meetings are held in a place where they will not be interrupted and at a time convenient to the Circle members. If possible, it is beneficial to be able to stick to the same time and place each week.
Consistency is important and the member of staff running the meeting should be the same each week. They should keep in touch with parents to inform them of the progress of the meetings and to provide feedback.
Subsequent meetings should begin with a warm-up activity that the children can enjoy together. There should be opportunity to reflect on the previous week and particularly any good news that has come out of it.
Volunteers must be kept motivated and there needs to be recognition of their efforts.
At the end of the meeting, there should be a review of the targets and a reflection on the overall progress of the Circle of Friends.
At the end of the series of meetings, you might ask parents to complete a form to identify any improvements or differences they have seen in their child during the course of the project.
6. The conclusion
The Circle of Friends is not designed to continue indefinitely. Where an extension would seem to be beneficial, then this needs to be discussed with the group and parents.
During the course of the project, it is important to note the beneficial impact it can have on the children who volunteer too. They also get time to reflect on their behaviour and express feelings about different aspects of school life.
At all times, issues need to be handled sensitively and without judgement. The group must remain positive and the importance of relationships should be emphasised. Adults will need to take a greater role if the group begins to become negative.
Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in this article into practice: