George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Wellness

Building Community With Restorative Circles

A technique for proactively building the skills and relationships students will need when challenges arise.

©iStock/Steve Debenport

Our students come to school with many issues on their minds and in their hearts. As educators, we can help them process their thoughts and feelings so they can better handle their situations and be more present in class.

Restorative circles are a useful practice to do just that. While frequently used to replace punitive forms of discipline, restorative circles are equally important in proactively building the relationships and skills students need to support one another and collectively address the challenges they face. 

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

Restorative circles are most effective when they’re an integral part of school culture. After all, you can’t “restore” a community that you haven’t built or sustained.

7 Steps for Facilitating Meaningful Circles

1. Cocreate a safe, supportive space: Circles work best if teachers invest time up front to build relationships, skills, and practices to draw on throughout the school year—especially if the going gets tough.

Early in the process, teachers and students together explore values—like empathy, patience, kindness, courage, and open-mindedness—that need to be respected for people to be willing to share openly and honestly in circle. They also determine best ways of working together (circle practices). These include honoring the talking piece, which goes around the circle as an invitation to share while everyone else listens (participants may pass if they don’t wish to talk). People are encouraged to speak and listen from the heart. And what is shared in circle, stays in circle, though educators should let students know at the outset that we are mandated by law to report when a student threatens to harm themselves or others, or when students divulge abuse.

2. Be prepared: Make sure that you, the facilitator, are well rested, calm, and focused.

To hold the circle space effectively, it’s important to be fully present and able to sit with other people’s stories and feelings as well as your own. Center yourself. If you’re exploring sensitive issues that may require follow up, consider alerting support staff.

3. Plan ahead: Decide together on a topic or theme that sustains students’ interest.

Find a relevant opening ceremony to open the circle space, such as a poem, quote, or piece of music. A mindfulness activity can also be used to bring students into the space after a particularly stressful class or noisy hallway experience.

Look for information to ground the conversation, and develop questions and prompts to invite student perspectives into the circle. 

Keep in mind that the bigger the circle, the more time you’ll need for the talking piece to go around. Think about how things might unfold and be ready to adapt to what comes up. 

Make sure to leave time for a closing ceremony, giving students a chance to transition into spaces that may be less conducive to being vulnerable. A closing ceremony can be a commitment to safeguarding the stories shared in circle, or a breathing exercise in which we provide students with prompts and time to put themselves back together again.

4. Invite student experiences into the space: Encourage students to connect with the circle content by sharing stories from their own lives.

Include storytelling rounds by asking students to talk about “a person in your life who…” or “a time when….” Share authentically of yourself. This gives others permission to do the same. Model good listening as the talking piece goes around the circle. Be fully present as others speak. Remind everyone that listening is the key ingredient in circles. True listening can create the kind of welcoming space that encourages even the quietest voices to speak.

5. Acknowledge, paraphrase, summarize, and practice empathy: Listen closely to what students share so that you can build on their experiences.

When the talking piece comes back to you, touch on what you felt, noticed, or heard. If you sense that there’s more than surfaced in the first round, send the talking piece around a second or third time, asking students for their connections, reflections, or additions. 

If challenging or painful issues come up, model agreed-upon circle practices for students to follow. Listening mindfully and being present with other people’s ordeals and hardships can create supportive, healing experiences that strengthen community connections and build empathy.

If needed, let students know you’re available to check in with them later in the day or week. You might also have them consider speaking with other supportive adults or students to find solace if they’re troubled.

6. Explore what it means to be an effective ally: Beyond creating a supportive listening environment, ask what else, if anything, students need from you and from each other.

Explore how to be better allies in circle so that students know they don’t need to face their challenges alone. Invite them to talk about a person in their lives who is a good friend or ally, or a person they’d like to be a better friend or ally. Discuss the qualities these people have (or lack) and how they make us feel. Invite students to talk about a time they’ve been a good friend or ally themselves, and what gets in the way of being our best selves with one another.

7. Zoom out to promote understanding on the systems level: Explore whether there are larger systemic forces that underlie the challenges students have touched on (such as racism, sexism, or lack of access to resources). Introduce information, stories, and voices that might shed light on how these systems operate. Look for examples of people who took action to interrupt these and other oppressive systems.

Invite students to connect to this information by sharing their thoughts, feelings, and related experiences.

Studying larger, systemic forces in society can help students better understand their situation, and can be a useful starting point for students to become more active themselves. Action and activism can inspire hope, connection, and healing.