Circle of Friends

By Nige Armitstead


This blog, a long one, is twinned with that on shame, a much shorter one. The shame blog seeks to underline the danger to a young person’s mental health and well being that arises from social exclusion by a school peer group. Running a Circle of Friends is a possible answer, although care is needed to ascertain that it is likely to work for a particular focus child, both in terms of their readiness to be adaptable and in terms of their peer group’s readiness for a change of heart. The notes below are based on the ‘Circle of Friends’ approach that was developed by a London Educational Psychology Team, and which I therefore used.

For ease I refer to a completely fictitious target child called ‘John’, as pictured here


STEP ONE: Discussion between the adults involved.

A teacher or class tutor wishes to address the problem of John’s social exclusion and failure to belong. The following would occur in order to take things forward:

* A formal interview between the teacher/tutor and John in order to gain an impression of the problem from John’s point of view.

* Discussion with a pastoral manager.

* A meeting between the school and John’s parents to look at this and other evidence of a social exclusion problem, and to generate possible solutions.

* Discussion of using a ‘Circle of Friends’ approach if it is appropriate.

If parents agree, then John’s own agreement must also be sought. This should be managed sensitively by either the tutor, pastoral lead, or an outside agency.


STEP TWO: Discussion with peer group.

This should be managed by either a high ranking person within the school or an outside agency, so that there is an ‘impact of celebrity’ involved. Below I refer to a ‘senior teacher’.

1] The senior teacher addresses the peer group around John, who are unaware that this is about him. John is not present. The senior teacher has come to talk with them about teamwork and in doing so emphasises that it is well known that this is a good class/tutor group full of responsible and caring people and that teamwork is a hallmark of its success.

2] The senior teacher draws three concentric circles on the whiteboard. In the inner circle he writes the word, ‘YOU’. In that circle he asks the class to suggest what sort of people are closest to them (family of various sorts) and puts those words in the circle with ‘YOU’. Then he puts in the second circle suggestions for people who are close but not so much as family. This would refer to friends, teammates, other mates, who they sit next to in class etc. Then inside the last circle the senior teacher invites suggestions for people who you see around, perhaps talk to sometimes, but they are more distant people. The postman, the shopkeeper, and suchlike ‘occasionals’ would probably go in here. The senior teacher invites the peer group to look at what has gone on the board, and emphasises how important it is to have these layers of people around you.

Circle of Friends Diagram 


3] The senior teacher says, ‘Look at this’. Then he rubs out everything in the friendship circle. Then he turns to the tutor group and says, ‘What would that feel like?’ Repeat the question if necessary. Write responses up on the side of the whiteboard. Try and sustain any sense of tension arising from the loss of friendship. And then solemnly announce to the class/tutor group that despite the quality of the people within in it, there is a member who experiences the failure to belong that is portrayed on the whiteboard. Ask who they think it is. They will probably look around and realise who is missing. If not, ask them who is missing from the room. If they still don’t know then that is a marvellous illustration to them of the problem – that John is so excluded that his absence goes unnoticed. But that never happened to me, the group I was talking with always realised who it was. Sometimes when I looked around the room I saw tears on faces.

4] The senior teacher explains to the group, ‘We are going to put this right’. The senior teacher explains that volunteers are needed to be part of a team who will help John. It will involve six weeks when they meet with him once a week for 30 to 40 minutes, and between meetings they help him to keep to the plan decided in the meeting. After six weeks, the volunteers will have finished helping. However, the class are told that hopefully everyone will be supportive whilst this is going on, and afterwards. Then it is explained that nobody should feel forced to volunteer, so everyone is given a piece of paper and asked to write their name on it. Then they should either write ‘Yes’ to say they would like to volunteer, or ‘No’ to indicate they don’t want to volunteer. Before they do so, allow questions about the process, but keep it brief. The most common question is, ‘Does John know we are doing this?’ to which I would always say that ‘yes he does, although he is worried that nobody will volunteer to help him.’

5] Collect up the paper slips. Thank the class for their time and patience. Reiterate that together, one way or another, the problem is going to be solved, and that you will let them know about the outcome of the volunteering process the following day.


STEP THREE: Forming the team of peers.

In my experience, when I and the school staff have examined the volunteering slips, there has always been a 100% volunteering rate, or close to it. The problem immediately becomes one of selecting a small team from all those who want to help. One always wonders how the situation ever became so bad. I have known paper slips come back in with not just ‘Yes’ but ‘I’m sorry John’ written on them.

The selection of the team needs care. It needs to involve students who will be strong supporters and reliable individuals. It helps if they are students who carry a lot of respect from the rest of the peer group. It helps if one of them is a likely leader of the team, although be ready to be surprised at who does, in the end, emerge in that role. It is possible to include one student as an ‘also needs help from this’ member of the team, but not more than one, and not someone who has a poor relationship with John.

At the primary school level, membership of the team will need written notification to parents who must sign an acceptance slip for their child’s involvement. John’s name does not need to go into this letter, merely a reference to their child being a member of a circle of friends around a member of the class. At the secondary level, the need for this care over permission should adhere to whatever the school’s culture of working with parents involves, but generally I was always happy to leave it that the students themselves gained permission from parents and assured the school that this had been given. It helps if some reference within the school brochure to parents sets up an expectation that peer support work is a part of the school culture.


STEP FOUR: Running the six weekly meetings

At this point, the ‘impact of celebrity’ is going to be important. The group dynamic will feed off it, so hopefully, the adult lead will be a highly respected member of the school management team, or other teacher or outside agency with celebrity status for the students. Also, the Head Teacher could make a guest appearance at the first and last meeting. A second teacher or supporting adult is a good idea.

1a] At the first meeting, start by going around the group and ask each member of the group to say something that they like about John. Prompt if necessary but don’t put words into anybody’s mouth. It may help to have some preparation time with the group before John joins it, and thus they can be warned of the exercise.

1b] At all subsequent meetings start by undertaking a similar round the table comment process, but this time it is about how well the plan from the previous meeting(s) has gone during the intervening week. Ask students to deliberately point out successes. The time for problem handling will come shortly afterwards.

2] When this has happened, summarise for John, and draw out as positive a message as can be managed. Ask him what he thinks, but be ready to move on if John finds it hard to articulate a response. Cover for this with something like, ‘I think John is pretty pleased, but he is not sure how to say it.’

3a] At the first meeting the first tentative raising of problem issues needs to be managed with care. Clarify that the team need one target change of circumstance only to begin with. Take the lead on this, and suggest in gentle and kindly terms what seems to be the issue for John, having previously interviewed him to ascertain what this would be. Invite the group to look for some small but helpful things that John could do in order that the situation improves. Form a plan of action from this. Clarify that whilst this will set John a task, it is the team’s job to support him by prompting him, helping him if things go wrong, and standing alongside him if other students are making things difficult for him. Agree target times, such as break or lunchtime, and agree which members of the group will have a particular role in supporting John on which times and days. This should involve two or three peers at a time. Unless something quite sensitive is involved, encourage that the team share the process with other members of the tutor group and foster loyalty to supporting John more broadly.

3b] At all subsequent meetings ask the group, ‘Were there any incidents where things didn’t go so well.’ If there are, then invite the student concerned to outline what happened. Help the student to stick with a narrative, and not to make judgements of John. Then two questions follow:

* In what way did the team need to help John more or differently in this situation?

* What might we ask John to do differently so that we can help him more.

4] By this means draw up a first or refreshed action plan for the following week. Clarify it with John with regard to his tasks. Clarify with the peer group how they are going to support John. When everybody is clear the group can go. John should leave with the others, and the hope is that rapport built within the meeting carries on as a companionship between him and the other students as they leave the room. Find another occasion, perhaps the next day, to talk with John individually to ensure things are clear in his mind, and he is taking the task(s) seriously.

5] At the final meeting induce a mood of celebration. For example, have some cakes and drinks, perhaps furnished by parents of the team members, perhaps provided by John’s parents etc. Ask students to indicate in turns what they have felt about being a member of the team, and what they can point at as an example of its success. Having prepared it with him beforehand, ask John to give a vote of thanks to the team, which can include some comments on how helpful he has found it. If all has gone well, as prepared, John should comment on how different and better his life at school seems now.

Credit: Val Versa on Unsplash 


STEP FIVE: Debriefing

There are a number of people and groups that need a debriefing. This involves verifying that the process has been successful, and celebrating this as far as is appropriate. The following are possibilities:

* Feedback to the class or tutor group that things went well, and that it would be good to sustain the success of the support team by being an inclusive group for John.

* Talk the process, its outcomes, and what has changed for him through with John. Try and help him with a notion of how he himself may have changed as a person, and how this can continue to his advantage.

* Debrief with the parents.

* Debrief as a staff team in order to make a record of what worked well or less well for perusal by future staff teams operating a Circle of Friends.

* Inform all John’s class teachers of what may be helpful to look out for and prompt into place with his peer group.

* Inform the whole school staff that a Circle of Friends approach has been successful with one of the students, to the extent that it has, in order to encourage a positive view of its possibilities with other teachers.


Of course, things can go wrong. That is true of anything like this. In each case, it will need the intelligent assessment and solution finding of the teachers involved. Seeking on this blog to anticipate every way in which a problem could arise would be an exhausting process. There are resources which cover the Circle of Friends approach in far more detail, and these can be found on the internet or in bookshops with good sections on education. There are two things to say here: (a) the point at which to avoid a catastrophe is right at the beginning when staff assess whether the focus child is amenable to adapting his (her) approach and whether the peer group are ready to have a change of heart towards the focus child: don’t take risks, especially if the Circle of Friends approach is new to the school; and (b) if there is a risk that emotional harm has been caused by the process to the focus child, or any of the team of peers, then use restorative approaches of talking about the harm and making amends.

But it usually does work, and the better school circumstance which arises for the focus child can be quite an amazing change for him (her) and his (her) family.

Credit: Max Pixel 







By Nige Armitstead

In this blog, part 1 of a twin blog we will publish next week ‘Circle of Friends’, Nige describes how schools can be catalysts for Shame, the effects shame has on young people and what we as educators can do to help our students.

Read time: 5 mins


A well-known philosopher said of humans, “…their eye glides over the surface of things and sees ‘forms’”.  The suggestion is that we develop ideas that are heuristics, that is convenient shortcuts for looking at the world.  Then we remake them into ‘truth’ without adequate justification. What I have to say below about shame is certainly of that order, following the beautifully conceived affect theory of Sylvan Tomkins, but perhaps little more than a heuristic for thinking of the way we experience setbacks and loss.  Do bear this in mind, and read on, whilst also trying to figure out without Googling who the philosopher was…

A colleague once described schools as being mental health institutions.  Let’s see…

Anecdote 1:  On her first day at secondary school my daughter briefly waved at her older brother in morning assembly.  At the front stood Mr. B, awaiting his chance to show students that he was the main man. “Oi, you…” at my daughter.  “Stand up.” She stood up. “In assembly, you face the front and you wait in silence!”  All this shouted with increasing and finally ear-splitting volume.  She felt crushed.

Anecdote 2:  A flagship secondary school, no longer requiring an on-site caretaker, had appropriated his bungalow as a specialist unit for children with learning difficulties, ‘The SEN building’,  although more usually referred to as ‘The Bungalow’. One day a student came reluctantly to see me therein. Explaining his discomfort, he told me of the commonly held view: “Students only come here because they’ve got nothing upstairs”.  How crushing for those students.

Anecdote 3:  Recently a friend of mine was telling me of her twelve-year-old son, a beautiful boy with an ethereal spirit but little by way of the social hooks for developing ‘schoolmates’.  The students seem to vary between indifference and hostility towards him. He has consequently found school distressing and demoralising. Recently another boy came up and started chatting with him.  He thought that at last things were changing in his favor as the boy engaged him in friendly conversation. Then the boy suddenly broke off what he was saying and declared, “Anyway, that was a dare that I had to come and speak to you.”  He turned his back and walked off to another group of grinning and laughing students. My friend’s son felt crushed.

The crushing element of these entirely true stories is shame.

Shame is the body affect of submission when something about oneself is about to be or has been lost: a hope; some self-respect; a limb; one’s life.  Perhaps the shame affect is an evolved body strategy for misleading the tiger that has cornered its intended prey in the jungle. The affect involves averting one’s eyes and seeming small:  the muscle tone goes and the body becomes limp. Literally, the head is hung in shame. The affect convulses the mind with the grief and turmoil of loss. We try our hardest to avoid shame. Continual overwhelming shame leads to serious mental health and well-being problems.   That is the danger of shame in schools.


Shame is likely when: (a) authority over a student is asserted as humiliation of them;  (b) a student’s difficulty with learning becomes a social cost, possibly even a source of ridicule, and; (c) a student is unable to find a way of belonging within a friendship group.  The first of these two sources of shame are more teacher orientated and easily prevented by (a) confronting adults who humiliate students and (b) working with the self-esteem issues of students who need help to learn.   However, the darker workings of the social environment within a school and its failures of inclusion may be difficult to see and less obviously amenable to teacher lead strategies.

In 1901 Charles Horton Cooley, an American sociologist formulated a theory which is generally referred to as ‘The Looking Glass Self’.  At the heart of who we think we are in our ‘self’, that notion that we have of what we are like. Cooley’s suggestion was that we only see our ‘self’ in other people’s reactions to us, as though they are a mirror.  You are funny because other people laugh when you speak. You are worthwhile because other people show you respect. But what are you if other people offer you nothing but a cold shoulder?

In my view failure to belong is the biggest and most devastating cause of shame.  That schools are places where this can happen to some children and young people; subjection to the shame of social indifference and perhaps even cruelty, this most certainly does make them places of potentially crushing impact on a young person’s mental health and well being.  Why would anyone keep returning to such a jungle to confront such a tiger on a daily basis?

So here are five actions for teachers to take:

1]    Educate students about the self: the collection of impressions they have formed of who they are and what they are like.  Discuss how important the esteem is in which they hold their self. Develop a theme that this relies heavily on having friends, in order to get a positive reflection of what their self is like.

2]    Talk with students about the ways in which harm is caused by one person or people to another person.  Develop the theme that a person’s inclusion in a community is their best protection from harm. This is because their friends, in reflecting a positive idea of what their self is like, will help them have the confidence and resilience to rise to challenges and handle difficult situations.

3]    Whenever an issue has arisen between students, examine it with them for the harm generated.  Look carefully for the way in which a part of somebody’s self (and therefore the esteem in which they hold it) has been damaged.  Talk about how they can be helped to recover; how amends can be made. This is essentially the workings of ‘Restorative Justice’, as formulated and written about by Marge Thorsborn.  (Go to

4]    Develop the ethic that friendship is a responsibility which we have towards each other.  Liking is an essential way for one person to support another. Just because another person is not easy to like, or is not a naturally fluent social companion, is not a good enough reason to renege on that responsibility. The business of liking other people and offering them friendliness is a required undertaking.  It is the foundation stone of compassion, that greater good which, if we could all master it, would serve humanity well. Teach this.

5]    Lead a ‘circle of friends’ around a child or young person for whom belonging has failed.  After all, that student needs the school to work extremely hard to uphold and honor its guardianship of his or her mental health and well being.

That is the jumping off point for the twin blog to this one, namely “Circle of Friends”.  I hope these thoughts about shame and its destructive power have been helpful to consider, and I urge all teachers to be experts in the workings of shame, and in the skills needed to divest situations of their shame impact on individual students.

As for that philosopher, it was of course Neitzsche!


Part 2 ‘Circle of Friends’ offers insight into how educators can tackle shame and social exclusion through a circle of friends approach. We will post this blog next week and this will be the first in a short series of blogs centred on mental health