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.
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.
WHAT IF THE CIRCLE OF FRIENDS APPROACH DOES NOT WORK?
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.