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Integrating Circles Into School Communities

Updated: Apr 28



By emily warren


The more difficult the situation is, the more critical it is to have high fidelity implementation. High fidelity implementation does not happen quickly. Without experience and practice there is a risk of failure in using circles for the most challenging situations.

—Kay Pranis, 2018


After his introduction in 2011 to Peacemaking Circles through the Center for Ethical Leadership, Director of Intercultural Affairs Jabali Stewart understood deeply the power of Peacemaking Circles to transform communities. He knew that transformation needed to be intentional and deliberate; it takes time—there is no quick fix. And so, intentional and deliberate he has been over these last eight years, and we have been building a strong foundation of circle processes in our community that will serve and sustain us in the long run.


Simultaneously, “Restorative Justice” has emerged on the national scene, both in the legal system and in schools, as a possible solution to the many instances of conflict and harm. As a part of those Restorative Practices, Conflict (or Repairing Harm) Circles were identified as a way to move from punitive responses to restorative responses. There has been an increase in demand for support, materials, and instruction on how to integrate these practices into a school community. Unfortunately, it is very challenging to implement these types of circles into a community without substantive support; these circles are part of a larger frame of circles that need to be in place to equip a community with the skills, language, practices, and vision to support the success of conflict and harm circles.


Kay Pranis, a Circle Keeper who got her start in Restorative Circles in the Minnesota Department of Corrections in 1994 and has been practicing Circle since, explains this idea through the use of a pyramid.


The first tier, creating a positive school culture, requires that all students and all adults sit together in a circle on a regular basis. This regular practice gives everyone in the community the skills to practice a different kind of communication and explore how we can live well together. Community members then have access to these skills all of the time, all day long! It helps to create a healthy community. The second tier works on situations where there has been a minor disruption in a relationship(s) that needs addressing. This could be a conflict between two students, a family loss, or a transition, like a move. The third tier supports major disruptions in a community, such as major bullying, the death of a community member, or when major harm caused. In these cases, the entire community is impacted and great care must be taken in rebuilding after such an instance.


There are roughly ten types of circles that fit into these three tiers:


Celebration Circles: Used for anything needing celebrating: goal completions, birthdays, or graduations. In an elementary school, teachers could use circles at the end of each week for appreciations and gratitude circles for birthdays. They could also use circles to celebrate student progress as writers. At a graduation, one could use a variation of a Quaker Circle to honor the time that students have spent at the school.


Learning Circles: Used to learn and understand a new thing and it can be used for reflection after learning. One could use learning circles in the classroom for content and also as a way to train new circle keepers.


Community-Building Circles: Used to build community and strengthen relationships; they are group-focused and on-going. In schools, teachers could use these in their morning meetings or as a part of Human Relations. Schools could also use this circle for new faculty/staff onboarding. Elements of this circle could also be used in the administrative or departmental meetings.


Dialogue Circles: Used to increase understanding on a particular topic when there are disparate points of view. As Kay Pranis says, they are meant to “change the space between.” These circles are not necessarily ongoing for a group; they are topic-based and therefore meet for a specified period of time. In schools, these circles could be used in series for parents and community members.


Transition Circles: Used for major and minor life transitions. In schools, that could be a teacher leaving for maternity leave or students moving from Middle School to High School.


Healing/Grief Circles: Used after loss, natural disasters, and/or for grief. In schools, these circles could be used to help heal after any tragedy strikes the community, ranging from a death in the community to an earthquake. A version of this could also be used for healing after racial harm has occurred.


Support Circles: Used when there is a desired pattern/behavior change, such as chronic truancy or persistent procrastination. They are ongoing, sometimes once a week. In schools, these circles can be used with with students who are struggling academically, socially, or emotionally.


Reintegration Circles: Used when a community member is returning after an extended absence, perhaps from a suspension or prolonged illness.


Decision-Making Circles: Used when a major decision needs to be made to ensure that all voices are heard. A consensus method is often used as a part of this process.


Conflict Circles: Used when there is a conflict between two (or more) community members and multiple harms have occurred.


Sentencing Circles: Used when a major harm has occurred and the community decides the consequences. These circles are often accompanied by Support and Healing Circles. Sometimes these circles are called Repairing Harm or Peer Justice Circles.


Generally speaking, Celebration, Learning, and Community Building are in Tier One; Dialogue, Transition, Healing/Grief, and Support are Tier Two; and Reintegration, Decision-Making, Conflict, and Sentencing are Tier Three. The first six circles (Celebration, Learning, Community-Building, Dialogue, Transition, Healing/Grief) are called Talking Circles. The last five circles (Support, Reintegration, Decision-Making, Conflict, Sentencing) are called Problem-Solving and usually have a plan of action that is carried out during and after the Circle Process.


There is the temptation to move into Tier 3 right off the bat, but it is most useful to build from the ground up. Often, it takes many years to building capacity to hold even the first four types of circles. It is only when faculty, staff, students, and families are able to have demonstrated the ability to sit in circle and understand the basic Circle principles that schools should move to more complex and challenging circles. Ultimately, Circles are meant to help us move in the direction of our best selves and once we understand that deeply through practice, we can come into a more challenging circle with a more open mind and heart to work through miscommunication, conflict, or harm. For schools the jump into these higher intensity circles without deliberate practice and the real investment of time and energy, there is a much higher likelihood of failure. Schools should continue to experiment with circles and they will, of course, stumble and make mistakes. But the work put in in the early years will setting a strong foundation for our success. We will continue to put in the work to build capacity towards these higher fidelity circles. It is really the only way forward.


*The work referenced here is largely from the body of work from the Tagish/Tlingit tribes and passed on through Kay Pranis and Jabali Stewart.



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