Inspiring Educator Series Using Restorative Circles to Develop Belonging and Connection

“Our students need to know that they can take risks and fail fabulously in front of others.”- Annie O’Shaughnessy

Across the country, educators are seeking tools to help students feel grounded and safe in a country where school shootings are a reality. Times are challenging and it’s not surprising that many teachers feel overwhelmed and afraid. How can educators foster connection when things feel so, well, disconnected?

Restorative Circles are a powerful way teachers can work together with their students to build community and create a safe classroom through the power of healing dialogue.  The brain can’t learn if it doesn’t feel safe.

This newsletter features Annie O’Shaughnessy, an educator who has been practicing restorative circles for over twenty years. Annie is the founder of True Nature Teaching and a part time high school English teacher at the Center for Technology, in Essex, VT. 

Infinite Horizons was fortunate to interview Annie to discuss using restorative circles as a way to develop belonging and safety in the classroom. 

Why did you decide to begin restorative circles with your students?
I believe in the importance of belonging and safety in the classroom. Our students need to know that they can take risks and fail fabulously in front of others. To me, circles make sense. Everyone has a chance to speak. Using restorative circles once a week allows students to be seen and heard. It’s a critical moment in a student’s life when they realize they are not invisible and their presence matters. So we ask ourselves, why would our students want to take risks? Do we have structures in place to support what we are asking of our students? 

How do restorative circles benefit your students?
Restorative circles create the conditions for voice, safety, and belonging. When students are more relaxed, they are more able to learn. 

Restorative circles benefit students in the following ways:

  • Increased neuroplasticity. Louis Cozolino Ph.D., wrote a book called The Social Neuroscience of Education" in it he wrote: “The interactions we have with others directly affect the receptivity of the brain to take in new experiences and learn from them.” Supported by 124 pages of reference citations, Cozolino explains how our hard-wired orientation towards needing to be part of the “tribe” to survive requires that we feel a sense of safety and belonging before we can be available for learning.

  • Constructive response to shame. When students experience shame, (i.e. being scolded in class or praised in front of a group of peers)) they may respond by avoiding, attacking, attacking oneself, or withdrawing completely. If you create a classroom where students have a strong sense of belonging, they will be motivated to do what they need in order to remain in the “community”, even if it means repairing harm. This leads to a constructive response to shame instead of one that will impede learning and damage relationships.

  • Increases empathy and understanding. Through even the most basic sharing students develop empathy, which supports relationships, especially when things get hard in a class. 

  • Supports challenging students. Circles provide the structure, ritual, and routine that regulate traumatized youth and helps build capacity in relationship for students with attachment issues.

  • Provides an important assessment tool. As each student holds the talking piece and expresses how they are doing, the teacher can listen and observe, leading to more effective supports for the students.

How can educators make time for restorative circles in their classrooms?
Using restorative circles in your classroom doesn’t have to be time consuming. By implementing a low-stakes circle once a week, you will offer your students the opportunity to be heard and foster connection in your classroom. Circles don’t need to be long and “deep” for them to have a big impact. 

Basic Circle Process: 
Begin your circle creating and setting up a centerpiece. Offer students a variety of natural items and figurines and allow them to place them in the center of the circle on a chair or table. 
Use mindfulness to settle in to the body. Ask students to take three deep breaths and keep their feet grounded on the floor.
Explain the intention of the circle. An example intention is: To build our connections with each other so we are more ready to learn.
Explain the talking piece and why you chose the one you are using. A simple idea for a talking piece would be a rock or stick.
Review your agreements. We have three agreements for our circle. It’s important that students explicitly understand each agreement, so modeling and role playing what each agreement means is critical. Our three agreements are:

  • Only the person with the talking piece can speak. 

  • Everything said is confidential. This includes positives and negatives. 

  • Show others listening/respectful body language. I explain to the students that on rough days, it can be nearly impossible to actively listen and understand each person’s words; what’s more important is that we remain in the circle with respectful body language and awareness of our experience.

Read an opening quote. Read a short quote that you feel will resonate with your students. 
First round of passing the talking piece. Check in with students.

  • Rose and Thorn: Each student shares something good that happened and something challenging the happened.  See our example template included below.

  • Weather Pattern: Students use words like stormy, rainy, and sunny to represent how they are feeling. You might like using our template included below.

Second round. Ask a simple connection question like, “If you could be a superhero, which would it be and why?”
Reading closing quote. A simple phrase like, “May all beings be held in compassion” can be used to end the circle.

Once a basic trust and familiarity within the circle is attained, try the following ideas:

Include higher stakes questions. For example,  “I invite you to share a time when people made assumptions about you that weren’t true.” 
Add a check-out round. The question, “How was this circle for you today?” can be added.  
Problem solve around school or classroom issues. Restorative circles provide a safe space where students can share concerns and ideas about ways to restore respect and compassion in the classroom when problems are arising.
Have students create their own questions. Students can lead the circle and create their own questions. You can also have a set of conversation cards handy.

The benefits of using restorative circles in the classroom are undeniable. Thanks to Annie for sharing her passion and experience with us at Infinite Horizons.

Stay tuned for more inspiration from Infinite Horizons! Don't forget to visit our website for free resources on ways to transform your classroom culturally, emotionally and academically.