by Sue Roffey
There are some students who will achieve whatever the climate of the classroom. These fortunate individuals are likely to have supportive families who establish clear boundaries with high, appropriate expectations whilst offering unconditional love (Newland, 2014). These students will not be in the throes of family breakdown nor experiencing other major life changes. They will not be struggling with poverty, violence, bullying, racism, homophobia, mental or physical health difficulties nor experiencing any of the other adversities that life often presents. These students will have predominantly positive emotions about themselves and their worlds that enable them to be curious, engaged and confident.
All teachers, however, will be able to identify students who are dealing one or more of the issues listed above. Some have the personal and environmental factors that help them to cope (Werner, 2004) while others have fewer resources at their disposal. There will also be young people flying under the radar – who live within a less than favourable environment for their wellbeing but no-one at school knows what is happening for them and are unaware of the multiple factors that may be impinging on their engagement, learning, behaviour and social interactions.
Everyone has a need for social and emotional wellbeing and we do not necessarily know which students are struggling. In a supportive learning environment everyone takes responsibility for the emotional climate. This means that wellbeing programs need to be universal. Interventions aimed at a targeted population may not result in sustainable change. For example, where students lacking social skills are removed from the class for special training this may lead to a higher level of skill in those individuals but others still have the same perceptions: consequently when these students are re-integrated, previous behaviours are expected and reinforced (Frederickson, 1991).
Social and Emotional Learning
In 1996 the Delors Report for UNESCO outlined four pillars for learning in the 21st century. These are learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together. The first two are usually the focus of the formal curriculum but the second two are beginning to have more traction in education. Without pro-active intervention, the default position may be negative and the classroom becomes a toxic environment where bullying and other negative behaviours thrive. There is also increasing evidence that SEL impacts positively not only on social behaviours but also on engagement and academic outcomes (Durlak et al, 2011). Schools need to think through what is on offer for learning about the self and relationships, and ensure this takes place in a safe and supportive setting. As there has been some justifiable critique of SEL as ‘therapeutic education’ (Ecclestone & Hayes, 2008), the processes that underpin this learning need as much attention as the content.
The Circle Solutions philosophy (Roffey, 2014) addresses this within a set of principles that provide a foundation for both a supportive classroom and an optimal pedagogy for SEL. Given the acronym ASPIRE, these principles are agency, safety, positivity, inclusion, respect and equality. This is a brief explanation of what this means in practice.
Agency. Learning in school is often didactic – teachers delivering information to students who are told what to do and how to do it. Giving students agency is more in line with socratic learning – questions and discussion that lead to critical thinking and the development of ideas.
When students have agency they make decisions on behalf of themselves. This is about choice, but also about taking responsibility. Where students decide on class values and ground rules, bullying is less likely to happen because everyone has thought about how we all want to feel here. A focus on group work and collaboration means the whole class takes responsibility for the emotional climate for learning. It is not up to one or two people but everyone. When teachers give students agency this helps them identify different options, reflect on these and then decide for themselves. This enables them to choose how to act and then take responsibility for the choices they make, including accepting consequences. It is learning from the inside out about how to be and how to live together well – not control from the outside in (Roffey, 2011).
Safety is embedded in the Circle pedagogy in several ways. Issues are addressed but never incidents, so students learn ways to handle experiences objectively rather than subjectively. Issues are addressed in an impersonal, indirect way – perhaps using the third person rather than the first. Although participants often choose to give a glimpse of their own narratives, the Circle is structured to inhibit personal disclosure. This addresses some of the criticisms that have been levelled at SEL. Many students are anxious about making a mistake or being put on the spot. When you are with a partner or small group it is much easier to experiment, take risks and present shared ideas. This promotes confidence. It is also easier to make a stand or stick up for someone if this is a group effort. Cooperative learning is valuable across the curriculum but especially so in SEL (Johnson & Johnson, nd). Some students may have learnt that others are unreliable. They may need to build up trust slowly over time both with fellow students and with teachers. Discussing what trust means, looks like and feels like is a way of exploring how to establish an environment where people can feel safe in trusting each other.
The right to silence. Some students do not have the initial confidence to speak up in a public forum and a class or Circle is not a safe place if they feel under pressure to do so. In Circles they are given the choice to ‘pass’ Evidence suggests that students will speak when they feel safe, have confidence and believe they have something worthwhile to say.
Respect. Respect can be defined as being accepted, listened to, and not being judged. It also means simply being acknowledged. One of the Circle guidelines is ‘when you are speaking everyone will listen because what you have to say is important. This means listening to others when it is their turn’. Listening to what others have to say can only happen when there are opportunities to speak. Young people who have been silenced or have little control in their lives might shout to be heard. Often we shut these voices down as disruptive. The students who get listened to are the ‘good kids’ who get onto student representative councils. One way of addressing this is to disband established groups by mixing people up so they get to talk – and listen to – those outside their usual social circles. In Circles ‘pair shares’ are intended to seek commonalities and ‘paired interviews’ to discover another’s perspectives.
Students of all ages relish opportunities to reflect on and discuss things that concern them: not personal incidents but issues that touch on their lives such as friendship and feelings. There are many resources to support such conversations in safe and fun ways in Circles using photographs, stories, statements, games and role-plays.
Positivity. The burgeoning knowledge in neuropsychology promotes the value of an optimistic perspective, relational values such as kindness and gratitude (Lyubomirsky, 2007; Piliavin, 2003) and the connection between feelings and learning. It makes sense on many levels to promote the positive. Many young people do not think of themselves well: even those from supportive backgrounds may feel they do not meet expectations. Others may perceive classmates negatively and not be able to acknowledge the strengths they do have. Students need to tune into their own and others’ strengths and be able to use these in their relationships and in their learning.
A solution focus. We live in a problem-saturated culture. Although there are challenges to be overcome, it might be better to start with a solution rather than the problem. When people focus on ways to get rid of something they don’t like (such as bullying) rather than what needs to happen instead (inclusion, friendship, support) they spend too much energy on the problem itself. A solution focus envisages where you want to go and what you want to happen.
Positive Emotions. Positive emotions not only enable students to focus but they also facilitate creativity and problem solving. (Fredrickson, 2009) Positive emotions include a sense of belonging, feeling valued, safe, comfortable, cared for, respected and loved. Positive emotions are also experienced in moments of exuberance, excitement and shared humour. Laughter releases oxytocin into our bodies – this promotes connectedness and resilience. Promoting shared humour in Circle sessions is one of the main reasons students love them. They also respond positively to the playfulness that is embedded in many of the activities (Hromek & Roffey, 2009).
The Circle pedagogy uses energetic games to mix everyone up. This happens several times in a session. The expectation is that everyone will work with everyone else. This breaks up cliques, helps people get to know each other and facilitates new perspectives, This happens most actively when pairs are looking for things they have in common. Everything in Circles happens in interaction with others, in pairs, small groups or in whole group activities.
Belonging and resilience: Feeling you belong is one of the most important factors in resilience and wellbeing (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). We know what it feels like to come into a place where we are warmly welcomed and some of us know what it feels like when the opposite happens.
Connectedness in school matters (Blum, 2005): It is the most vulnerable children in our communities who are most to find themselves on the margins. Such students may not be compliant, courteous or conform. They may be aggressive, distracted and insolent. It can be difficult to like young people who behave in ways that are unacceptable in school. High expectations for behaviour are appropriate but rejecting poor behaviour is different from rejecting the student. Adults need to convey the message to all students, but especially those who struggle: ‘you are important, we want you here, it is not the same without you’.
Equality / Democracy: In a supportive classroom the teacher uses their authority to empower students rather than control them (McCashen, 2005). Equality is embedded in the Circle pedagogy, where participants and the facilitator sit in a Circle together to promote equality – and everyone participates in all the activities, adults and students alike. The quality of facilitation makes all the difference to both long and short-term outcomes for SEL (McCarthy & Roffey, 2013). In a school where everyone has an authentic voice this promotes equality as well as responsibility towards what is in everyone’s best interests, not just an elite few. Alongside the important value of freedom is the equally important value of responsibility. One person’s freedom to play loud music at 4am impacts on the freedom of others to sleep. Working out what is fair can be complex but we need our young people to learn how to negotiate and resolve conflict. Unless students experience democracy in school they are unlikely to realise what it means in practice at the socio-political level when they are old enough to vote.
We are social beings; our identity and worldviews are constructed in our interactions with others (Habermas, 1990). The emotions we feel, manage and respond to are situated within a social context. Relationships and feelings matter and are the lynchpin of a supportive environment for learning. When a school, is run on the basis of the principles above this builds an emotional and relational climate where both teacher and student wellbeing are likely to be enhanced (Roffey, 2012). When wellbeing becomes core school business there will be greater student engagement with learning and therefore increased academic outcomes, more pro-social behaviour and higher levels of resilience.
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Associate Professor Sue Roffey is an adjunct professor in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia. She is a psychologist, academic, author and creator of the Circle Solutions framework for social and emotional learning. email@example.com