teacher with hand on child's shoulder - restorative circle time

How Restorative Circles Saved My School Year (plus 8 tips to make them work for you)

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, our administrative team gave a quick introduction to restorative practices during our back to school PD sessions, and then invited us to sign up for a full-day PD on restorative circles and other practices. It was optional, but I was intrigued.

I work in a school where parent involvement in minimal, kids often don’t have the resources they need to be successful, and some of them have older siblings and parents who are incarcerated.

They’ve got a LOT going on at home, and sometimes they don’t have conflict resolution skills. Worse yet, many of them don’t have healthy, functioning families. They need community.

After getting the full training, I decided to jump in and implement restorative circles, some quick check-ins, and new brain breaks in my classroom. While I dabbled in other restorative practices, the circles STUCK and became a fixture of each week.

Below is everything I learned about having restorative circles in an elementary school classroom. I’m pretty sure many of these principles will hold no matter your grade level.

What is a restorative circle?

Restorative circles are just kids sitting in a circle, being strategically guided through conversations in a way that supports social emotional learning and fosters community. Sometimes restorative circles are used for conflict resolution.

Certain elements of restorative circles have roots in ancient and indigenous practices. Cool, huh?

What are the benefits of restorative circles?

A restorative circle is a way to build community in your classroom. Here are some other benefits of restorative circles:

  • Kids learn to listen with empathy.
  • Students grow in confidence as they practice speaking from the heart.
  • Relational problems are “nipped in the bud” before they get out of control.
  • It’s a dedicated, protected time to practice social-emotional learning in the classroom.
  • Students have time to process their feelings, which reduces the number of in-class meltdowns. Students who are comfortable and at peace with themselves and their classmates learn better the rest of the school day.
  • Circles can be adapted for many purposes. Proactive circles can be thought of as “classroom maintenance,” because you’re maintaining friendships and behavioral expectations. When used reactively, circles can offer decision making, conflict resolution, and support.
elementary school restorative circle with smiling kids

How do you start a restorative circle in your class?

If you’re wanting to start a restorative circle because of a conflict in your class, you’ll follow a different procedure than if you’re simply doing a proactive daily or weekly circle.

For larger conflicts, particularly with older students, I recommend watching this video. You’ll learn about individual conferencing with students beforehand, how to determine the participants, and tips for facilitating and follow-up.

However, most of us are trying to create a restorative circle habit in our classrooms. We want to be proactive, so we limit the number of events that require a response or reaction.

To create a restorative circle routine in your own class, look through the tips in the following section. Make sure you do LOTS of planning so that you’ll be successful.

Are you curious about flexible seating, but afraid your behavior management will fall apart? Check out these practical tips from my own classroom.

Tips to Make Restorative Circles Successful In Your Class

If you’re going to set up restorative circles in your class, you really need to be intentional with your planning and commit fully to the routine. The tips below will walk you through the procedure.

Choose a time for your restorative circle, and protect it time at all costs!

No one else on my team was interested in having a weekly restorative circle time, so we decided that I’d hold circles for every 3rd grade homeroom during my ELAR block. That way, all 3rd graders would be able to participate.

I decided that I’d have these circles during the last 20 minutes of class on Monday. I liked the idea of doing them at the end of class because it gave students something to look forward to, and it also started the week off on a positive note.

I protected that time at all costs. No matter what happened, I made sure to set aside time for circle. Occasionally, there would be a fire drill or professional development. On those days, we rescheduled for Tuesday.

Students knew that I valued the time as much as they did.

kids in class smiling with hands folded on desk

Determine who will choose the speaker.

In younger grades, you have two options for determining who speaks:

  1. Go in sequential order around the circle, giving every student an opportunity to speak or “pass.”
  2. Let the teacher facilitate, so that after students speak, the talking piece always goes back to the teacher. The teacher chooses the next speaker to keep things balanced.

For more mature students, perhaps beginning around 7th grade, students can choose who speaks next by tossing or passing the talking piece. Of course, you’ll want to teach and reteach the importance of giving everyone a chance to speak.

Keep rules simple, then teach and reteach expectations.

The rules of a restorative circle go like this:

  1. Speak from the heart. This means you tell the truth about your own experiences or your own feelings. This is also a good time to mention speaking with confidence and making sure your voice is heard.
  2. Listen from the heart. This means you listen carefully, making sure to make eye contact, nod your head, and show interest in what others are saying. Try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are speaking from the heart.
  3. Respect the talking piece. You’ll use a “talking piece,” which can be anything. In my class, these were squishy, spongy objects. I had a heart and a brain one that I found at the dollar store. Even before Covid, I Lysol sprayed them before and after each use. When you teach kids to respect the talking piece, they leanr that no one speaks unless the talking piece is in their hands. When they finish, they pass it along.
  4. Mind the mic. We teach kids to “mind the microphone,” which refers to not talking for so long that it robs others of the chance to participate. “Mind the microphone” is a gentle way to remind kids to refocus their thoughts, avoid rambling, and share the stage.

These rules are restated at the beginning of every circle. Generally, students love these conversations and need very few redirections. They also respond well to an opening routine that gets them in the right frame of mind (see next subheading).

With regard to respecting the talking piece, I would give students one stern reminder for talking out of turn, before quietly requesting they leave the circle until the current round of question and answer is complete. Usually, this was more than enough to re-center them.

middle schoolers lined up at a school bus

Create an opening ritual and closing ceremony for your restorative circle.

It’s important to get kids in the right frame of mind, so they are able to observe the rules of the restorative circle. We call this an opening ritual.

This can be accomplished in several ways:

  1. A music change – I always had background music for students working. When restorative circles were about to begin, I switched to something a bit more therapeutic.
  2. Lights – I always would dim the overhead lights a bit before a restorative circle, and turn on my lamps. Both music and lighting can affect the moods of kids. You’ll want a calm mood for students to be reflective, open-hearted, and able to listen well. You might even think about choosing just one song that will become very familiar as students begin to circle up.
  3. Breathing Exercises – As students gather at the circle, you might consider doing some breathing exercises to help kids calm down, especially if they’re coming out of some rowdy group work or returning from recess. Education to the Core has a great resource for this.
  4. Quickly restate the rules, or call on students to do so.

If you’re like me, I had very limited time available for my weekly circle time. I set aside 20 minutes. Therefore, my closing ceremony had to be short and effective.

I settled on having each student turn to both of their circle neighbors and say, “Thank you for sharing.” Surprisingly, they really loved the cheesiness of it!

One week, I tried having them turn to a neighbor and say, “I liked it when you said…” This went less well.

Struggling with classroom jobs? Check out these 40 classroom jobs that kids love!

Model speaking from the heart and good listening skills.

Especially with younger kids who are prone to rambling, it can be tempting to let your mind daydream. It can also be tempting to intervene and try to help the student articulate something that isn’t coming out “right.”

Your job as a facilitator is basically to choose questions, choose speakers, and enforce the rules respectfully.

If you start chiming in and dominating the conversation, all magic is LOST. You have to let the kids do the talking.

However, I do recommend modeling your answer before passing the talking piece. Every time you ask a question to the group, say, “I’ll go first,” and then answer the way you’d like students to.

elementary school kids in a restorative circle with hands in the air

Choose the right questions at the right time for your restorative circles.

Choosing the right questions at the right time has everything to do with maturity and your group’s dynamics.

With older kids who are showing a level of comfort with one another, you can move into rather deep questions quickly.

With younger kids, you’ll want to keep the bulk of your conversation light-hearted. If you choose to ask something a little deeper, just let kids access the conversation at whatever level they feel comfortable.

In other words, read the room. If it’s your second time to host a circle, and your third graders are coming in from recess, don’t start with something like, “What is something you’re worried about?” They won’t be in a mental space to be honest or reflective about your question.

However, if you want to ask about a greatest fear, kids can respond on several different levels. One kid may say, “spiders” and a more mature child may surprise you and want to talk about being evicted. Both answers should be welcome but not necessarily expected.

If you need to choose questions for the purpose of conflict resolution, you’ll want to keep them very broad. Some examples:

  • What happened?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What would make you feel better at this point?

Use restorative circles proactively rather than only reactively.

You can absolutely use restorative circles in response to a conflict that has taken place. In fact, when most people think of a restorative circle, that’s what they’re imagining.

However, the restorative circles won’t work as well if they’re only EVER used for that purpose. Kids need practice with circles when the stakes are very low.

Using restorative circles proactively gives kids a chance to practice listening and speaking from the heart and helps them get to know one another better. That way, when trouble does arise, the framework and habits are already in place.

high school kids in a circle on the grass

Keep track of speakers and be mindful of fairness.

If you’re short on time regularly, pay close attention to who dominates the circle and who never gets a word in edgewise. Make sure that you’re giving everyone an opportunity to share. That’s the benefit of being the facilitator.

Additionally, this is why I prefer to send the talking piece around the circle sequentially. If you send it clockwise one week and it doesn’t make it all the way around, you can simply go counter-clockwise the next time, assuming there’s a seating chart for circles.

Final Thoughts about Restorative Circles

I hope these 8 tips help you set up restorative circles in your classroom in a way that is practical and works well for you and your kids!

I truly believe they can make a huge impact on your students’ ability to focus on the work you have to do, while also giving them social-emotional skills that will support them for a lifetime.

pin make restorative circles work for your classroom

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