The Double Circle: A Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach
A collaborative problem-solving approach I really like and have used in the past with schools, businesses and in Justice Settings is that of the Double Circle. After all, the only thing that is better than one circle, is two circles. This works on the idea of an inner circle surrounded by an outer circle. Those in the inner circle are the people who are impacted by the problem you are trying to resolve. They might be the child, the teacher(s) and the parents, it might even be a group of staff who are struggling with changes in your school or have a problem to resolve which was identified by an Educational Inspection. Those in the outer circle are the resources. They are there to offer options to resource the plans or needs which the child, family, teachers and others in the middle identify, (see diagram below).
Much like a family group conference model, the Inner Circle meets first to talk about what problems are being experienced and what people need to move forward positively. After this has been identified, the Outer Circle joins and works to resource any needs that the Inner circle couldn’t resource on their own.
Here is an example of a Double Circle we ran at a rural Secondary School back at the end of 2019 and the action plan which the Double Circle came up with as a strategy to resolve a 16 year old girl’s truancy from school.
The Circle (all names have been changed to protect anonymity)
Crystal has been referred to Educational Welfare because her attendance at school had dropped so dramatically in the last 6 months. Her History teacher was vexed because he saw great potential in Crystal and so he asked for a circle to be offered to Crystal and her family to try and support her back into school. An early preparation conversation between Crystal and Mr O’Donaghue revealed that Crystal’s mum was suffering from depression following the death of her Grandmother, and her father was often working away, (he was a long distance lorry driver) so Crystal at the tender age of 16 was being relied on to cook, do laundry and support the younger children with homework.
In the Inner Circle was Crystal, her mother Margaret, her father Patrick, and her two aunts, Marie and Claire as well as the History Teacher Mr O’Donaghue. In the outer circle was Crystal’s Head of Year, Miss Albert, The Education Welfare Officer, Alicia, and a local youth worker, Paul.
After welcomes, introductions and reassurances at the beginning, the Inner Circle began with Mr O’Donaghue explaining why he had called the circle, speaking fondly of Crystal and her fun and bright nature in his class. He posed the question of “What’s Happening?” that Crystal was not coming to school regularly.
There was a very awkward silence and it was clear that Crystal was conflicted, her eyes darting between her mum and dad. The Inner Circle was stuck. Mr O’Donaghue tried again reassuring everyone that this was a safe place to talk and everyone here believed in the importance of all working together to give Crystal the best of themselves. But still the Inner Circle was stuck.
Mr O’Donaghue tried again – this time, working from a basic knowledge of what he knew was going on for Crystal, he shared his own story. He told everyone how as a 15 year old he had struggled to always be at school on time because his parents had separated and his dad took the only car the family had with him, so he had a 2 mile cycle to get to the bus stop. And in a rural setting, he remembered one particular day when he was furiously kicking the “pedal to the metal” only to see the back end of the bus pull away around a corner. The next day in a fit of anger he said to the bus driver “would you ever give me an effing chance – I’m trying to fit in a 2 mile cycle to get to you on time and you left 5 minutes early yesterday morning.” The bus driver, a calm and grandfatherly sort, had laughed and said “son, you should have said – I’ll give you 5 minutes leeway in future.” Mr O’Donaghue laughed as he said “I never realised it at the time, but that Bus Driver gave me the best chance I had back then – I guess none of us can do it alone.” This is a beautiful example of building common ground and connection and it was transformative. Crystal laughed, the Aunt’s laughed, even Patrick laughed, and he didn’t look like a man who had cause to laugh too often with his rough hands and his furrowed brow. There was a pause before Mr O’Donaghue asked again “What Happens in your house that makes it difficult to get out the door in the morning?”
Crystal quietly said that she just “didn’t have enough time to do everything that needed done.” By the time she had “sorted the wee one’s in the evening, made sure they had something to eat and their homework done and their clothes set out and tidied for the next day, she often missed out on getting her own homework done. Or it was sloppy and untidy.” She paused and then looking down at her hands and picking at the skin on the side of her fingers, she said “I hate being told off all the time for being careless and untidy when it’s just not true. It makes me feel pissed off most of the time and I don’t want to be here.” Mr O’Donaghue nodded and replied, “when actually you are caring for everyone a lot, that must feel very thankless and tiring.” Crystal nodded, head still down, tears splashing into her lap. Her father looked so uncomfortable, his face had turned the colour of his t-shirt, a muddy red colour. Mr O’Donaghue looked him straight in the eye and said “I can’t imagine how hard it must be to be torn between working to look after your family and wanting to be there to help your daughter cope with all she has on her plate. What can we do to help?”
Patrick looked like he would burst – he blurted out “I don’t know – it’s all fallen apart, Margaret lost her mum – it’s been really hard”, he patted Crystal’s mum’s hand awkwardly as she started to cry, “I don’t know what to do,” he shrugged. Now this is where silence is a beautiful thing, but as anyone who has sat in silence with someone else before, you know it can also tip over into feeling painful and punitive, so be careful to keep connecting and reassuring people but without stepping into the space and directing the conversation. Mr O’Donaghue held the space beautifully. He made a few reassuring murmurs and said “I know it is hard.”
Then one of the Aunt’s, Marie, explained that her sister had been struggling to cope since their mother had died last year. Mr O’Donaghue turned to Crystal’s mum and said “I know what it is like to lose someone important – I fell apart when my mum died two years ago – it is so hard to get your head above water, what can we do to help?” Until this moment, Margaret had been struggling to say that she felt deep rooted shame that she wasn’t “cutting it” as a mum, something she had always prided herself on, but she felt so angry and lost at the death of her own mother. In a waterfall of words, tears, and pain out came Margaret’s total devastation at the untimely loss of her mother to cancer. A rock in her life, the lynchpin of the family and now she felt completely desolate and lost. Mr O’Donaghue’s empathy and understanding was the catalyst to encouraging Margaret to share out loud her shame and regret that she was not able to be the mum she knew Crystal needed. When she took a breath, Mr O’Donaghue said “right now.” “What?” said Margaret. “You can’t be the mum Crystal needs right now – but you will get back there again with support,” said Mr O’Donaghue. This is a lovely example of understanding, of being real and of recognising that it is OK that we are not all perfect, all of the time. This, I think was the moment I wanted to clone Mr O’Donaghue and put him in my pocket to take to every school I ever visit.
Mr O’Donaghue then asked Crystal directly, “Crystal, what do you need to come to school in the mornings?” Crystal shrugged and then said “I need to not be tired and have had time to do my own home work.” “And what else?” said Mr O’Donaghue. “And to get my head shired” came the simple reply. (For those of you joining us from outside Northern Ireland this is a colloquialism meaning to get out of the worry in your head and have some fun and relaxation so that you can be refreshed) “Anything else?” asked Mr O’Donaghue. There was a pause before Crystal said with a break in her voice. “And I need to know mum is going to be alright.” Mr O’Donaghue nodded.
“Ok,” he said. How do we make this happen? Who can help? He wrote up the four things Crystal had said she needed up on a flipchart.
The Head Of Year from the Outer Circle suggested a referral to a bereavement counsellor, and when Crystal’s mum shook her head in rejection of the idea of talking to someone, Crystal, bolstered by the support of other people in the room, tearfully said “I can’t keep doing this on my own mum, you need to get help.” Aunt Marie then suggested that Margaret might feel happier talking to their priest initially, until she felt more able to approach a specialist support group. Aunt Marie committed to making an appointment for them to see the Priest together and going with Margaret for the first few times until she felt more comfortable. Margaret seemed more able to cope with this suggestion and agreed to give this a try.
Patrick then admitted that he had been taking on a lot of overtime in the lorry driving, because it was so uncomfortable to watch Margaret fall apart. “I don’t know what to do with her,” he said clearly uncomfortable with all these feelings flying about the room. He turned to Crystal and said “love I promise I won’t take on any more overtime, I’ll be at home more often to give you a break.”
Ms Albert, the Head of Year then suggested that perhaps Crystal could avail of the homework club which ran on Monday’s and Wednesday’s after school. It would perhaps help her to find some quiet time to concentrate on her homework. Crystal hesitated and Aunt Claire immediately said, “Don’t worry, I’ll pick the younger one’s up and take them until tea time – it’ll give you a break too Margaret, and you can focus on getting better and maybe having a tea ready for everyone when they get home.” Margaret nodded.
After listening quietly for the whole meeting, Alicia, the EWO simply said, “I am amazed at how strong you are Crystal and what a great family you have around you. I feel like you need something for yourself. To just have some fun. My own daughter attends a dance and drama group – is it something you would be interested in? Crystal nodded and Alicia offered to get the details of the group and check out any funding sources available to get Alicia registered onto a programme. Again, concerned about her mum and the younger children, Crystal hesitated and Paul the Youth Worker suggested that both the younger children attend their youth club which was open 4 nights out of 7, to give Crystal the time to chill out with her own friends and pursue the drama and dance programme if that interested her.
The circle naturally came to a close with Mr O’Donaghue asking Crystal again if there was “anything else?” Once he was satisfied they had developed a workable plan, Mr O’Donaghue asked would everyone be prepared to connect with him by phone in 4 weeks to see what progress had been made, and after gaining agreement, Mr O’Donaghue promised to send out the actions from the circle meeting.
This is what Crystal’s Circle Action Plan looked like at the end.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and an excellent chocolate quality controller.
Mrs Tanner contacted me to ask for help around her Year 9 class. There is a lot of stealing going on." She went on to explain that money had gone missing on numerous occasions and complaints from parents were beginning to become a regular occurrence. "I’m pretty sure I know who it is, but I can’t prove it" she said. Do you have any ideas what we could do? "Sure," I replied. "Let's try a circle." Mrs Tanner facilitated while I supported.
Circles are a great way to address harm and conflict when the behaviour is impacting a group of people and it is especially effective when you don’t have a clear admission of responsibility. Because circles are not focused on a specific person’s actions which harmed another person or group and rather then are focused on the best interests of the group as a whole, they are really effective in situations where no one is taking responsibility.
Mrs Tanner prepared the class by explaining in their weekly class meeting was going to take part in a “circle discussion” about the upset some students had about things going missing at school. She was to advise the students that they could choose to sit out of the circle if they wanted, but she really hoped that the whole class would take part.
She explained the circle rules to her students so that they were clear about what to expect:
This is what happened.
Mrs Tanner asked the students to "Circle Up" and introduced the circle topic and the talking piece. She then phrased the first question and passed the talking piece to her left. As the talking piece was passed around the circle, the students began to share how they felt about their possessions going missing and money being stolen. They expressed their hurt, their disappointment and how it undermined trust in each other, creating suspicion even of people who probably hadn't done anything wrong. As the students began talking about what they believed might lead to someone taking things from their friends, Mrs Tanner drew out comments from her more emotionally compassionate students about some children feeling "less than" and "having less than" their peers and how difficult this must be.
The students conversations developed into a deep and meaningful conversation about how money and possessions didn't define whether you were popular or "good enough" in their eyes rather being trustworthy, reliable and loyal were characteristics they celebrated in their closest friends. Mrs Tanner chose this moment to take a short break for comfort. She asked the children to return in 10 minutes ready to address the last question of "what they could each do to reduce the likelihood of their things being taken in the future." When the class returned, the circle continued with each student asked to give examples of what they could do to reduce the likelihood of further stealing. Examples given ranged from "I could look after my own stuff better," to "I could be more watchful of my friends things for them too," to the most beautiful comment which came from a young 13 year old boy who said "I could make sure that my friends don't feel less than me just because they have less than me." There was more than one tear shed in the room that day and I don't mind telling you that some of them were mine.
I followed up with Mrs Tanner six weeks later. Not one further incident of theft had occurred in that time.
In this case example from a primary school in Northern Ireland, Ms Creighton, shows how a problem solving circle can be used to harness the cooperation and collaboration of a group of children. The first skill I love about Ms Creighton's example is her self awareness that her feelings of irritation stem from her own needs being impacted and her recognition that the children's chatter was simply inconvenient at that point in time and that in other circumstances their engagement with each other would have been very convenient). Turning away from the blaming approach she engages her second restorative skill, the grace to invite the children in to solve the conflict of needs that they were in together, together.
The noise in the class had risen several times and Ms Creighton was struggling to hear the children reading at the front of the class. She was feeling frustrated, distracted and more than just a little stressed. She could feel her anger rise. She checked her emotions and quickly asked herself three questions. "What do I need?", "Why do I need that?" and "What happens if I don't get it?" She took a deep breath and moved to the front of the class.
She raised her voice slightly, smiling and said "Girls and boys! Let's circle up." Without any fuss, the children, all around 7 or 8 years old, shuffled forward and sat in a haphazard circle. All eyes on Ms Creighton, she said "I have a problem and I need your help." The kids gazed at her. She continued, "I love it when you talk about your work, but at the moment the noise in the room is so loud that I can't hear your friends reading to me and I need to be able to hear their reading so I know how they are doing. Can you help me solve this?"
The children began to talk, one after the other moving clockwise around the circle. "We could put our fingers on our lips Ms." "We could whisper Ms." "We could put our heads down and go to sleep for a while Ms" (I love this kid - he is my kind of kid).
Ms Creighton smiled and responded to each of the suggestions, "That's a good idea...that might work...not sure about that one but its a lovely fantasy isn't it? "
Then she asked the children, "How will we know if our solution is working?" Again the children made suggestions. "You will be able to hear Ms Creighton...you won't have to ask us to circle up again... the room will be quieter..."
"Excellent work boys and girls. Now one last thing, what can you all do to make sure this solution works?" One by one they all made a commitment to whisper or to be quiet. The class returned to their seats, and Ms Creighton returned to the front of the class and the children began reading again. The noise rose again, and with just a glance from Ms Creighton, a few children shushed their friends and the noise subsided again.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and excellent chocolate quality controller.
As we all begin to move towards our new normal in the school setting, teachers, children and parents, are all wondering how to manage the losses of Corona Virus and how to take forward the opportunities that have come from this experience.
Talking Circles are a great starting point. We have all experienced loss. For some of us it has been the loss of a friend or family member who has died because of the Virus and for some of us it has been a loss of connection with friends and family or the familiarity and security of our normal routine. For some of us it has been a loss of reprieve and distance from abusive family members whom we have had to stay in lock down with, or the loss of a predictable meal once a day at school.
Being able to express these losses in a safe place will be a key starting point in beginning to restore a sense of understanding, of control and of safety. Circles give teachers, parents and children an opportunity to express these losses so that we can begin to connect with each other again and find our common interest in planning ways to look after each other and heal as we move forward.
It is important to do this work before returning to the curriculum of schooling. Children, parents and teachers have all experienced an undermining of their feelings of security. And there still exists fear and uncertainty around the virus and if or how you might infect or be infected by one another. We know that when people are pre-occupied with their basic needs of safety and security, they cannot focus on engaging, problem solving or learning.
Google Classrooms, Zoom Meetings and Microsoft Teams among other digital platforms have been used to engage in live ways with children, and whilst these are great ways to communicate from distance, we must remember that for many children and parents, smart phones and digital platforms are not accessible. Poverty, poor network coverage and digital know-how, all have an impact on how accessible these formats of communication are.
So bear in mind that if you do choose to do a circle through online platforms before returning to the school room, take note of those children or parents who did not, or were unable to join and make sure you connect with them to ask the same questions, even if this means doing a "socially distanced" circle in the first week of a return to school. And don't forget your teachers, classroom assistants, and support staff.
Some Guiding Principles
Here are some suggested questions, loosely based on the restorative script which will help guide your discussions.
Don't forget to highlight the Circle Agreements for everyone before beginning. There are many variations of these, but as a core set of agreements I like:
Stay safe, and take care of each other, LJ
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and excellent chocolate quality controller.