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.