If you are not already doing teambuilding activities with your students, now is the time to start! Circle time is a popular daily routine found in many preschools, but I think it is a tool with huge potential returns for older children and even teens too, with some adaptations of course!
If you are just beginning to make changes to your program culture to move towards one that is more inclusive, supportive and engaging, then circle time is a good place to start. It can be both structured and flexible at the same time, it builds relationships between and among staff and youth at the same time, it allows staff and youth to learn each others’ names, and it easily lends itself to scaffolding so that you can add complexity as your students strengthen their social-emotional skills.
Steps to starting circle time with your group:
1. Announcements If you haven’t done anything like this with your students before, then start small. It’s best to literally sit in a circle, with everyone on the same level, if you have the room capacity for this. Begin with impersonal, simple things like just getting everyone together for the daily announcements. (Keep announcements short and relevant to them!). End the circle time with some kind of (short!) shout – a simple “1…2… 3… [name of the program/mascot/school]” works well and adds a bit of fun and whimsy, as well as clearly defining the end to circle time and transition to the next activity.
2. Trivia After your students have mastered getting into a circle (or whatever arrangement works best for your space) and can sit through the announcements, consider adding something like a trivia question. Be sure to have the question prepared a head of time (this can become a “classroom job”!) and vary the topics widely from sports to fashion to history, etc.
Ask the group the question and keep calling on students until someone gets it right! This is a good opportunity to make sure you say each student’s name as you call on them (or ask them to say their name if you don’t know it yet) – this is the first step to building relationships! Keep it short, lighthearted and fun!
3. Expectations After some time, your students (and staff) should be well into the habits of circle time. This is a good time to add the next layer. Review the group expectations by calling on students to name one of them. Expectations should be short, framed in the positive, and posted visibly in the space. (If you don’t have group expectations, brainstorm them with your students).
As each expectation is named, ask one or two students to give an example of what that expectation looks like. For example, an expectation to “respect others” looks like introducing yourself to new students and an expectation to “respect the space” looks like throwing your snack wrapper in the trash (not the floor!). Doing this daily may seem redundant, but it is well worth it. Plus, it allows any new students to get quickly caught up with the program culture and expectations for behavior.
4. Shout Outs The more practice your group has with circle time, the smoother it will be and the less time it will take. Investing the time up front to teach students these skills will pay off later in your students’ improved relationships and behavior. If you’ve been following along in these steps, your circle time hasn’t been very personal yet – this helps keep it emotionally low-risk for your beginner students. Now, however, let’s add in some shout-outs (really, these are compliments with a “cooler” name!). Since you’ve been reviewing the expectations and what they actually look like daily, adding shout outs won’t be a big stretch.
Tell students that you’ve really noticed them stepping up lately and you’d like to give some shout outs. Staff should role model this: for example, “I’d like to give a shout out to _____ because I saw you get a bandaid for your friend yesterday when he was hurt.” Remind students that shout outs are for something you saw someone do that was helpful/respectful/etc (or whatever the language is for your expectations) and ask if anyone has a shout out to give.
Setting it up this way helps prevent some of the “I like your shirt” compliments you might get otherwise; keep reinforcing that a shout is for what someone did. You’ll be amazed at the kinds of things students start coming up with – it is powerful! (Note: Push students to be specific. When they give a shout out for “being my friend”, ask them to give an example of what that person does that makes them a good friend.)
5. Student Facilitators Lastly, when your students really get the hang of this, you’ll feel the difference. You’ll notice it in the shout-outs they give. You’ll notice it when they start crowding around you suggesting trivia questions before circle time every day. You’ll notice it when they start bringing new students into the fold and introducing them to the circle time ritual on their own.
When this happens, it is time to kick it up a notch and start handing over the facilitation responsibilities to students. Ideally, “classroom jobs” are part of your larger routine, and circle time provides several opportunities. Students can be in charge of giving announcements, asking the trivia questions, leading the call-and-response for the expectations and eventually even facilitating shout-outs as they become more experienced and familiar with positive, specific and encouraging feedback. Just be sure to equip them sufficiently with the training they need to be successful. This should be a positive experience for everyone.
With these steps you are well on your way to starting each day with a supportive, enjoyable teambuilding ritual. And, the bonus? If you are (or intend to start) using the Positive Discipline framework (as I would suggest!), the work you put in towards circle time will set your students up for success when it comes time to introduce class meetings for group problem-solving and conflict resolution!