Community Circles: Combining SEL and Classroom Community

Taking the time to build community, to get to know your people will have long-lasting benefits.

-Clifton Taulbert

Ah…SEL… sometimes I feel like we have a love-hate relationship. It’s not that I don’t see the importance of explicitly teaching social and emotional skills. In fact, quite the opposite! As educators, our ultimate goal is to help our students become kind, well-rounded human beings who will benefit our future society. This means SEL should make up part of our curriculum. The reason I have a tough time with this is there is simply too much to teach in a day. Who’s with me? Between all of the pull-outs and the never-ending list of standards, it is very difficult to find the time to add anything to our day.

This is why I like to combine subject matter or activities and get the most “bang for my buck” if you will. For SEL at the start of the year, I teach mini-lessons based on my favorite picture books. These mini-lessons act as our language arts curriculum. We use Thinking Maps, hold classroom discussions, and even answer a few writing prompts. But, what can you do during the rest of the year? After all, SEL should be an integral part of the whole year, not just the first two weeks of school.

Well, that’s where community circles come into play. Morning meeting, which is another great activity to build classroom community, is very similar to community circles. So, the good news is that if you currently start your day with morning meeting, you can easily combine SEL with your current routine.

How do you run a community circle?

First, let me just say that in upper grade, I always have students run community circles and morning meetings. (Honestly, I would even do this in primary grades. I would just spend more time modeling it first.) This is where you get the buy-in! At the start of the day during our Morning Routine, the student in charge of community circles looks through our box of sharing questions and chooses two of them to display on our whiteboard. This way, the class knows what we will be sharing that day.

As far as choosing who is in charge of community circles, you can have it be one of your classroom jobs. I typically have teacher’s assistant or a separate morning meeting manager run community circles. (This ends up being one of the most popular jobs. So many kids apply for it because they love running these meetings!) Alternatively, you could take turns. Depending on how many students want a turn, you could rotate through students every other day, every week, or every month. The choice is yours!

Once it is time for your community circle, the student in charge dismisses the rest of the class to sit in the meeting area. (Make sure to have a designated place in or outside your classroom for your meeting area.) The student then shares the first question and reminds the class of the rules or expectations. I always allow 30 seconds of “think time” before sharing begins. (I recommend using a timed song to help manage time. Read more about how to use timed music for classroom management here.)

After 30 seconds of “think time”, every student takes a turn answering the first sharing question. Remind students to keep it short! They are answering in a short sentence rather sharing their life stories. 😛 Although it would be wonderful for every student to say as much as they want, it is simply not feasible when you have 30+ students in your class. It is of course your choice how much time you can allot for sharing, but I usually remind students to keep it brief. After everyone shares, repeat the process with a second or third sharing question.

What is the difference between morning meeting and community circles?

Many of you may be wondering what is the difference between community circles and morning meetings? Let me just say that these two activities are very similar, especially when comparing their goals. They both are used to build classroom community and are the perfect way to teach SEL throughout the year. The main difference is in their procedures. Morning meetings typically incorporate games and some kind of message from the teacher. Teachers often also use morning meetings to go over the daily schedule and/or objectives. Community circles, however, just focus on the sharing aspect of morning meetings. They can also lend themselves to restorative circles once students are comfortable with the routine.

Since this blog post is primarily focused on community circles, I would like to take a moment to at least mention the four steps of a typical morning meeting. That way, you can combine these two ideas into one should you wish to do so.

A traditional morning meeting includes four steps:

  • Morning Message: This step can be done at the beginning, end, or middle, depending on your activity for the day. During morning message, the teacher shares the daily schedule and/or objectives. Typically, this message is written, allowing for some editing/revising lessons. Depending on your grade level, you may want to demonstrate proper grammar and write the message in front of your class. Another idea is to share an inspirational quote. This could be chosen by the teacher or the student in charge of the meeting.
  • Greeting: Students take turns quickly greeting each other, whether by saying an adjective to describe themselves or good morning in a different language (especially beneficial for EL students to share their home languages). There are a million ways to greet each other; those are just two examples.
  • Sharing: This is almost identical to community circles, so I will go over this step below.
  • Activity: This is some kind of fun game that encourages collaboration and teamwork. One example of a quick activity is having the class line up in order of birthdays without saying a word. This game would also be a great way to teach nonverbal communication. Plus, the students love it!

How can I incorporate SEL into community circles?

Now, that brings us to our main topic for this post: incorporating SEL into community circles. The trick is to build SEL into your community circles over time. You do not want to start with heavy, deep questions before your students get the chance to get to know and trust each other. You want to create a safe, welcoming space before digging deep into personal questions. For my classroom, I look at community circles as a three-step process that encompasses the first half of the school year. My goal is that my students are ready to really dig into deep questions by the time we return from winter break.

1) Getting to Know You Questions

For the first month or so, I use community circles as a way for my students to simply get to know each other. It is also a way for them to get to know me, as I am an active participant in this activity. This is also the time when you teach routines and expectations regarding community circles. Here are a few guidelines that you can teach your students:

  • Everyone shares and participates during this time. Any student is allowed to pass, but they are strongly encouraged to share at the end after the other students have taken their turns. (Please note that I do not believe in forcing students to share, but I do believe in setting the expectation that everyone will at some point participate.)
  • This is a safe space and a judgment-free zone. It is essential to teach students to be open to others’ opinions, even if they are different than their own. I highly recommend teaching students how to respectfully listen and disagree before starting community circles.
  • All participants must actively listen, showing respect at all times. In my class, we actually practice nonverbal ways of showing respect and listening (i.e. nodding occasionally when someone is speaking, facing the speaker with a calm body, not fidgeting, etc.).
  • Only one speaker is allowed to share at a time. (Make sure to have a talking stick or stuffed animal to indicate who is speaking. I cut and laminate the sharing questions, and we use that as the talking stick. Look at the bottom of this blog for a freebie!)

2) Tying Questions Into SEL Mini-Lessons

Now that your students are comfortable with each other, we can start incorporating some SEL lessons into our community circles. I start by tying our sharing questions to the lessons I taught at the beginning of the school year. These lessons are connected to picture books and can easily be revisited throughout the school year.

The reason I begin with these questions is that the students already have some background knowledge. The read alouds, book activities (freebie alert), and classroom discussions provide the students a starting point. Here are a few sharing questions that directly connect with the picture books in my blog post linked above:

  • The Day You Begin
    • When have you ever felt a little different? How did you feel?
    • What could you do to help someone else feel included?
  • The Magical Yet
    • Name one short-term and one long-term goal for this school year.
    • Name a time you overcame a challenge.
    • Why is having a positive attitude critical to our success?
    • What can you do to make progress towards a goal today?
  • Songbird
    • What is your biggest dream?
    • What do you want to do when you grow up?
    • How can you accomplish your goals?
    • How can you support someone while they try to accomplish their goals?
    • How can you be a supportive classmate?
  • Listen
    • What does it mean to actively listen?
    • How can we show we are listening?
    • Why is listening an important skill in class? When building friendships?
  • After the Fall
    • How do you feel when you make a mistake?
    • What can you do after making a mistake?
    • Discuss a time you learned from a mistake.
    • Why are mistakes learning opportunities?

3) Digging Deep

As mentioned earlier, community circles can even lend themselves to restorative justice. This could be a completely separate blog post, but I think it is definitely worth a brief introduction in this one. The “why” for restorative justice is simple: everyone makes mistakes. Granted, some mistakes are bigger and more impactful than others, but they are still mistakes. This is especially true for kids!

I once saw a video that really resonated with me. It stated that when a child does not know how to add, we teach them. If a child does not know how to ride a bike or swim, we teach them. But, when a child does not know how to behave or respectfully communicate, do we teach them or punish them? Unfortunately, the last question is not as easy to answer as the others. As adults, we need to realize that being kind and respectful does not occur naturally. Humans are not born with those skills; they need to be taught.

Que restorative circles! When a child makes a mistake, teach the child how to fix it rather than just assigning a consequence. (Now, although I am an advocate for restorative justice, I am not completely against consequences. Consequences are a part of life. Adults have them too, and I believe children should learn that their actions sometimes have negative results. I just think that consequences should not make up the sum of behavior management.)

Let’s say a group of students get into an argument at recess. Rather than punishing the entire group and taking away their recess tomorrow, get them together and run a restorative circle. They each get a turn to state how they were feeling in the moment. As the teacher, ask guiding questions, such as how their emotions affected their actions. Did they raise their voices? Did they show their anger in a negative way that upset those around them? After everyone involved has a turn to share, ask them to think about what they could have done to help the situation rather than escalate it.

This takes practice! Be patient with yourself and your students. If you practice this repeatedly, trust me, your students will be better for it. By the end of the year, they will be better at conflict resolution, which is a life-long skill.


Other Blog Posts to Help You Get Ready for Back to School

Picture Books: A Window Into the World of SELRead about my top 5 back-to-school books to help you teach social and emotional skills. (freebie alert!)
10 must-teach classroom routines and procedures to start the year off rightLearn about Morning Routine, classroom management techniques, and so much more!
5 Goals of Reading Workshop:
Is Reading Workshop Effective?
Instill a love of reading in your classroom. Trust me, this is a MUST-READ.

Published by Learning N Progress

I am an elementary teacher who specializes in differentiated instruction and intervention. I have taught grades K-6, including intervention and gifted students. I am here to help other educators make differentiated instruction easy to manage and effective in reaching EVERY student in their classes.

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