Talk Circles: Building Relationships, Belonging and Restorative Practices

Amy Dempster


Gathering in circles is not a new practice at Carroll. Visit any of our campuses and you’ll see students gathered in a circle to listen to a story or instructions from a teacher; you’ll find whole grades meeting in a circle outside; you’ll encounter our music and theater arts teachers performing with students in a circle. Our educators use circles to create a safe space for students to listen, engage, and interact throughout the day.

This year, we are dedicated to a more intentional approach to circle work at Carroll. Over the summer, a group of Carroll educators attended a two-day conference to learn about Restorative Practices. According to the International Institute of Restorative Practices, “Restorative practices is an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities. Though new to the social sciences, restorative practices have deep roots within indigenous communities throughout the world.” The goal for attending the conference was to train a cohort of faculty to explore how restorative practices align with existing Carroll values and structures designed to build community and develop relational skills.

Director of Counseling, Allison Harmon shared, “Talk circles are a core component of restorative practice. They are structured to provide a safe and supportive space where community members can talk and be heard. In a circle, each person has a chance to share without interruptions while others are actively listening without judgment. At Carroll, circles just naturally fit with our mission to build an inclusive, belonging community.”

How circles work.

  • Circles can be as small as 2 people or as large as a class, depending on the topic and length of the activity.
  • Participants gather in a circle. A facilitator also joins the circle as a participant (not authority figure).
  • Participants pass around a talking piece to ensure only one person speaks at a time.
  • Prompts/questions are shared one at a time with the participants. As the talking piece makes its way to a person, they have the opportunity to comment on the prompt, or pass if they choose.
  • Circles guidelines are shared with participants:
    1. Respect the Talking Piece (everyone listens & everyone has a turn to speak or pass)  
    2. Speak & Listen from the Heart (let go of judgements) 
    3. Trust that You Will Know What to Say (no need to rehearse) 
    4. Say Just Enough (without feeling rushed) 

How are circles being used at Carroll?

In the opening weeks of school, circles were introduced and facilitated in many different ways across all 3 campuses—from faculty & staff trainings to morning meetings in homerooms.

Most notably, our 7th grade community embraced the concept of circles and spent dedicated time during the first weeks of school introducing the practice to students. Those first weeks are typically spent encouraging connections and building relationships—circle talks provided a supportive structure to do that. It was a natural fit.

7th grade educator and team lead, Emma Creeden described the benefits of circles as “creating an opportunity where kids have to slow down and listen actively. At a time when a lot of communication happens on screens or in passing, circles ask students to create space for one another, to see the people or perspectives on the other end of the conversation, and to take things like body language into consideration. Our students also process information differently and circles give the time and space for students to do that and participate in a way that feels most comfortable for them.”

Another goal of restorative practice is to provide a platform for students to discuss difficult topics. Once 7th graders had some practice participating in circles, counselor Lara Solinsky decided that students were ready to take it to the next level—discussing rumors. She shared, “We started circle talk off with a simple question: What are rumors? Then, we shared how rumors impact us followed by how they impact others. After the first round of prompts, we listened to a story about rumors and their real-life impact. Then we gathered back into a circle to react to the story and think about the power of our words.”

When asked about circles, a 7th grader shared, “In circles, you get to know each other more. It feels more like a community.” Another student said, “Everyone can say what they want in circles and not get interrupted. I feel like I can share my voice.”

How do we see circles being used at Carroll going forward?

A champion of using circles as part of a restorative process, Allison Harmon shared, “Once students are familiar with the structure and process of meeting in circle,  they can also be used to help students process incidents where an interaction has caused some type of hurt or negative impact. I had a recent experience of facilitating a circle where one student's actions had negatively impacted another student. They approached the circle with honesty, openness, and a shared goal of repairing their relationship. Because both students had the foundational skills of communicating in the circle format, they were able to take ownership of the process, sharing and listening to each other’s perspective. I was struck by the power of circles to give voice and agency to students in such an empowering way!"



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