Circle Times: Developing Emotional Regulation, Empathy and Listening skills, in the Primary Classroom

June 24, 2023

Circles Times are common in many primary classrooms, but their real magic lies in using them to develop social and emotional literacy as part of a strategic relational whole school approach. Using a Circle to focus on a specific behaviour, value, emotion, experience or need or to model emotional articulacy, unpicking emotions and feelings, and listening to and observing the skills of identifying and labeling their own emotions, is the key to developing emotional regulation and a key part of a Trauma-Informed approach. Children who rarely co-regulate with adults at home, or who have experienced Trauma, often struggle to identify their emotions and don't know what will trigger them, nor how to anticipate them or what to do when they arrive and overwhelm them. Explicitly teaching the skills of e.g. where in my body do I feel that? What does it feel like? What other names do we have for that feeling? When might we get that feeling? Does everyone else experience this? What can we do to help next time we get that feeling? will all help develop emotional literacy. Emotionally regulated children can learn, cooperate, communicate, engage with and access the curriculum and achieve in ways children who are regularly dysregulated, struggle to.

Research is increasingly finding an integral link between emotions and learning. Emotions are inherently linked to and influence cognitive skills such as attention, memory, executive function, decision-making, critical thinking, problem-solving, and regulation, all of which play a key role in learning. A recent study in the USA of an estimated 1 million students accessing regular SEL (social, emotional learning) programmes found outcomes which were consistently statistically significant across a range of outcomes including increased SEL skills, attitudes, prosocial behaviours, and academic achievement, and decreased conduct problems and emotional distress.

The UK Primary school day is full with teachers barely able to fit in the core subjects, so giving over an hour a week to feelings, is a challenge. However, if we want our children (particularly those who may have EAL or are new to the UK school system) to engage, achieve and develop a sense of belonging in our schools, we need their verbal skillsets to be prioritised. Some recent research by the Bell Foundation explored the area of speaking English as an Additional Language and how when combined with refugee status became a key factor in absence and, therefore, lowered achievement.

TICS Associate Cat Jolleys, a Year 6 teacher, explains that dedicating time for Circles each week, meant the class could experience similar and differing viewpoints thus narrowing the empathy gap,

As we went around a circle and children listened, contributed to and reflected on others' comments, the building of empathy was inevitable. The respect and understanding developed amongst those 30 children was evident when children were heard echoing and reflecting on phrases used in the Circle. The resulting reduction in conflict and exclusion from lessons, by Summer term, was measurable and we saved so much learning time we'd previously lost to challenging behaviours.’

A well-run Circle provides the opportunity to model and equip children with communication tools to; agree and disagree, listen and reflect, become aware of non-verbal communication (of themselves or others) and the ability to take turns to speak and not dominate. An opportunity to model the language of repair and solving conflict - creating a shared toolbox of language and approaches and strategies to help us when we meet conflict or challenge, is invaluable. As Cat reflects, “The children quickly picked up phrases such as 'I respectfully disagree with you there, I think....' when they'd have previously deployed an arsenal of disrespectful eye rolling, tutting, looking away or at others to encourage a smirk, all aimed at belittling the person they disagreed with. Now, they had the skills to voice their disagreement and communicate their argument respectfully.”

We hope this article has been helpful and if you’re looking for any training or consultancy in your setting on anything mentioned in this article or on related areas on trauma informed practice, please do contact Lyndsay, our Working Together Lead, on and she will help to support you on your journey.

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