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Helping Kids Connect: A Simple Idea With Big Impact

Jenny Marshall

According to the Centers for Disease Control, students who feel connected to their teachers and peers are more likely to succeed in school and stay out of trouble. To give students a sense of power and stability, the Woods Learning Center in Casper is using "connection circles."

Woods is a small elementary and middle school known for its individualized approach to learning. A group of sixth, seventh and eighth graders have pushed the tables and desks aside in a classroom and have arranged the chairs in a big circle.

There are 17 students and two teachers. The group is quiet and still-not your typical middle school crowd.

A talking piece is passed around the circle, which on this day, is a weighty, black plastic heart.

Whoever has it speaks while everyone else listens. The students leading this morning's circle have asked us to use colors to describe our current mood.

One student says white. "It's more of a neutral color because I'm kind of stressed out because of my main life and school."

Another says umber, a reddish-brown hue. "It's mellow and that's how I'm feeling."

And there's a student who paints more of a scene. "If my mood were a color it would be a rainbow with a cat and a llama holding hands sliding down it."

The feelings are all over the place: stressed, silly, and mellow.

One student is grieving for the loss of a family member. "Blue or bright yellow because my great grandfather just passed away but he was happy that he lived a long life so that makes me happy."

After moods, students share who inspires them and what brings them joy. Then they're asked to consider the difference between how people perceive them and how they perceive themselves.

Because what students share is personal, circles are usually confidential. But they've made an exception for my visit, and it doesn't seem to stop anyone from opening up.

"I think a lot of people think of me as, like, the girl that's [mostly] happy all of the time, and super confident and not afraid to speak out, but every day I'm just like, 'help, I am so scared and so nervous.' And I just don't like to let it show," said a sixth grader who is in her first year at Woods.

For those who can't figure out how they feel, that's welcome, too.

"Can you come back to me please?" asks a student on the other side of the circle from me.

Marcy Mills, who teaches fourth and fifth grade, said circles build a culture of empathy.

"I think it gives them the ability to accept each other a little bit more and to know we're not all the same. We don't all come from the same place," said Mills. "If someone is coming from a rough situation, they might not be ready to learn coming in the door." Mills added circles help students be more gracious to each other.

Mills and teacher Jenny Marshall brought circles to their classrooms several years ago. This year for the first time Woods Learning Center, which is grades K-8, is using the practice school-wide.

Marshall, who teaches the middle school, grades said circles have shifted her approach to behavior management.

"Teachers know there are reasons behind behaviors, but it's easy to get into the cycle of the day and just say 'ok you're misbehaving. Stop and knock it off.'"

Marshall said what she learns about kids during circles helps her get to the root of why they might be acting out. It gives her a chance to help a kid solve a problem rather than just dolling out punishment.

A sixth grader named Presley said circles make her feel safe.

"If people listen to you, you feel validated and that leads to you feeling happy and secure like you can trust people."

Research indicates that a sense of security is key to learning. When kids feel insecure the brain goes into fight or flight mode, and that can override the capacity to process new information.

Circles also help kids resolve conflict, like Sam, who's in sixth grade.

"It's happened to me a little bit. There are some people who kind of get on me. Then I can understand and learn what they're going through in circles, and then I can better understand them and work with them."

Teacher Jenny Marshall said, in the beginning, those resolutions were harder to come by. But, it's easier after a year of practice.

"They can sit down and take the harm, what's been done, and separate that from the person, which is incredible, because that's something that I, as an adult, still struggle with and see people struggle with," said Marshall. "So they're able to talk about the problem and not the person."

She admitted that it doesn't work for all kids, and so the school still uses traditional discipline measures like suspension. But most of the kids I talked to would rather solve problems with circles.

Presley thinks circles have the power to change the world.

"There would less people that are quick to judge because they know the story behind the person."

She thinks the practice could be used with lawmakers as well.

"[It could be] used in American Congress or something because people can listen to each and hear both sides of the story that they can't hear with the current techniques used now."

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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