This history written by Larry Levenson, the Founder of Circle Dynamics Group

It was a warm fall day in 2012 when a friend called me and said we were going to go to a high school that day to talk with the students. As it turned out, this was a "last chance" high school and my friend's idea was to get us, a teacher, and 12 boys to sit in a circle and talk about what was going on in their lives.

I laughed. No way were kids who didn't know us going to do this! I remember reaching out to open the front door to the school, and suddenly being terrified. My own high school years were generally not pretty and the thought of being "surrounded" by "those kinds of kids" was suddenly very scary. But my friend said it would be fine, so we went in.

Day 1

These students were happy to get out of class to do something different, so they all showed up. We sat in a big circle,  and went around to say our name and how we were feeling, and share one thing we really liked to do. We managed to do that and had some other conversations about how things were going in school. Then my friend wrapped it up and said, "Great! We'll see you all next week!"

Whoa there! You mean we're doing this again?!!

"Yes" he said. "Every week for the entire school year."

"Why?" I asked. His response was "You'll see."

End of the first semester

By the end of the semester we'd been together about 16 times, and I knew each of the students well. Each of them had shared some very private things about their lives. We'd sort of bonded together as a group. I felt real compassion for them and the circumstances or family issues that they were up against. And I was still curious about how my friend seemed to generate really great conversations every week. As we walked out the door that day, he turned and said to me, "OK. I'm not doing this next semester. This is your gig now."

I said, "I don't know what to do, I don't know what questions to ask."

His simple response was "The teens will teach you." That sounded crazy to me, but he was correct -- over time they taught me.

Second semester

They taught me some simple things. They taught me to be vulnerable, to listen carefully, to allow long periods of silence. They taught me not to share my opinions or "good advice" -- they announced that the circle was there for THEM to talk, not me. They didn't want my advice.

That semester, we talked about pain, suicide, anger, and resilience. We talked about friends and parents and teachers. We shed tears together. We shared joys and successes together. We developed a deep connection, something that made it wonderful (for each of us) to be together each week.

Adam, the teacher who had been with us from the very first day, began to see the benefits of connecting with the students as himself rather than as a teacher. He realized that he didn't have to wear his "teacher hat" -- he could be authentic and show vulnerability without giving up his authority as a teacher. He found that students in the circle treated him with more respect and were better able to regulate their emotions in the classroom.

The next 4 years: Identifying things that worked

Over the next four years, Adam and I learned a lot about what worked and what didn't work. We learned that teens WANT to talk and want to share their struggles with their peers. At the same time, they want to support each other and learned ways to do that. We became facilitators, but the kids really made sure each session happened and that everybody attended. As some students graduated or stopped coming to school, other students joined us and quickly adapted to our way of doing things.

We always "checked in" at the beginning of our meeting with our name, how we're feeling (which introduced the idea of accurately naming the various emotions we felt at that moment), and a question that someone would formulate on the fly. The question could be "What kind of music do you like?", "What does your best friend do that makes him or her your best friend?", "How was your spring break?", or anything else that came to mind. This check-in process usually had us come back to something someone said that we wanted to hear more about.

At the end of our class period together, we would do a similar "check-out" with name, emotion(s), and "What are you taking away from our conversation today?" This allowed the teens a moment to reflect on everything that had been discussed and how that impacted them.

All emotions were accepted in the circle. Some days, they left happy. Some days they left a little boisterous. Some days several would leave with tears. Some days they left very empowered. We simply acknowledged their feelings and said we could continue our conversations next week.

We learned that we could bring different adults into the circle. We made sure they understood the confidentiality of the circle and that for the first several weeks, they simply listened. They discovered that listening and being curious was more effective than giving our "sage advice" as adults. They learned that identifying and sharing our emotions as adults wasn't always easy. They learned not to tell their own personal stories. They learned to respect the struggles and the humanity of each of the teens in our circle. They learned to respect these teens.

Expanding to more schools

The word was getting out that something “special” was happening in this “last chance” school. In order to expand our program, we needed to create a training track for the adults that wanted to learn how we do this.

Our FastTrack training was developed in an unusual format. It required that the adults be in a circle for at least 4 weeks before they could come to a 6-hour training session. Then they needed to go back to their schools for a couple of months before they could take the second part of the training: another 6 hours. We ran this training program each semester for a few years and had school circles happening weekly in 5 schools districts. These circles reached about 200 middle school and high school students every week. Each school principal was seeing “amazing results” in the behavior and better grades that they were seeing from the students that were in the circles.

Circle dynamics

I sat on a park bench with one of our facilitators and we talked about our success, and about how to reach more students. In a single moment, both of us looked at each other and simultaneously said, “I’ve got an idea!” We both had the same idea. . . to find a way to train teachers to do the things we did. With this approach, we could conceivably reach thousands or even tens of thousands of teens as opposed to a few hundred. And Circle Dynamics Group was born . . . 60 days before COVID changed everything.

Like everyone else in the country (and in the world) we struggled with our own feelings of uncertainty, stress, and anxiety. We saw teachers struggling, parents being outraged, masks go on, masks come off, etc. We used the struggles of COVID time to ask ourselves questions like:

  • “What do we mean ‘be curious’?”
  • “How do we train adults to respect students — especially the more challenging students?”
  • “When we’re ‘triggered’ by a student’s actions what, exactly, do we do, and how can we train teachers to do that?”

We tested our ideas and processes with some teachers and district leaders, and they encouraged us to continue to develop these ideas and processes. We did a few workshops, both in-person (masked) and on Zoom. We reached out to our educator friends around the country for their input.

From all this exploration, we came up with a new approach to working with students of any age. We call this the CLRS Approach: Be Curious, Listen, Respect, and Support. This is now the foundation of what we train educators to do. Along the way, we discovered that the CLRS Approach works well with family, friends, and everyone we meet. This Approach provides a very fast path to connection with others. Connection gives us (and the “others” we interact with) a sense of belonging, empathy, trust, warmth, and encouragement. According to psychologists, these are the central building blocks to mental fitness and resilience.

Circle Dynamics Group: Looking ahead

It’s now the end of February 2022, and we are a couple of weeks away from launching our first online course, “The CLRS Approach: Practical Tools for Discovery and Connection”, followed by “Reconnecting & Re-engaging with Your Students” which will be available for the Fall 2022 semester.

We have found that our CLRS Approach is a perfect fit with any district-wide SEL program, and are committed to bringing this toolset to several U.S. school districts this year. We continue to develop additional tools, trainings, and metrics, and to expand our capabilities to serve more school districts by hiring and training additional staff.

Larry Levenson, Founder

Larry is the founder of Circle Dynamics Group and has 12 years of professional experience in training people to use CLRS and emotional intelligence effectively.

He has been the School Circle Coordinator for Boys to Men Arizona where he supervised and supported multiple discussion circles each week across five school districts. Larry has served on the Board of Directors for Boys to Men USA where he trained new mentors across the country in leading conversations with emotional intelligence and developing new Boys to Men centers.

Larry enjoys hiking the deserts and mountains of Arizona, photography, and dreaming up more training programs.

Harry Kroner,

Harry has a Master’s degree in psychology and has focused in the past twenty years on teaching personal and spiritual growth through workshops, seminars, and one-on-one sessions with individuals around the world.

He also authored the book, Freedom from Anxiety. He has refined his skills in running circles in our method, on a weekly basis in the local high school as a volunteer, and facilitating training for other circle leaders.

His mission is to awaken and empower all that seek to discover their authentic and greater self.

Adam Young,

Adam has a Masters Degree in Teaching, was a high school teacher for 10 years, and has 8 years of mentoring experience with Boys to Men Mentoring as the Program Director.

Adam was a classroom teacher for more than ten years and while he enjoyed teaching, he has found that being a mentor was an incredibly rewarding experience. He has learned so much by sitting in discussion circles and listening to young people talk about what they are going through, what they dream of doing, and what challenges they face.

Adam grew up in New York state and has lived in Japan, Hawaii, and has spent the last 20 years in Arizona.

Adam shares his home with his wonderful wife, teenage daughter and 3 cats.

What our clients say about us

  • Teacher
    Excellent! We all need more of this training! Great discussions and tools to help students identify and articulate their feelings and move toward healing. Our students need this now!
    Prescott Unified School District
  • Teacher
    This was one of the best PD sessions I have ever attended! I learned practical ways to connect with students using tools I already use in my class but was given the opportunity to go deeper.
    Prescott Unified School District
  • Teacher
    I learned strategies on how to get my students more engaged in conversation and be better listeners.
    Prescott Unified School District
  • Teacher
    This is exactly what our students have been dealing with since the pandemic started. It was great to have another tool we can use to make those important connections between each other.
    Prescott Unified School District
  • Working with Circle Dynamics was just what we needed. It gave us perspective, practical tools, and time to practice them. We walked away refreshed and ready to embrace new opportunities with our students.
    Jessica Stickel
    Wellbeing Director, Prescott Unified School District
  • I’m getting training on how to really listen to my students, the ideas of acceptance and listening, and the importance of not trying to fix anyone. I can just listen to my kids talk, and that’s the most important thing I can do.
    Matt Jones
    From a Circle Dynamics training in Colorado
  • This experience has been invaluable to me because I’m learning what I don’t know. And I’m learning how much better I can be in working with students.
    Rick Hunter
    Founder of Resilient People Initiative
  • In our training, I noticed right away how tuned in Larry is. He can read our body language and read the people in our group and knows where to put his attention, his focus. It’s a good skill for me to recognize -- I can take this idea and be more aware of the whole background situation while I’m listening to one person.
    From a Circle Dynamics training in Colorado
  • With a Master's degree in psychology, I thought I knew how to handle a lot of different situations. Then I started using CLRS and my relationship with the teens we serve and with our staff has dramatically improved. I find I can connect quickly with teens I've never met before. I'm stepping into leadership with grace, and without stress.
    Ben Castro
    Program Director, The Launch Pad Teen Center
  • What I’m learning is that kids just want someone to listen to them. The art of listening is everything!
    From a Circle Dynamics training in Colorado
  • Martha
    After only 30 minutes, I feel inspired and connected. . . and I discovered there is a lot of power in just being curious.
    Martha Levenson
    Paraprofessional, Seattle Public Schools
  • Jeff Brown
    Just want to let you know we had our first circle on Friday morning before we started class and it went very well. I explained what we’re doing and the kids got right into it right away. A few of them that rarely speak opened up big time and I understood what made them tick because they were talking about relationships at home how that affects them at school. They also talked about their frustration with other kids bullying them. I have been with these students for 6 months and I’d never known this. Thank you for showing me a new way to really connect with my students!
    Jeff Brown
    SPED teacher, Bradshaw Mountain High School