How it all began: A brief history of Circle Dynamics Group

Teenagers in group circle discussion

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 names 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, parents, and teachers. We shared joys and successes together. We shed tears together. We developed a deep connection, something that made it wonderful (for all of us) to be together each week.

Along the way, Adam, the teacher who had been with us from the very first day, realized that he could take off his “teacher hat” in our circle, and simply be himself, without giving up any power or losing any respect. In fact, the respect he had from the students INCREASED throughout this semester.

The next 4 years: Learning what 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 school 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 students as opposed to only 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 going on, masks coming 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?”, and “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 teachers and district leaders, and they encouraged us to continue to develop these ideas and processes. We did a few workshops, both in-person 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 spring 2022, and we just launched our first online course, “The CLRS Approach: Practical Tools for Discovery and Connection”. We’re also in conversation with a few school districts about our train-the-trainer program to expand and support their existing SEL programs.

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, training, and metrics, and expand our capabilities to serve more school districts by hiring and training additional staff.

If you’d like to learn more, you can contact me. I look forward to talking with you.

People are Talking about our Training

This was one of the best sessions I have ever attended. I was given practical ways to connect with students using tools I already use in my class but was given the opportunity to go deeper.
Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson is the founder of Circle Dynamics Group and a national leader in training educators in emotional intelligence and the use of genuine listening and curiosity in conversations with students. He has a Master's degree in Human Development.

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