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Developing Community for Your Child with a Circle of Friends
BY Janice Fialka Written on August 1, 2017
School inclusion is exciting in its promise of creating opportunities for all children, with and without disabilities, to learn and grow together. But to develop community and meaningful connections with peers, you have to learn how to intentionally invite support and create ways for students to interact. For my son, building a Circle of Friends to encourage authentic social interaction and support has been absolutely necessary for his growth and for establishing an inclusive community environment. We are happy that we and his school created Circles of Friends and Peer Mentors early in elementary school for him.
Connecting with Other Kids
In those early years, when my son was the first student who was genuinely included in general education classes, we were fortunate to have the guidance and wisdom of leaders in the field of inclusion. In particular, the Inclusion Institute in Toronto—including Jack Pearpoint, Marsha Forest, and many other people—guided us in understanding how important Circles of Friends would be for our son, Micah, and the school at large. We attended workshops and learned how to build a Circle of Friends.
We learned that Circles were a formal way to invite and support the concept of friendship. One of things we noticed was that everybody was friendly to Micah, but very few people were actually friends.
We took the Circle of Friends concept to the school, encouraging them to consider starting one for Micah. Although they had never facilitated this type of group, with some encouraging the social worker was willing to try. The very first time he met with the kids in the classroom—it was second or third grade—he had a discussion with the students about what are friends, why do we have friends, what do you do with friends? Micah was in class for that discussion.
When the social worker returned to the class about a week later, with our permission Micah was not in the class. The counselor said, “We want to think about how to include Micah. We are going to create something we call Circle of Friends, and we’ll meet once a week and have fun and learn how to be friends together. How many people want to be in that?”
Well, at that age, everybody raises their hand, right? And they said definitely, I want to be in that Circle. The social worker and teacher selected about eight kids, and they met regularly.
Hanging Out and Helping Out
Some Circles of Friends end up being a little more on the therapy side. In this case, our main focus was for Micah to have the opportunity to hang out with his peers. We were lucky in that some of the moms were into arts and crafts, and offered ideas and help in doing art projects together. One time the students made stuffed animals and delivered them to children who were in the hospital during the holidays.
Every once in a while, there’d be an opportunity to problem-solve around an issue. For example, in those early years, Micah’s speech was sometimes hard for others to understand. He wanted to connect with people but didn’t always know how to do that. He often would poke kids to get their attention. That was irritating to the kids. No one addressed it, resulting in the kids sometimes ignoring or keeping their distance from Micah.
In the Circle, with careful guidance by the social worker, the students were able to have a conversation about this issue. They acknowledged that all of us sometimes do things that are irritating, so initially, it was not “just about Micah.” Later, they gently discussed Micah’s use of poking to get others’ attention. The students decided that they would think about a way to signal to Micah that they needed a few minutes before they would respond back to him. They used a raised hand sign that would mean to Micah to stop and wait.
Then the Circle members role-played situations, taking turns about how to use the signal. They practiced it, and they had fun with it. The important lesson was that they “broke the silence” and found a healthy, safe way to acknowledge the issue and brainstorm kind ways to handle awkward situations. Micah also began to understand that the Circle was a safe place for him, and that his peers could support him as opposed to avoid him.
On to Middle School
And so, the Circle continued. The same kids weren’t in it every year or even every semester. When it came time for middle school, we invited parents of the Circle members to attend an informal gathering to share more about the Circle and to recruit their ideas about how to maintain it in middle school. We were pleased that eight parents attended. We unexpectedly learned how important the Circle was to their kids, and how much they liked it. They shared many great ideas about activities that could be planned for the Circle.
One person had a relationship with a business that had suites at the football stadium. The parent was able to get the business to donate the suite once a semester. The kids came, ate lots of food, and had the fun experience of watching the game from a suite.
Another person said, “I work at a senior citizen home. How about if the kids come once a month and play bingo?” The kids were given opportunities to hang out together. It wasn’t perfect, of course. There were many weekends when Micah didn’t have a lot to do. But there were more chances to socialize due to the intentional planning by students, the social worker, and the parents.
High School, College, and Beyond
The Circle continued in high school. Micah would meet with his speech therapist prior to Circle meetings and identify questions that he might ask to encourage a fun, healthy exchange of conversation. We later learned that all of the students found this informal pizza and talk time relaxing. Micah got a chance to hear what his peers liked doing and the range of activities they were engaged in. He joined in some of those activities.
Micah was part of the first wave of students with intellectual disabilities who attended college. He continued to have a Circle and recruited students, faculty, and university staff. Again, members enjoyed gathering together for pizza and having conversations together as well as helping Micah get involved in campus activities.
The Circle played a vital role when Micah learned that the university denied him the chance to live on campus. It was the Circle that encouraged Micah to create a petition demanding that Micah’s right to live in the dorm be honored. Members of Micah’s Circle consistently share how these gatherings benefited everyone.
After college, when he decided that he was going to move from his home in Detroit, Michigan, 400 miles away to Syracuse, New York, the first thing he said was, “If I’m going to move there, I’ve got to make my Circle of Friends in Syracuse.” It became clear that over the years, he’d developed a sophisticated understanding that his Circles were fundamentally important to his quality of life and ability to live interdependently. The Circles are an essential tool to his ability to negotiate decisions and plan his life.
There is a constant sort of calling people together and recruiting that goes on. Micah serves pizza at his Circle of Friends and keeps his monthly meetings to one hour. The group meets on the campus of Syracuse University, which is where he works. We have learned that one way to strengthen membership and group identity is to have the Circle members give presentations about this experience.
Keeping the Circle Going
Keeping up the Circle requires ongoing reflection, nudging, inviting, and creating. Folks may not be able to attend all meetings. Notes emailed to everyone keep the members informed about what is happening and current issues or needs, as well as accomplishments. For example, there’s one woman who was on a research project with Micah at Syracuse. She and Micah would meet twice a month and write a blog about what he was doing. (You can read more about their blogging together in our new book, What Matters.) Two years later, she moved to Vermont. Yet they still blog together through Skype and phone conversations. This is an example of how initially a more formal relationship eventually transforms into a friendship.
The Circle is incredibly helpful to parents whose task it is to move from protector to guide as their child grows and enters adulthood. As we see things that might need to be addressed or discussed, as parents we have learned how to suggest to Micah, “Maybe you might want to discuss such and such with your Circle.” We are stepping back while simultaneously reinforcing a reasonable way to seek support and guidance. “Micah, here’s a question you might want to bring to your Circle.” He is much more open to this path as opposed to doing what we think he might do.