How big should a circle be?

 

Question:

We've experimented with different circle sizes, and I believe there is such a thing as too big a circle. What do you think is an ideal size for circles? 
– Xioel Terrero, school counselor and  former after-school program coordinator, PS/MS214, Bronx, NY
 

The Keeper:

I have facilitated meaningful circles with groups as large as 50 and as small as three. The size of a circle can vary depending on the time and space available. It also depends on the content of the circle. In circles that are focused on problem-solving, harm doing, and/or on a disciplinary issue, for instance, you want to invite the people who are directly involved and/or related to the problem or disciplinary issue, and in some cases, allies to provide support. 

Obviously, when working with very small groups, it’s hard to sit in an actual circle, but I’ve sat in small groups around a center piece, in chairs without obstacles (such as desks) between us.  Even though we weren’t seated in an exact circle, the process guided our circle. In larger groups, I’m meticulous about putting the chairs in an actual circle so that participants can see each other and the energy is contained as it flows around.

Though I’ve seen circles of over 30 people work, I’ve found that circles of around 12-15 students tend to work better, especially with elementary and middle school students. Not only do smaller circles allow more time for each participant to share, they allow for more go rounds to reflect and share on the topic, possibly deepening the conversation.  Smaller circles also help maintain the focus. And some students (as well as adults) just find it easier to share in smaller more intimate groups.   

In our introductory circles course, we often have around 30 adults participating. This means that even if all participants limit themselves to a minute of talking each, a single go-round will take up to 30 minutes. Story-telling go rounds can take longer still, especially as people get comfortable with each other and the process and start sharing more personally.

I've found, though, that most students don’t take as much time to express themselves as adults. Students tend to pass more often, as well, especially in a larger circle.  As a result, a go round in a student circle tends to take less time.

When you’re preparing a circle, then, it’s important to keep in mind that circle size is directly related to how long a circle will take. You want to allow time for everyone to express themselves. This means thinking about the timing of the opening and closing ceremony, the prompts and the sequencing of those prompts. For instance, if you allowed a few minutes for the opening and closing ceremony and a few minutes per participant to share, a circle of 30 students could take over an hour. A circle of 15-20, on the other hand, may well fit a 35-45 minute time frame.
 

Do you have questions about using circles or restorative practices in your school? Send them to the Keeper!