Education: A ring of confidence in class: Diana Hinds sees children learning to share their thoughts and feelings during 'circle time'

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The Independent Online
IT IS 'circle time' for the five- and six-year-olds at Eastwick County First School, Great Bookham, Surrey. Andrew, who is new to the school, has been chosen to sit in the 'Magic Chair'.

'I like Andrew's shoes,' says one child.

'I like his shorts,' says the next.

'I like him because he plays with me in the playground,' says Eleanor.

The anxious look on Andrew's face gradually gives way to broad smiles, as his classmates, seated in a circle around him, take it in turns to say 'something nice' about him. They pass a small teddy bear from one to the other and only the person holding the teddy is allowed to speak.

'I think he's wonderful,' says Robert, and the whole class breaks into noisy giggles.

The principal aim of circle time is to build up children's self-esteem. It encourages them to share their thoughts and feelings, to listen to one another, and to recognise that each has something to offer. Shy children are given a chance to speak, while the more dominant ones have to wait their turn. Eastwick school has found the method so helpful that it has been incorporated into school policy and each class now has a circle session at least once a week.

Thelma Page, a teacher at Eastwick, came across the circle method three years ago. It first appealed to her as a way of helping children who were reluctant to take their work home in case it was criticised by their parents. 'I wanted to get across to them that there are all kinds of things you can be good at. Circle time gives them an opportunity to talk about other things. For instance, perhaps they are the kindest person in the class.'

Jenny Mosley, one of the pioneers of this approach and author of Turn Your School Round, maintains that circle time can be fundamental to pupils both academically and socially. It can also be justified in terms of classroom time since it addresses specific requirements in the national curriculum for English, enhancing listening skills and the ability to speak thoughtfully and coherently.

At Eastwick, the method is put to different uses according to the needs and ages of the children. While the youngest children benefit from small groups and short sessions of five to 10 minutes, a class of 30 seven-year-olds may have a circle discussion for 20 minutes or more, on topics such as 'I'm happiest when . . .', 'I hate it when . . .', 'If I were a teacher, I'd . . .'.

Lina Heather, a reception-class teacher, said circle time could be a useful way of introducing a new concept, for example in maths, as well as training children to listen and take their turn. 'It's hard because little children always want to be first - they are still very egocentric.'

At the other end of the school, Mrs Page recently devoted a circle session to her seven-year- olds' thoughts and feelings about moving on to middle school next term. Passing the obligatory teddy from one to the other, the children first took it in turns to say what they thought would be better about their new school. Many said sport or the range of clubs. One boy said he was looking forward to the work, 'especially the sums'.

They were then asked to say what 'might not be so nice' about middle school, a more demanding exercise, but one that produced some thoughtful contributions.

'Getting bullied,' said Matthew. 'My brother is getting bullied by a couple of girls in the seventh year. But he said he was going to tell the teacher about it.'

'My sister will show off to her friends, and she said the third years are sissies,' said Vicky.

'I'm a bit afraid of not making friends,' said Nicholas.

'I'm worried about finding my way around the school,' said Anna.

As the children voiced their fears, Mrs Page offered reassuring comments and advice to the whole group. She told them, for instance, that the way to cope with bullies was to ignore them if possible and, if not, to tell the teacher. She admitted she had been afraid, when she started at her new school, that she would be thought babyish by the bigger children.

'Circle time is a way of focusing on feelings, which is something we've never really done in the past,' she said afterwards. 'It's a way of saying to the children, it's all right to feel worried - it's something we all share.'

'Turn Your School Round' by Jenny Mosley, pounds 16.95, from Learning Development Aids, Duke Street, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire PE13 2AE.

(Photograph omitted)