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Creating an Optimal Emotional Environment for Learning: The Circle Solutions Principles and Pedagogy March 22, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Inclusive Education, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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by Sue Roffey

There are some students who will achieve whatever the climate of the classroom. These fortunate individuals are likely to have supportive families who establish clear boundaries with high, appropriate expectations whilst offering unconditional love (Newland, 2014). These students will not be in the throes of family breakdown nor experiencing other major life changes. They will not be struggling with poverty, violence, bullying, racism, homophobia, mental or physical health difficulties nor experiencing any of the other adversities that life often presents. These students will have predominantly positive emotions about themselves and their worlds that enable them to be curious, engaged and confident.

All teachers, however, will be able to identify students who are dealing one or more of the issues listed above. Some have the personal and environmental factors that help them to cope (Werner, 2004) while others have fewer resources at their disposal. There will also be young people flying under the radar – who live within a less than favourable environment for their wellbeing but no-one at school knows what is happening for them and are unaware of the multiple factors that may be impinging on their engagement, learning, behaviour and social interactions.

Everyone has a need for social and emotional wellbeing and we do not necessarily know which students are struggling. In a supportive learning environment everyone takes responsibility for the emotional climate. This means that wellbeing programs need to be universal. Interventions aimed at a targeted population may not result in sustainable change. For example, where students lacking social skills are removed from the class for special training this may lead to a higher level of skill in those individuals but others still have the same perceptions: consequently when these students are re-integrated, previous behaviours are expected and reinforced (Frederickson, 1991).

Social and Emotional Learning

In 1996 the Delors Report for UNESCO outlined four pillars for learning in the 21st century. These are learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together. The first two are usually the focus of the formal curriculum but the second two are beginning to have more traction in education. Without pro-active intervention, the default position may be negative and the classroom becomes a toxic environment where bullying and other negative behaviours thrive. There is also increasing evidence that SEL impacts positively not only on social behaviours but also on engagement and academic outcomes (Durlak et al, 2011). Schools need to think through what is on offer for learning about the self and relationships, and ensure this takes place in a safe and supportive setting. As there has been some justifiable critique of SEL as ‘therapeutic education’ (Ecclestone & Hayes, 2008), the processes that underpin this learning need as much attention as the content.

The Circle Solutions philosophy (Roffey, 2014) addresses this within a set of principles that provide a foundation for both a supportive classroom and an optimal pedagogy for SEL. Given the acronym ASPIRE, these principles are agency, safety, positivity, inclusion, respect and equality.  This is a brief explanation of what this means in practice.

Agency. Learning in school is often didactic – teachers delivering information to students who are told what to do and how to do it.  Giving students agency is more in line with socratic learning – questions and discussion that lead to critical thinking and the development of ideas.

When students have agency they make decisions on behalf of themselves. This is about choice, but also about taking responsibility. Where students decide on class values and ground rules, bullying is less likely to happen because everyone has thought about how we all want to feel here. A focus on group work and collaboration means the whole class takes responsibility for the emotional climate for learning. It is not up to one or two people but everyone. When teachers give students agency this helps them identify different options, reflect on these and then decide for themselves. This enables them to choose how to act and then take responsibility for the choices they make, including accepting consequences.  It is learning from the inside out about how to be and how to live together well – not control from the outside in (Roffey, 2011).

Safety is embedded in the Circle pedagogy in several ways. Issues are addressed but never incidents, so students learn ways to handle experiences objectively rather than subjectively. Issues are addressed in an impersonal, indirect way – perhaps using the third person rather than the first.  Although participants often choose to give a glimpse of their own narratives, the Circle is structured to inhibit personal disclosure. This addresses some of the criticisms that have been levelled at SEL.  Many students are anxious about making a mistake or being put on the spot. When you are with a partner or small group it is much easier to experiment, take risks and present shared ideas. This promotes confidence. It is also easier to make a stand or stick up for someone if this is a group effort. Cooperative learning is valuable across the curriculum but especially so in SEL (Johnson & Johnson, nd). Some students may have learnt that others are unreliable. They may need to build up trust slowly over time both with fellow students and with teachers. Discussing what trust means, looks like and feels like is a way of exploring how to establish an environment where people can feel safe in trusting each other.

The right to silence. Some students do not have the initial confidence to speak up in a public forum and a class or Circle is not a safe place if they feel under pressure to do so. In Circles they are given the choice to ‘pass’  Evidence suggests that students will speak when they feel safe, have confidence and believe they have something worthwhile to say.

 Respect. Respect can be defined as being accepted, listened to, and not being judged. It also means simply being acknowledged.  One of the Circle guidelines is ‘when you are speaking everyone will listen because what you have to say is important.   This means listening to others when it is their turn’. Listening to what others have to say can only happen when there are opportunities to speak. Young people who have been silenced or have little control in their lives might shout to be heard. Often we shut these voices down as disruptive. The students who get listened to are the ‘good kids’ who get onto student representative councils.  One way of addressing this is to disband established groups by mixing people up so they get to talk – and listen to – those outside their usual social circles.  In Circles ‘pair shares’ are intended to seek commonalities and ‘paired interviews’ to discover another’s perspectives.

Students of all ages relish opportunities to reflect on and discuss things that concern them: not personal incidents but issues that touch on their lives such as friendship and feelings. There are many resources to support such conversations in safe and fun ways in Circles using photographs, stories, statements, games and role-plays.

Positivity. The burgeoning knowledge in neuropsychology promotes the value of an optimistic perspective, relational values such as kindness and gratitude (Lyubomirsky, 2007; Piliavin, 2003) and the connection between feelings and learning. It makes sense on many levels to promote the positive. Many young people do not think of themselves well: even those from supportive backgrounds may feel they do not meet expectations. Others may perceive classmates negatively and not be able to acknowledge the strengths they do have. Students need to tune into their own and others’ strengths and be able to use these in their relationships and in their learning.

A solution focus. We live in a problem-saturated culture. Although there are challenges to be overcome, it might be better to start with a solution rather than the problem. When people focus on ways to get rid of something they don’t like (such as bullying) rather than what needs to happen instead (inclusion, friendship, support) they spend too much energy on the problem itself. A solution focus envisages where you want to go and what you want to happen.

Positive Emotions. Positive emotions not only enable students to focus but they also facilitate creativity and problem solving. (Fredrickson, 2009) Positive emotions include a sense of belonging, feeling valued, safe, comfortable, cared for, respected and loved. Positive emotions are also experienced in moments of exuberance, excitement and shared humour. Laughter releases oxytocin into our bodies – this promotes connectedness and resilience. Promoting shared humour in Circle sessions is one of the main reasons students love them. They also respond positively to the playfulness that is embedded in many of the activities (Hromek & Roffey, 2009).


The Circle pedagogy uses energetic games to mix everyone up. This happens several times in a session. The expectation is that everyone will work with everyone else. This breaks up cliques, helps people get to know each other and facilitates new perspectives,  This happens most actively when pairs are looking for things they have in common. Everything in Circles happens in interaction with others, in pairs, small groups or in whole group activities.

Belonging and resilience: Feeling you belong is one of the most important factors in resilience and wellbeing (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). We know what it feels like to come into a place where we are warmly welcomed and some of us know what it feels like when the opposite happens.

Connectedness in school matters (Blum, 2005):  It is the most vulnerable children in our communities who are most to find themselves on the margins. Such students may not be compliant, courteous or conform. They may be aggressive, distracted and insolent. It can be difficult to like young people who behave in ways that are unacceptable in school. High expectations for behaviour are appropriate but rejecting poor behaviour is different from rejecting the student. Adults need to convey the message to all students, but especially those who struggle: ‘you are important, we want you here, it is not the same without you’.

Equality / Democracy: In a supportive classroom the teacher uses their authority to empower students rather than control them (McCashen, 2005). Equality is embedded in the Circle pedagogy, where participants and the facilitator sit in a Circle together to promote equality – and everyone participates in all the activities, adults and students alike. The quality of facilitation makes all the difference to both long and short-term outcomes for SEL (McCarthy & Roffey, 2013).  In a school where everyone has an authentic voice this promotes equality as well as responsibility towards what is in everyone’s best interests, not just an elite few. Alongside the important value of freedom is the equally important value of responsibility. One person’s freedom to play loud music at 4am impacts on the freedom of others to sleep. Working out what is fair can be complex but we need our young people to learn how to negotiate and resolve conflict. Unless students experience democracy in school they are unlikely to realise what it means in practice at the socio-political level when they are old enough to vote.

We are social beings; our identity and worldviews are constructed in our interactions with others (Habermas, 1990). The emotions we feel, manage and respond to are situated within a social context. Relationships and feelings matter and are the lynchpin of a supportive environment for learning. When a school, is run on the basis of the principles above this builds an emotional and relational climate where both teacher and student wellbeing are likely to be enhanced (Roffey, 2012). When wellbeing becomes core school business there will be greater student engagement with learning and therefore increased academic outcomes, more pro-social behaviour and higher levels of resilience.



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Durlak, J.A., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., Schellinger, K.B. and Weissberg, R.P. (2011) The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school based universal interventions. Child Development 82 (1) 405-432.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Ecclestone, K. and Hayes, D. (2008). The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education. London: Routledge.

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Habermas, J. (1990). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Hromek. R. and Roffey. S. (2009). Games as a pedagogy for social and emotional learning. “Its fun and we learn things”, Simulation and Gaming, 40(5): 626–44.

Johnson, D.W. and Johnson. R.T. (nd). Co-operative Learning: Values and Culturally Plural Classrooms. http://bit.ly/1N6xnZg Accessed June 18th 2015

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McCarthy, F. and Roffey, S. (2013). Circle Solutions: a philosophy and pedagogy for learning positive relationships. What promotes and inhibits sustainable outcomes? The International Journal of Emotional Education 5 (1) 36-55.

McCashen, W. (2005). The Strengths Approach: A strengths based resource for sharing power and creating change. Bendigo: St Luke’s Innovative Resources.

Newland, L.A. (2014). Supportive family contexts: promoting child wellbeing and resilience Early Child Development and Care, 184:9-10, 1336-1346.

Noble, T., McGrath, H., Roffey, S. & Rowling, L. (2008). Scoping Study into Approaches to Student Wellbeing. Canberra, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

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Roffey, S. (2008). Emotional literacy and the ecology of school wellbeing. Educational and Child Psychology 25 (2).

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Associate Professor Sue Roffey is an adjunct professor in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia. She is a psychologist, academic, author and creator of the Circle Solutions framework for social and emotional learning. sue@sueroffey.com

I don’t get it…..yet March 7, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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by Karen McDaid

I love mathematics and not just a little! I really love mathematics, but when I recall my mathematical school experiences, I do so with a fairly dispassionate attitude. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I disliked school mathematics. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed learning and grasped most mathematical concepts fairly quickly, which meant I met with a small but consistent degree of success in mathematics. I did alright in standardised tests, was about middle in the class, but I was not ‘smart’ in an academic sense, or at least I didn’t think so. In saying that, I was always more than happy to persevere with a challenging problem and wouldn’t let anything get the better of me.

On the other hand, Paula White, who became my friend in Year 4, was my antithesis. I thought Paula was very ‘smart’. She was awarded first in class many times throughout primary school. I admired her greatly and aspired to be as ‘smart’ as her. However, my observations of her as a learner through the years, even to my young self, were puzzling. Although she was top of the class in most of the mathematics tests we undertook, when facing a challenging mathematical problem where the solution was not immediately obvious, often the first words she said were, “I don’t get this” or “This is stupid”. By Year 8 Paula had slipped into a cycle of avoidance and her achievements in primary school were not reflected in high school. It seems to me now that she was so caught up in proving her capabilities and successes that she forgot, or couldn’t embrace, the opportunity to learn. I frequently wondered what made us so different.

Many years later as a teacher I noticed the same traits in several of my Stages 2, 3 and 4 (Years 4 to 8) students in the first few weeks of the year. Some were keen to tackle challenging problems or at least persevere with problems; others used Paula’s mantra to indicate their displeasure. What I found interesting was that there was absolutely no correlation between my primary and high school students’ defeatist attitude and their actual ability in mathematics. I knew they could achieve if only they would try. In more recent years, while teaching Mathematics to primary pre-service teachers at university I often heard Paula’s “I don’t get this” from the adult students with whom I was working. Many also subscribed to society’s misconception that a person is either born with a mathematical ability or they are not. Unfortunately, this misconception has created a culture where it is socially acceptable for someone to openly proclaim that they are ‘no good’ at mathematics and where the belief is that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable (Boaler, 2013).

So began my quest to understand what influences attitudes towards, and self-efficacy in mathematics. My aim was to see if it was possible to develop resilience, motivation and foster positive self-efficacy in my students and in the primary pre-service teachers with whom I work. I became particularly interested in the research of Carol Dweck at Stanford University into fixed and growth mindsets. Dweck (2006) describes a fixed mindset as a significant impediment to learning as it affects the ability of the learner to ‘believe’ in themselves and thus impacts their cognitive development. She also defines mindsets as a set of powerful beliefs that are in the mind and as such are changeable. Dweck argues that those who have a tendency towards a fixed mindset are rarely willing to persevere with challenges for fear they will expose their perceived deficiencies. She believes that this attitude turns people into ‘non-learners’ and an examination of the brain-waves of people with a fixed mindset demonstrated a loss of motivation when faced with challenging problems (Dweck, 2006). On the other hand, people who have a growth mindset are more open to challenges, give up less easily and believe that intelligence is malleable.

I found Dweck’s work fascinating and when reflecting on Paula’s behaviour, I realised that she had exhibited many fixed mindset behaviours as did some of my students. A study into motivation conducted by Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck (2007) followed hundreds of students transitioning to 7th grade. The study found that students who had been identified as having a growth mindset were more motivated and achieved at a higher level than those with a fixed mindset in mathematics and the gap between them continued to increase over the following two years. When a growth mindset intervention was implemented in further studies, Blackwell et al (2007) and Good et al (2003) found that the achievement gap reduced further and in particular that the gap between girls and boys was significantly reduced.

In recent times there has been a lot of talk about brain plasticity, and both Dweck and Boaler acknowledge that intelligence is malleable. My challenge has been to move the immovable from ‘I don’t get it’ to believe that they can ‘get it’. So, how did all this knowledge contribute to my teaching and learning objectives in the mathematics classroom? Well it didn’t, at least not in the beginning. While my teaching philosophy has evolved over a number of years, I have always strived to create a classroom culture where students were learners, not just in name, but really enthusiastic, motivated and driven learners. No doubt this is every teacher’s goal! As such, I set high expectations and wanted students to feel safe to be risk takers. My teaching philosophy mirrored a growth mindset classroom.

So I was working within a growth mindset, unfortunately, that was just it! ‘I’ was working using a growth mindset. While I had taken the time to set up a classroom culture with my school students, I didn’t communicate my philosophy to my university students. I didn’t expect the school children to know what was in my mind; I clearly communicated and worked with them to create a safe learning space. What made me think that my university students would know what was on my mind? They didn’t know about the classroom culture that I was striving to achieve, yet they were part of the classroom community too.

“Just the words “yet’ of “not yet,” we’re finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence”.

(Carol Dweck, 2014)

While teaching time is finite, instead of rushing headlong into content in the first tutorial, I have found that spending twenty minutes setting up our classroom culture has been valuable for student engagement and for students’ self-efficacy in mathematics. I communicate my teaching philosophy and acknowledge that ‘we’ create the culture of the learning space. We discuss how our attitudes can set us up for success and take five minutes in small groups to discuss a time when we learned something well through hard work. We explore the notion of fixed and growth mindset and malleable intelligence. We set high standards for our learning and revisit this notion throughout the semester. No question is ‘dumb’ and mistakes are actively encouraged. I have learned to change my thinking and my language and that praise should be connected to behaviour rather than achievement.

This is my story, which changes according to student dynamics and as I continue to learn and adapt my teaching. I don’t claim that it will work for everyone, but I have seen a marked improvement in the effort and determination with which all students engage with the mathematics activities in class. Students have eagerly embraced replacing the statement ‘I don’t get it’ with ‘I don’t get it yet’. But one of the greatest and most powerful transformations is when you see a student who might have given up in the past, collaborate to work really hard on a mathematical problem and then suddenly they see the value in their effort and shout ‘I get it now!’


Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development78. 246-263, Study 1.

Boaler, J. (2013). Ability and Mathematics: the mindset revolution that is reshaping education. FORUM, 55(1), Retrieved from http://www.youcubed.org/wp-content/uploads/14_Boaler_FORUM_55_1_web.pdf on 12th November 2015.

Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Dweck, C. S. (2014). The power of believing that you can improve. [Video/TED talk] Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve/transcript?language=en

Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents’ standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 645-662.

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Karen McDaid is a lecturer in mathematics education in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.

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