Creating and maintaining a peaceful environment in elementary schools

Tom Cavanagh, Ph.D.
Francis Gaebler, Psy.D.
Toni Schindler Zimmerman, Ph.D.


Friendship is a very powerful bond,
That brings us all together,
In fact it’s so strong.
We can’t measure it.
Friendship pushes
Sadness out of the world.
It’s hard to think all that
Comes out in one word.

(Poem written by a student who participated in Circle training at the school where this book was developed and trialed.)

The purpose of this book or Collection is to offer a simple, easy-to-use facilitator’s guide for helping teachers, counselors, and parents of children K-6 to develop a school culture where violence is prevented and conflicts and problems are resolved nonviolently. Outcomes for this curriculum include the creation of an interpersonal and relational culture, where students feel safe, respected, heard, and confident about solving problems as part of a team. This curriculum fits with the fields of moral education, social and emotional learning, and nurturing pedagogy, and the outcomes are consistent with the current conversation in these fields.

Introduction cont...

Based on Tom Cavanagh’s research, the authors believe the skills the students learn in this Collection are fundamental to learning how to respond to wrongdoing and conflict nonviolently. The Collection helps students become moral people and builds their character. This Collection affords teachers a research-based, step-by-step program that is student tested, parent approved, teacher friendly, and developmentally appropriate. The Collection was intentionally developed to be straight forward and time efficient. The workshops in this Collection build upon each other or can stand-alone.

The benefit of this Collection is that children will learn concrete and applicable skills to resolve conflicts nonviolently and become intrinsically motivated to be empathetic and caring people who are more interested in reconciliation and restoration rather than retribution and vengeance. As a result students, teachers, and parents can create a culture of care in their school. This school culture will be based on prevention, peaceful conflict resolution, and restorative justice.

This Collection provides educators with a research-based program for creating a caring culture in schools that supports caring teachers. The theory of the culture of care is based on the idea of transforming conflict and wrongdoing rather than controlling behavior, because such behaviors are inevitable and need to be viewed as learning opportunities rather than interruptions to academics. In this type of culture the response to problems, particularly those involving conflict and wrongdoing, is restorative rather than punitive. The major themes for this curriculum are:

  • Listening
  • Solving conflicts/problems peacefully (nonviolently)
  • Developing feeling identity, empathy, and team building
  • Learning about prejudices and biases

The Collection is consistent with creating a safe school and gives the students valuable skills for responding to conflict and wrongdoing in elementary school and beyond. The goal of this training is to help enhance elementary schools as caring places of individualized learning, independence and responsibility, calm, and emotional and physical safety, where the problems resulting from wrongdoing and conflict are solved together in a way that heals the harm to relationships and creates new relationships.

The authors of this Collection have grounded the contents in their actual experience in an elementary school that is dedicated to peace. Tom Cavanagh did a yearlong ethnographic study of the school to learn about the meaning of peace in this context. He duplicated this study as a Fulbright Fellow in a New Zealand area school. He found the skills that form the foundation of this Collection are the key to students learning how to resolve conflicts and respond to wrongdoing nonviolently. Francis Gaebler developed the Friendship Circles training about ten years ago. Toni Zimmerman created her Feelings Circle training more recently, and Tom Cavanagh authored Peacekeeping Circles during his study. All three of these sessions were repeatedly tested with children in grades K-6.

At the core of this Collection is the concept of talking circles. Educators are looking for practical ways to apply the principles of restorative justice to the day-to-day work of schooling. They want strategies that will help create a culture of care. Circles offer a practical way for teachers to implement restorative justice practices into their classrooms and reorient the response to problems involving student behavior. Circles offer a time for children to gather together to share their personal feelings and ideas about anything that is significant to them. By showing children that their opinions count, encouraging them to safely express feelings and make real choices educators can enhance students’ self-esteem more effectively than a system of external rewards.

The circles model for children often consists of weekly meetings lasting half an hour to 45 minutes where children sit in a circle. These sessions involve carrying out activities, games and the practice of speaking and listening skills, while sitting in a round and using a talking stick. Circles is a group activity in which any number of people (although 4 to 20 participants is most practical) sit down together with the purpose of furthering understanding of themselves and of one another. Also circles can be used for group problem solving.

Circles are a democratic and creative approach to building the capacity of teachers and students to address wrongdoing and conflict in a nonviolent way. Circles promote positive relationships and behavior, two of the most important elements for improving learning and the smooth and harmonious running of a school.

Circles is one of those ideas that come naturally to teachers as a way of building bridges and facilitating dialogue between pupils and teachers, and between pupils themselves. Fortunately, with a growing awareness of circles, this restorative approach has gained a higher priority now in both primary and secondary schools. It’s a simple idea, but for it to work well educators still need to know how to manage the circle and what pitfalls to avoid.

The authors bring their diverse backgrounds to this work, creating a rich foundation for this Collection. Francis Gaebler is a licensed child and family psychologist. Toni Zimmerman is a professor at Colorado State University in the field of human and family studies and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Her special interests are in three primary areas: gender, race, and class fairness training for elementary children; gender, race, and class critical analysis of popular press and media; training marriage and family therapists to be sensitive to diversity and equality. Tom Cavanagh is a researcher in the field of education, with special interest in how we can use restorative practices in a culture of care to create safe schools, physically, emotionally, and culturally. In this environment physical and emotional safety means freedom from harm and the threat of harm; cultural safety means freedom to be who and what we are.

This Collection is divided into three workbooks: (1) Feelings Circle, (2) Friendship Circle, and (3) Peacemaking Circle. The three workbooks are designed to engage students in cooperative learning and conflict resolution in the following grades: (1) 1st and 2nd grades – Feelings Circle, (2) 3rd and 4th grades – Friendship Circle, and (3) 5th and 6th grades – Peacemaking Circle.

The emphasis for 1st and 2nd graders is to learn about and express their own and others’ feelings, particularly focused on the development of empathy. 3rd and 4th graders continue to learn about empathy and also team building, and conflict resolution, and 5th and 6th graders focus on learning peacemaking and peacebuilding skills. The purpose of this Collection is to give students the skills they need both in school and in society to know how to resolve problems nonviolently. The curriculum is repeated for two consecutive years, creating continuity and greater insight for students. As a result the content has a high level of mastery. Students will benefit from participating in one or more of the workbook sessions. The maximum benefit will result from students attending all three workbook sessions.

Elementary school teachers, students, counselors, social workers, psychologists, high school student volunteers, and/or parents will ideally facilitate these sessions. Each year (except the first year) a person experienced in facilitating the training will work with an inexperienced person in a training-the-trainer model.

Each session described in the three workbooks begins with mindfulness training. The purpose of this training is to bring calm to the students, parents, and teachers before beginning the skills building exercises.

The design of this Collection is deliberately simple, flexible, repetitious, and consistent. The Collection contains three distinct parts that are written as an ongoing conversation that builds over time and is consistent with the developmental process of children in grades one through six. The authors believe the Collection would be best published in four separate volumes (introduction and three workbooks) so teachers could easily hand the appropriate volume to the person who is going to lead the session. The person will receive only the material that pertains to the workbook sessions they are leading. Ideally we believe the workbooks would each have a different color and be contained in a single box that is open so the spines of the four volumes of the Collection are showing. Each workbook will contain a format for each session, handouts for teachers and parents, and teaching tips.

Intended Audience:

The intended audience for this Collection is elementary school teachers, students, counselors, social workers, psychologists, high school student volunteers, and parents. Because this guide is written in a straightforward, step-by-step manner, it is easy for anyone to implement. The Collection was developed for the classroom teacher, who will either facilitate the appropriate program or ask a teacher’s aid, counselor, social worker, student mentor, or parent/volunteer to facilitate it. The facilitator can work with the entire class or a small group.

General Outline for Sessions.....

Welcome students. Greet each by name. (Use name tags if necessary).

Quieting Techniques: Begin (if time permits) with a time to quiet students (meditation, relaxation techniques, walking meditation, yoga for children, deep breathing exercises/moment of silence).

General Goals of session: This is a good time to briefly explain what the 2-3 main things you hope each student would learn during the session. Be sure each student understands what the objectives are prior to proceeding.

Homework Review: Have students share their successes or accomplishments with other team members:

  • Here is a time to practice complimenting and affirming others, catching other teammates doing well.
  • Reinforce “I statements” made by students.
  • Reinforce their Listening Skills during all discussions.
  • Reinforce reports of successful attempts at implementing Lessons Learned in Circles
  • You might establish a reward system for bringing in completed homework (a small toy from grab bag, a small snack, points toward a larger snack, etc.).

Training Activities: These activities are meant to focus on a specific skill (e.g. Active Listening, Team Building, Negotiating, etc.)

  • Review the activity and goals of activity with students.
  • Reinforce SAFETY & RESPECT. Clarify the safety precautions to be taken by each student were appropriate.
  • Reinforce that each team member should be aware of their own safety and that of their team mates at all times.
  • Session Leaders need to carefully review the activity and be aware of any possible ways injury could occur. In some activities like the Alligator Walk and Crossing the Andes, you might want to have another volunteer help you out.

Discussion: End with a review and discussion of the initial goals to see how each student and the group did with the stated goals. Help student evaluate themselves and their group/team.

At the end of each session could ask: Because of this session , What am I willing to do? What would you want to work on before next session? What will you remember most about this session?

Refreshments: Could do this during the Discussion. Bring a “healthy snack or rotate parents supplying healthy snacks.”

Allow for a brief quiet time (relaxation, meditation) of about 2-5 minutes to help students quiet themselves prior to ending the session. Here is another time to request students to rejoin class and consider doing so in a quiet manner, walking slowly back to their classroom or seats in class.

Send students away with their Homework Assignment/ Newsletter to parents and positive affirmations supporting their accomplishments this session.

Above all, HAVE FUN!

Section 1 – Feelings Circle

The Feelings Circle sets an important foundation for students to later successfully participate in Friendship and Peacemaking Circles. The Feelings Circles are designed to be held with children in Years 1 & 2. This training is intended to consist of eight 30 minute sessions, ideally held once a week. Each session will teach a skill related to identifying feelings, acknowledging their own and others’ feelings, understanding “double dip” feelings (having more than one feeling at a time – excited and nervous), and expressing feelings. Communication with parents will be in two forms: the student will have an art project or reminder sheet of skills learned to take home and share, and parents will receive a letter describing the activities and skills taught each week.

The eight sessions of the Feelings Circle are:

  1. learning feeling words – feeling bingo;
  2. more feeling words – match the feeling word with the face game;
  3. double dip feelings – ice cream cone drawings of our double dip feelings;
  4. learning to identify feelings, our own and others – story telling and naming the feelings;
  5. expressing our feelings – role plays;
  6. how to really listen to others feelings, can you acknowledge them – role play;
  7. acting on our feelings: shark, carp, crab, or dolphin;
  8. feelings and diversity – let's celebrate our feelings!

The lessons learned in the Feelings Circle were ritualized at Walden School, the school Cavanagh studied. This excerpt comes from Zimmerman's recollection of an event that occurred while she was teaching Feelings Circle at Walden School.

I walked into the Feelings Circle and Lisa said she had felt like a carp and a shark yesterday. She told me that each kid in her class got to tell about their Spring break. Several kids talked about going to Mexico and Disney World. Although Lisa had a great Spring break going to the park, playing with her brothers and sisters, and going to the zoo, she suddenly didn't feel like her Spring break was as exciting. She reported that she felt like a carp inside, "My break wasn't as exciting as theirs, I'm not telling about mine." She told the teacher she didn't want to tell about her break and just looked down at the floor as the others told their stories. Inside she felt jealous and angry at some of the other students. She told one of them that she would never go to Disney World - "It is for babies"! Realizing her feelings, she shared them with her teacher, who encouraged her to tell the class her feelings and about her Spring break. Lisa did both. Once she found her courage and felt like a dolphin, she was again proud of her Spring break and happy for the others. The students asked her lots of questions about what animals she saw at the zoo and what she did at the park.

Section 2 - Friendship Circle

Friendship Circle was developed by psychologist, Francis Gaebler, Ph.D., about eight years ago and introduced by him at the Walden School at the same time. The Friendship Circle training is a natural follow up to the Feelings Circle training for the Yeas 1 & 2 students The course is described as: “discovering empathy, teamwork, how to solve conflicts peacefully, and finding the good in everyone, even when we are angry and want to win.” That curriculum teaches students in Years 3 & 4 how to peacefully resolve conflicts that occur in their lives.

The eight sessions of the Friendship Circle training are:

  1. getting to know you, introduction to conflict resolution, and self-evaluation of class goals;
  2. working together as a group and creating groups for conflict resolution through negotiation;
  3. empathy discovered and I messages and negotiation;
  4. peaceful conflict resolution (practice);
  5. working together as a team (blind walk) and self-evaluation of goals;
  6. working together as a team (alligator walk in the swamp);
  7. working together as a team (crossing the Andes); and
  8. peaceful conflict resolution (role play) and self-evaluation of class goals.

During Gaebler's work at Walden School, he experienced this interchange with a mother of a student.

Angela's mother came up to her Friendship Leader on the morning of the Seventh Session and reported that the evening before, she and her husband were having a disagreement over a budgetary matter. After about fifteen minutes of arguing back and forth with the volume of their voices rising, Angela, who is in the 4th grade, came into the kitchen and quietly asked if they "needed a mediator". Angela immediately went into the instructions mediators give to those in conflict.

Angela's parents, who had been reading the Newsletters and Homework assignments, knew what Angela was attempting to do. Because they were caught off guard by her self assured manner and her skills, they quickly fell under her charm and went along with her efforts. They came to a successful resolution to the budgetary problem they were previously discussing.

Over the past eight years, several parents have come forth with similar stories occurring in their homes. Reinforcing these skills outside the school is a great advantage of the Circles Training Program.

Section 3 – Peacemaking Circle

The Peacemaking Circle training is a natural follow up to the Friendship Circle training for Years 3 & 4 students. This training is intended to consist of eight one-hour sessions, ideally held once a week. Each session combines activity and reflection so the students can learn new skills and evaluate their learning. Communication with parents of the students in advance about the training is part of the program. This training is held with an entire class, including the teacher.

The Peacemaking Circle training is based on the theories of restorative justice and narrative conversations, which focus on healing the harm to relationships that results from wrongdoing and conflict and holding respectful conversations that separate the person from the problem. Students become empowered to solve problems nonviolently rather than relying on people in authority imposing rules and punishment to control behaviour and deter wrongdoing.

The eight sessions of the Peacemaking Circle training are:

  1. basic conflict resolution skills,
  2. compassionate listening and affirmation,
  3. practicing facilitation of Peacemaking Circles, based on healing relationships through reconciliation and restoration as part of restorative justice,
  4. incorporating narrative conversations into the Peacemaking Circle,
  5. feelings and respect in Peacemaking Circles,
  6. solving problems together creatively through cooperation,
  7. preparing and demonstrating a Peacemaking Circle, and
  8. follow up session.

The following vignette describes the use of a Peacemaking Circle at Walden on October 15, 2002. as part of Cavanagh’s dissertation study..

The day arrives for the Peacemaking Circle with Mrs. Schmidt’s class. Instead of facilitator I am the keeper of the circle. So I am ready with a board and easel with the ground rules written out, marking pens, masking tape, and the outline of the Peacemaking Circle process.

Mrs. Schmidt is ready about 8:15 a.m. I go in the classroom and ask the students if they want to sit in a circle on chairs or on the floor. They choose chairs. So they sit in a circle. Mrs. Schmidt asks if I want her in the circle or outside. I say inside. I welcome everybody and compliment them for having this circle. I explain the purpose of the circle and I ask individual students to read each ground rule and explain what it means to them. I add a bit to it. Then I open the circle and ask Mrs. Schmidt to please explain what she sees is the problem in the classroom we are talking about today. All the students participated in the process.

The talking stick will not be passed other than to the person next to you and not need to raise your hand. We will continue to pass the talking stick around the circle until everyone has a chance to talk.

The group took time to identify the real problem, probably about 30 minutes – exclusion and treating others disrespectfully. At the end of the circle I ask the students to describe how they are feeling at this time in one word. Overall, I think the students are pleased with the process. At the end, we put the agreement on a large sheet of paper, and each student picks a marking pen and signs his or her name. Mrs. Schmidt agrees to post the agreement in the classroom.