Build Community Faster With These 5 First Week Activities

Family Tree
Welcome back and welcome new readers!
We all (kind of) know how important relationships and community building are to our classrooms, teams, and buildings. We know strong relationships help students and faculty feel safer and more included – and are a vital part of culturally responsive teaching and trauma informed practices.

But how important is upfront community building, really?

According to Kit Miller of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, some schools in Rochester, NY put it to the test.

Contact without connection breeds hate.png

In a pilot last year, some teachers spent their ENTIRE FIRST WEEK OF SCHOOL DOING ONLY COMMUNITY BUILDING ACTIVITIES. No curriculum. No academic content. Just relationship building, classroom norms, getting to know each other, and building trust.

The outcome? By November these classrooms were caught up with their non-participating colleagues. By December, the restorative classrooms were ahead. 

I bet that took some faith and courage to do, as August, September, and October came and went and it LOOKED like they were “behind’ on the curriculum.

However, those who practice relationship building in their teams and classrooms are probably not surprised. We now know that people in organizations that feel connected and interdependent learn faster, are more creative, more productive, feel more included, connect better across differences, experience less time on conflict, and get through their conflicts more constructively and effectively.

All Rochester schools have now committed to spending the first week of school building relationships and investing in their school communities.


Below are five activities you can do in your first week (or two) of class to begin building a positive classroom environment.

There are FOUR MORE below that for those who want choice or want to keep it rolling.

Name Game

Day 1: Play a Name Game


As Kit Miller says “Contact without connection breeds hate.” A classroom has a lot of potential for contact without connection!

It turns out students take longer to learn each other’s names than we think – and knowing a bit about each other is the first step in creating that connection.


Always think about the vulnerability level of a question when doing ice-breakers and community building circles. Getting too vulnerable too soon may open some kids up for ridicule and teasing before they have a chance to bond with each other.

For instance, I might leave a “deeper” name game like “What does your name mean to you or your family?” for October.

For the first day of class, I might play a simple (and positive) name game such as “Say your first name and one thing you like that begins with the same letter.”


Ask students to sit where they can see everyone’s faces. Give everyone a couple of minutes to come up with their answer first – so they are able to listen to each other. Then go around, one at a time, starting with yourself.

Example: “I’m Miss Elaine and I like Empathy.” “I am Cherise and I like Cats.” “I am Phil and I like Playing soccer.”

Then, be the vulnerable one and go first – trying to remember everyone’s names and what they like – in order. Laughter and ease will spread through the room as you make mistakes. After that, have other students try it until there is comfort with everyone’s names in the group.

Family Tree

Day 2: Classroom Values


Lots of research on motivation and change has shown that underlying values are more effective at creating change and increasing positive interactions than rules or guidelines. For instance, people are more likely to quit smoking or keep jogging in order to stay alive for their grandchildren (or to help their dog lose weight) than because they are shamed into it or afraid to get in trouble.

Classroom values can also be used all semester long when people are struggling. It’s powerful to point to a value hanging on our wall and remind students what our community created at the start, rather than talking about a handbook or school rule.


For adults or older students, hand out paper plates or other shapes (fish, leaves) and ask them to finish the sentence “I want to be in a classroom where…” or ‘I want to be on a staff team where…” or “I love learning in a classroom where…”

For those who cannot write, use a marker board to generate a list and create the plates or leaves yourself.

Hang the words around the space you are in. Use the values to give appreciations and reminders throughout the semester. Add to them as needed!


This is also great exercise to do with staff teams or in your family. The tree pictured above is one that we created with our kids a few years back (it’s actually time to update it!). The top says “We want to live in a family where…” and the leaves are contributions from everyone in our family.

Would You RatherDay 3: “Would You Rather”

I love using this activity with adult and young people. It can be adjusted to be emotionally safe, pretty deep, or on academic or relevant topics.It allows introverts to show how they feel without having to speak – while allowing the more outgoing people to talk about their choices.

As a facilitator or teacher, I always learn a lot about the group and myself when I do this exercise.


Begin with these questions and add your own.

Clear a passageway in the space for people to stand. Make the first choice in every pair a specific point in the space (e.g., window) and the second choice in every pair the opposite point in the space (e.g., bookshelf).

Start with a few easy warm up questions. Then go on to some deeper ones if you think your group is ready. End with some pointed ones about learning styles or academics.

Let people know they can stand anywhere between the two points to show how they feel. After each question, ask a few people from each cluster to volunteer why they are there. Then go on to another question. Model being non-judgmental and curious. Ask people what they notice about the way the group is lined up and help amplify learning and connection (e.g., “That’s right. We got a LOT of night people here but it’s a morning class. We will need to be patient with each other!” or “Look how diverse our learning styles are! We will need to help each other learn.”

This activity is a great one to keep in your pocket for those unruly or gloomy days. You can always throw in academic questions along with the fun ones.

Community Building CirclesDay 4 and 5:
Community Building Circles

For day 4, choose three or four questions from this tried and tested list of 42 Youth Led Circle Questions from Restorative Rochester and circle up!

Aim for an opening and closing question, with one or two in between.

On day 5, let a student (or two) lead a circle with 3-4 questions they choose. Consider doing a youth led circle such as this one every Friday, even if it is one question per week.


1. Two Facts and a Myth (more culturally sensitive for kids where “lying” is not ok)
  • Can make great variation as academic game about math, science, geography, history, etc.
2. Blobs and Lines (a variation on Would You Rather described by Jennifer Gonzalez)3. Commonalities and Uniquities (great team building game)

4. Never Have I Ever  (to build community reverse the game to show SIMILARITIES between people by having them step forward if they have ever… been to Chicago, killed an insect, helped out a friend, gotten brain freeze, etc.)

HAVE A FAVORITE ICE BREAKER THAT WORKS WELL WITH KIDS? Tell me about it and I will feature it in future Restorative News and Tips.

Community Building circle at READY.jpg

Community building circle at READY Alternative Program in Champaign, IL

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Six Ways to End the School Year on a Positive Note


Recently, a teacher invited me to observe his classroom to see if I had any suggestions for how to end the year in a better place. After a 90 minute observation, he and I talked for about 30 minutes and came up with specific things to try for the last few weeks of school. I applaud his courage and openness to do something different now – in May.

Teachers, students, administrators and even parents can feel frazzled and out of steam by May. It has been a long haul and a lot still needs to be done. Also, summer break is not a welcome time for all students – and this anxiety can manifest itself in many ways.

However, it is never too late in the semester to dust off our restorative tools and try something new (or old) in order to end on a positive note.

Recently, at a presentation about trauma-informed schools by Karen Simms of Meridian Consulting, I was reminded, once again, that restorative practices combine research and methods from many fields, including neuroscience, trauma, diversity science, organizational studies, culturally responsive teaching, leadership and effective communication. This is why high fidelity restorative approaches can transform classrooms and buildings over time.

With that in mind, here are SIX REMINDERS to help end the semester on a better note:




As I talked about in my last newsletter, values (just like ethics and morals) are more powerful human motivators than rules.

“People who want to kick [a] habit for reasons that are aligned with their personal values will change their behavior faster than people who are doing it for external reasons such as pressure from others,” says Elliot Berkman, Ph.D. Director, Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychology, University of Oregon.

Rules and policies come and go. Today the dress code says no hats. Tomorrow it says hats are ok. However, values like kindness, lifting each other up, dignity, compassion, creativity, gratitude, support, and growth are universal – – and timeless.

May is a great time to review the positive messages on your walls and doors – and make a whole-class commitment – for the rest of the school year – to work on our values.

Examples of this, used by real teachers, are below.


This is a small shift, which can have powerful effects. Studies have shown that people are more successful at shifting behavior when they can focus on what to do rather than what to avoid. Doing this in a calm manner without rancor also creates clear expectations and minimizes confusion, guilt, fear or defensiveness – which will all interfere with learning. If you can remember, include yourself in the reminders – as we are all working on our patience, gratitude, etc.


  • “That is NOT the part of the book that we are supposed to be on” can become “Right now, let’s focus on THIS part of the book.”
  • “Please stop talking to her” can become “Please bring your listening and attention back to our speaker – just like it says on our classroom agreements up there.”
  • “That was disrespectful” can become “Remember, we are practicing kindness to each other. What is a kinder way to say that?” or “Remember, we are practicing kindness to each other. Let’s use kind words and polite tone when we speak to each other.”



This idea builds on the power of internal motivation created by shared values – and supports the idea that part of being “on task” is living our values. When kids are doing anything that supports classroom values, notice it and make a comment about it out loud to reinforce that this matters to you. If you created class agreements together, or have positive messages posted on your walls, this is a great way to bring attention to them. When you try to re-direct kids using criticism, they are more likely to shut down for the next task. When you remind kids to be their best, it is easier to get re-focused with one’s dignity intact.


  • If kids seem off topic, but they are being creative, enthusiastic, or curious – validate those positives out loud, connect them to a value, and then ask them to use those positives to move on to the next task. “I see you guys using your creativity to make up some jokes. I know creativity is something we value, especially for [our lab experiments; our poetry; our understanding of history] So, I appreciate that. Now – let’s use our creativity to re-focus on the assignment on the screen.”
  • If you notice someone saying please, validate it: “I appreciate you using a kind voice and kind words to ask your buddy for a pencil – because that supports our class value of kindness.”
  • If someone is standing up for a classmate, even if not in a polite tone, rather than telling them to mind their own business or stop, you can say, “I appreciate you standing up for each other, because that is a value that is up there. And now it is time to settle down and focus on our writing assignment.”
  • If someone admits doing something – even if they are making excuses for it, you can say: “First, I appreciate you taking responsibility for what you did. That is important to me and supports our class values. Now, I know we are all working on our patience here. Let’s refocus and work harder on our patience right now.”



Conflict research shows that we actually need to LOWER our threshold for behaviors that have a negative effect on classroom climate, rather than waiting for the behaviors to escalate past a point of intolerance, when we need to do a more serious intervention. We still want to respond with patience and kindness, but we want to do it sooner. Again, you can use your shared classroom values to your benefit here. This also supports students in learning new skills – without completely doing it for them.


  • When bickering first begins, rather than waiting patiently for it to stop so you can begin the lesson, or asking them to cut it out, you can try saying something positive before it escalates: “Hey you guys. Let’s take a quick look at which of our classroom values we are supporting right now. Are we being kind? Are we building each other up? No we are not. Let’s focus on what is important here – which is supporting each other and helping each other succeed.”
  • Or “I see you are both trying to argue for your point. I like that you are thinking deeply about the article. However, I am concerned that the name calling and put downs do not support our classroom values of respect, kindness, and lifting each other up. Can we try standing up for our points while also being kind and respectful?”



We sometimes worry that if we validate that someone is struggling we excuse their behavior or we lower the standard. Or, we can get into a power struggle about how much of a certain behavior is under a student’s control (choice) versus beyond their control. However, research shows that (a) when people feel accepted, they are more ready to change; and (b) framing something as an opportunity supports a growth mindset.

The following three examples are from teachers talking to students privately in the hallway for a few minutes:

  • “I hear you are frustrated. This is not easy. It’s hard work. I know you can do it, though. I believe in you. Let’s figure this out together.”
  • “I know it feels like you can’t control your temper. What I hear in that is that it’s hard for you. There are things that are hard for all of us. Let’s take a breath together and think: what helps you to be patient when you start getting irritated?”
  • “It’s ok to feel angry or sad. I worry, though, when we put our anger and sadness on other people. Remember, one of our class values is safety. I want you to feel safe. [pause to let it sink in] I also want everyone else to feel safe. Can we go back in there and work on safety for everyone?”



For many of our kids, summer break is the prize at the end of a long journey. It is a time for family, enjoyable activities, summer food and relative freedom. However, there is a subgroup of our kids for whom any breaks from school are a tough time of uncertainty, instability, lack of friends and supportive adults, and hunger. As Karen Simms reminds us, one of the best ways to help kids with this reality is to allow structured activities that help them process and prepare. This may look like a small group conversation or listening circle. It may also look like a writing assignment or other project. It is important to talk about break in a way that includes the reality of all students, without making anyone feel ostracized or different.

Writing Example:

“I know many of us are looking forward to the end of the school year, because: no more homework! However, there are many positive things about school that some of us will miss. Fold your paper in half. Now – on one side, make a list of things you will miss about school. On the other side, write down what can help you this summer even though you will miss these things? We will share out loud for those who want to.”

A Circle Example:

At the end of November last year, some teachers and I did a processing circle like this before winter break. Using a talking piece, the students answered:

  • What are you looking forward to about winter break?
  • What will be challenging or hard about winter break?
  • What is one thing that can help you have a better break?

Students talked openly about “hollering”, “hunger” and “hurt feelings” and were able to quietly support each other.

These kinds of circles or assignments also allow teachers to reach out to school personnel in order to connect kids to summer community resources – and to talk to the class about programs such as free food in the community, without mentioning any names.

As always, please reach out to me via email if you have questions or concerns. It’s never too late to go for a great ending. If you live in the Urbana-Champaign area, it’s also not too late for a classroom observation and private consultation with me.

Restorative is Not Gentle

People often share with me how they have handled a difficult situation, with the following caveats:
“Elaine, this was probably not restorative, but I told her:  ‘I don’t want to be spoken to that way. It’s not ok.’ “

“So I did NOT use my restorative voice. I used my loud and stern voice and I told them they need to stop running like that. It is simply NOT SAFE.”

“I was certainly NOT my restorative self at home yesterday. I was so tired of the mess and not being supported. I was really angry.”

These comments tell me that many people are thinking of “restorative” as synonymous with “gentle”, “passive”, or “therapeutic.”

I would like to challenge this belief.

I believe restorative is not necessarily gentle. I believe restorative is FIERCE, HONEST, AND COURAGEOUS.


The form of restorative justice I have studied and shared comes from the work of Dominic Barter and colleagues in Brazil – and can be considered a form of nonviolent action – as practiced by MK Gandhi in India and South Africa – and by Dr. King in the U.S.

Because of the frequent misunderstanding – in the West – of nonviolence as passive or gentle, Gandhi coined the term “satyagraha” to describe the heart of nonviolent action.

“Satyagraha” is a combination of the Sanskrit words satya (meaning “truth”) and agraha (“holding firmly to”). Gandhi wrote in 1968:

“Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders, and therefore serves, as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence… (see: Satyagraha in South Africa by MK Gandhi).

Gandhi has also referred to this term as “soul-force”, “love-force”, and “truth-force.”

While we do not want to over-generalize from one non-violent movement to another, I think there is much for us to gain from the conceptualization of satyagraha.

When we are restorative, we fiercely commit – first and foremost – to truth-with-love.

That means finding “containers” or “vehicles” to share our truth with others in a dignity-enhancing way – instead of avoiding them, attacking them, or writing them off as less “human” than ourselves. That also means being open – truly open – to the possibility that their underlying truth may be unknown to us and will impact how we move forward.



Restorative Circles, facilitated dialogues, and other restorative practices – are all CONTAINERS that help us have COURAGEOUS CONVERSATIONS about CRITICAL TRUTHS (Dominic Barter).
We sometimes need facilitators and restorative containers in order to tell truth with love – because we may need help compensating for a lack of trust, power differentials, inability to hear each other, or hopelessness about the possibility of right action.

Loving kindness, mindfulness, healing work, and therapeutic approaches are all important practices that create positive outcomes. So is music, exercise, yoga, gardening, sleep, and a healthy diet, to name just a few.

However, these practices all have different goals and different means than restorative action.



Satyagraha also contains within it the philosophy that HOW we get to an outcome defines – or co-creates – the outcome.

Just as the tree grows out of the seed, our restorative outcomes must grow out of restorative actions.

When truth-force happens, it may look fierce and passionate. However, it will not be disparaging or disdainful. Passion is not disgust. Truth is not disdain.

Dr. King, has expanded on this sentiment, saying that “the means we choose must be as pure as the ends we seek… [but] it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.” (Letter From a Birmingham Jail, 1963).

Thus, neither restorative actions nor restorative outcomes can be dignity-denying. They must both be dignity-enhancing.

Restorative may not always be gentle. However, with the right container and the right people, restorative can get us to the truth-love-force — and to the right action.

High School Students Come Together and Heal After a Racial Conflict


– Written by IIRP staff

After racial tensions erupted during a high school football game, the conflict hardened and spread throughout the two competing schools. Both communities feared that the situation would escalate and grow violent. But the two groups participated together in restorative circles and dispelled the issue, breaking barriers in ways no one expected…

Read more here or watch video below:

The Fishbowl: A Classroom Circle Story

This is a TRUE story told to me by Ms. Goforit – whose 7th graders had a small conflict (some name calling) the day before. Let’s call the involved students Angry, Bored, and Clever.

Ms. Goforit knew she did not have time to prep all the students for a circle – but wondered what would happen if she invited some of the students that were NOT involved in the conflict to do a circle prep/exploration meeting with Angry, Bored, and Clever.

Ms. Goforit then told the class that she was learning to facilitate circles and asked if they wanted to try one, since it was a pretty small conflict and a good one on which to practice.

She then got three student volunteers and sent each of these “Peacekepers” out into the hallway with Restorative Self-Reflection sheets, asking each Peacekeeper to go through the Reflection sheets with either Angry, Bored, or Clever.

After they returned, Ms. Goforit received consent from all the students to conduct the circle fishbowl style (since everyone had been there for the conflict the day before). Some students watched, and some continued to do their work in a different part of the room.

Ms. Goforit used Dominic Barter’s “time traveler” recipe (how are you RIGHT NOW; what were you wishing for BACK THEN and where do we go NEXT). Students heard each other, created new understanding, and expressed regret for their harsh words.

Afterwards, Ms. Goforit gave all the students the 5-question circle feedback cards – which showed high satisfaction for everyone involved.

The bonus was that after the circle, one of the Peacekeeper students asked if SHE could fill out the self-reflection sheet with Clever about a conflict she was having with another girl — who was not even in Ms. Goforit’s class.

When we combine high expectations with high supports for our young people – they can really shine!

by Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D.

(c) 2017 Conflict 180

How Four Mornings of Dialogue Transformed Two Months of Misery

janene_prothro_iceberg_hutui6It was Monday morning and Mr. Keaton was not looking forward to his 6th grade first period.

Johnny and Ricky had been at it for two months, with no sign of letting up.

Last Friday had been typical. In the first 10 minutes of class, Johnny had interrupted other students 3 times to share something urgent. Ricky took it upon himself to teach Johnny some manners:

“Shut up already! It ain’t your turn!”

Johnny spun around and cussed Ricky out. Other kids joined in. Kelli was hissing “shhh”, Louis was laughing at Johnny, and Bernard was attacking Ricky:

“Man! YOU shut up! You making it WORSE!”

From there, things predictably went down hill.

Over the past two months, Mr. Keaton had tried everything in his toolbox to put an end to the nonsense. He:

  • sternly brought the students back to task
  • reminded them of classroom norms
  • talked to each boy separately
  • sent them out of the room multiple times with referrals
  • showed his temper!

Nothing seemed to help. What had been a pleasurable 1st period at the beginning of the year was turning into a daily, dreaded headache.

Mr. Keaton realized there was one thing he had not yet tried.

Dialogue-Based Restorative Circles were a new school initiative and Mr. Keaton had heard circles took time. However, he felt like the conflict had aleady cost a ton of time, patience, and goodwill. They could afford to spend some time building community and peace.

That afternoon, Mr. Keaton emailed Ms. Noble, the school’s Restorative Practices coordinator. She took it from there.

time_memeDerivative of “Time” by Karen / CC BY / © Conflict180

Circle Prep Meetings

The goal of Dialogue-Based Restorative Circles is to get to the roots of the conflict. We do this by listening underneath for the deeper feelings and hopes that are not easily seen above the surface.

Mr. Keaton, Johnny, and Ricky first started exploring their underlying needs during individual circle prep meetings with Ms. Noble and Jacki (one of a dozen 8th graders learning to be circle keepers).

  1. Tuesday morning Ms. Noble and Jacki met with Mr. Keaton during his prep period. In this meeting, Mr. Keaton clarified, for himself, that he had been preoccupied with challenging events in his life (a wife on bed rest with twins; a sister back in rehab again) and that maybe he was not giving his students the kind of positive attention they needed. He wasn’t planning to share all this in the circle, and Ms. Noble wouldn’t “out” him. However, having clarity about his unmet needs would help him take responsibility for his choices later on.
  1. Wednesday morning  they met with Johnny, who chose to use a deck of Feelings and Needs cards to help him get clarity on what was happening for him.


  1. Thursday morning Ms. Noble and Jacki met with Ricky, who became clear that he wanted to stay out of detention and be a better student. This conflict was sinking his academic boat.
  1. Friday morning Ms. Noble and Jacki met with the whole class (minus Ricky and Johnny) to do a brief prep. When the boys came back in, the dialogue-based restorative circle began.

Everyone sat in a semi-circle, facing each other. A set of Restorative Questions were taped to the board for all to see.

Restorative Questions try to shift the focus from “What rule was broken?” to “How do we repair harm and restore community?”


Everyone took a turn answering each question, with an option to pass.

Many students shared that they felt frustrated and exhausted by the conflict. When Mr. Keaton shared that he sometimes made things worse by not responding to the boys quickly enough, the students seemed impressed that their teacher was taking responsibility for harm. Many students then shared ways they had made things worse.


When someone spoke directly to someone else, rather than to the whole group, Ms. Noble shifted from a traditional circle-sharing format to a “facilitated dialogue.”

For instance, at one point, Johnny, not meeting Ricky’s eyes, told him that he got to class upset most days because he was teased by a bunch of older boys on the way to school every morning.

“What are you hearing underneath that?” Ms. Noble prompted Ricky.

“That his patience is all wore out by the time he gets here,” Ricky said. Johnny nodded, looking relieved to be understood.

At another point, Mr. Keaton made a long speech to Ricky about how Ricky was a natural leader and even though he did not expect him to always be the peace-maker, he did have high expectations for him, and on and on in that vein. When Ms. Noble asked Ricky what he was hearing, Ricky looked a bit overwhelmed.

“That was a lot of words,” she said kindly, “What is the main thing you heard underneath?”

Ricky replied directly to Mr. Keaton: “That you’re proud of me. And you love me like a son.” “Yes, you got it” Mr. Keaton said, his eyes a little moist.

During the last round, the students agreed on 7 actions to make things better, including:

  1. Mr. Keaton will meet with Johnny 10 minutes before class every morning to connect and debrief.

  2. Mr. Keaton and Ricky will now have a “peace” signal.

  3. All students will wait for Mr. Keaton to address conflicts before trying to “help”.

  4. Mr. Keaton will have a weekly sign-up sheet for students to join him for a friendly lunch.

2 Months Later

 Two months later, Mr. Keaton reports that all is well. Johnny and Ricky have not become friends, but they are civil and there have been no more class conflicts.

In addition, to Mr. Keaton’s delight, Ricky has applied to be a student Circle Keeper.

“You’re All Racist!” A Restorative Circle About a Sign

[Inspired by a real circle story as told to me by the circle keeper; identifying information and details changed.]

Taisha was a young lady with passion.

On their good days, the staff and teachers at Taisha’s school reminded themselves that this was a positive – that she cared about things – that she was ENGAGED.

On other days, the feeling was that Taisha required a lot of work from a lot of people and that she was always complaining about SOMETHING.

At first, this conflict seemed like another one of those many “complaints”.

Mr. Artsy was in charge of the bulletin board by the cafeteria, which had monthly inspirational themes. The March theme was “Stronger Together” and had quotes about working together, collaboration, and team work.

During passing time, Taisha saw Mr. Artsy stapling a picture to the board of multi-cultural hands clasped together.

     “You should add a Black Lives Matter sign to that board” she said to Mr. Artsy.

     “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Mr. Artsy said, smiling at Taisha to indicate it was nothing personal.

“Why not?”

“It’s not part of the theme. It’s a whole different thing. Not for this month. Shouldn’t you be getting to class?”

Making a disdainful face, Taisha stomped away down the hall to the office of Ms. Open, one of the school’s social workers.

     “Taisha, honey, that board is Mr. Artsy’s domain,” Ms. Open said kindly. “I am sure he has a vision for it that he has thought out carefully. We are not going to butt into it.”

“I’m not butting in. This is important. His sign says Stronger Together and BLM is all about that. So what’s the problem?”

“Taisha, the bell just rang and you gotta get to class. Why don’t you let this one go?” Ms. Open advised.

“I am NOT letting it go. This is bullshit! You are all racist! I am going to go to the school board about this!”

Ms.Open gave a tired sigh and tried to listen underneath instead of reacting to Taisha’s tone and threatening words.

     “Taisha, I hear this is important to you. That you care about this movement. I also want you to get to class and be able to focus. How about we have a restorative circle about it during your study hall tomorrow so we can all hear each other out? And problem solve together?”

To Ms. Open’s surprise, Taisha said that would work for her.

Ms. Open, who had been learning to be a circle keeper, agreed to facilitate. She was following Dominic Barter’s Restorative Circle process, in which the circle keeper supports dialogue by preparing all parties ahead of time and checking for understanding during the circle.

She met with Taisha the next morning and used a Self-Reflection sheet to help explore underlying feelings and needs. Ms. Open then met with Mr. Artsy and did the same, with an adult version of the sheet.

After that, Ms. Open confided in Ms. Supportive (a teaching assistant) and Ms. Wise (a teacher), since they both connected well with Taisha and were also learning to be circle keepers. Ms. Open shared with them the feelings and needs she heard in the prep meetings and invited them to the circle.

In the circle, Taisha and Mr. Artsy did most of the talking, and things seemed to be going nowhere.

     “If we put Black Lives Matter up there we also need to put up Women’s Lives Matter and Immigrant Lives Matter and GLBTQ lives matter. And on and on.”

“What are you hearing, Taisha?” Ms. Open said.

“That he doesn’t care about black people. That he wants to stand up for everybody so he stands up for NOBODY.”

“Is that it? Is that what you wanted heard?” Ms. Open said calmly.

“No. That is NOT it,” Mr. Artsy said in an irritated voice. “I want you to know that I am trying to watch out for the needs of the WHOLE school is all.”

“What do you hear now?” Ms. Open said.

“That other people’s needs are more important than my needs,” Taisha said.

When it was Mr. Artsy’s turn to listen, things went no better.

     “What do you hear Taisha saying, Mr. Artsy?”

     “That she only cares about her project and not about the opinions or struggles of other people.”

“Is that right, Taisha?”

“This is bullshit! He is putting words in my mouth. This circle is stupid!”

“Well, I don’t think you really want to find a win-win,” Mr. Artsy retorted. “I think you just want your way and you’re using the circle to try and get it.’

And so it went from there, with Ms. Wise and Ms. Supportive adding almost nothing. When the bell rang, Taisha was pouting with her hands crossed defensively while Mr. Artsy sat in stony silence with his lips pursed.

     “How about we all re-group and continue this tomorrow” Ms. Open said, feeling drained. 

After everyone left the office, Ms. Open emailed me asking for a quick consultation call.

      “Ok, I think I see the issue,” I told Ms. Open after a few minutes of explanation. “Ms. Wise and Ms. Supportive are acting like silent co-facilitators. Because you did not have prep meetings with them and because you confided in them about how both Mr. Artsy and Taisha were feeling, I think they felt like fellow circle keepers and were being careful not to take sides with a heated topic.”

“I think your circle would benefit from having them become official circle participants who can speak openly as themselves any time. In fact, they are probably your missing link to the circle becoming a true circle. If possible, they need to both be prepped by tomorrow and come back to the circle as PARTICIPANTS.”

“Also,” I added, “remember that even though you want to be multi-partial – you can still support understanding when participants get stuck, by letting them know the feelings and needs YOU hear underneath – and checking if that’s correct.”

Armed with increased clarity, Ms. Open went back to Ms. Supportive and Ms. Wise and explained the plan, asking each of them to prep the OTHER using the adult Self-Reflection sheets.

The next day, despite the difficult start, everyone gathered at the office again. Ms. Open brought candy bars to sweeten the deal.

With Ms. Supportive and Ms. Wise speaking up as participants, and Ms. Open helping people hear each other when they got stuck, the circle had a lot more movement. In fact, it felt to Ms. Open that they actually HAD accomplished a lot of ground work the previous day, even though it FELT like no one had been listening.

After some mutual understanding and empathy was built among them, participants began to create agreements for moving forward.

     “How about an All Lives Matter sign?” Mr. Artsy offered.

Seeing Taisha’s face, Ms. Wise stepped in. ​

     “Hmmm. I don’t think that really speaks to what’s in Taisha’s heart. How about one of those Hate Has No Home Here signs in many languages?”

Both Mr. Artsy and Taisha looked resigned. It didn’t quite feel like a win-win yet.

     “I have a friend who makes these Etsy signs,” Ms. Supportive said, “In This House We Believe…” and you can add any lines you want to it. Why don’t we make a version of In This School We Believe…

“Hey. That would be pretty cool,” Taisha said, “We can get all the students to add to it!”

“And the teachers and staff!” added Mr. Artsy with a smile.

“We can go around to homerooms to get people’s ideas!” continued Taisha.

“We will need to check it out with the principal, but that sounds good to me,” Mr. Artsy said.

Everyone agreed to talk about the details after talking with the principal – and the participants left satisfied and connected.

     “What I really like,” Ms. Open said to me on the phone afterwards, “is how Taisha is going to use her passion to organize something positive in the school that actually supports the spirit of Mr. Artsy’s bulletin board – Stronger Together!”

Three Strategies That Transform Classroom Dynamics and Student Lives

In my last post – What Do Students Really Need – I shared the surprising brain science behind human connection.

For instance, we now know that students who feel that they belong in their school, are included by their peers, and have connection with even one caring adult, are more likely to succeed and thrive.

This week we share three specific ways educators can increase this sense of inclusion, belonging, and connection in their settings.

We call these strategies Breaking Good.

1. Break Bread Together


The last thing we may want to do is share a meal with a child (or adult!) with whom we are struggling. Our natural reaction in these cases is to avoid them as much as possible.

In addition, breakfast and lunch are precious times for educators to prep, have some down-time, and do self-care.

However, sharing a “no pressure” meal can turn around a challenging relationship. Sitting down with kids at lunch or inviting them into your space for a quick bite allows you get to know each other in a new light.

One teacher, after one of our workshops, chose a specific child with whom she was having a hard time, and started having a casual lunch with him weekly. A month later, she was already reaping the benefits of their meals through greater connection and less struggles during class.

A weekly meal can also be a way to re-connect a small group of kids who are having a rough patch with each other. Another teacher in a Conflict 180 school started having a weekly lunch with a group of five girls who were friends, but often had small skirmishes in school. One week, when the teacher could not make it, the girls asked if they could still have lunch together, maybe with another adult, as the Friday meals were really helping them build peace with each other.

Of course, it is important to be mindful and fair about who is being invited, so this does not become another way to leave out the same marginalized kids. Another teacher, after a class circle that let him know his kids needed to get to know each other better as people, created a rotating schedule to have lunch with four of his kids every Friday. This way, he wound up having a casual lunch with everyone in his class about twice a semester.

Whether you’d like to improve a relationship with a student or a colleague, food is the universal language of care and connection.

Give it a try and have fun with it!

2. Break Ice Together


We all know that Ice-breaking activities are helpful in the beginning of the school year to help build a classroom community.

However, ice-breakers can be a life-saver well beyond the first week of school.

Activities that let kids and adults get to know each other promote social bonding and team-building throughout the year. This can be particularly useful as things start to get tough and class morale breaks down.

Some teachers use a short ice-breaker once a week (usually on Fridays) to keep the wheels of connection in their class lubricated.

Others break out the ice-breakers as an intervention for tough times.

For instance, one teacher told me that she finds January to be a difficult time for her kids and she uses ice-breakers liberally after they return from break.

It’s important to remember that not all ice-breakers are created equal. Try to choose activities that help vulnerable kids feel safe and free from teasing, especially in a class where relational aggression is present.

Here are a three suggestions from Cult of Pedagogy:

Icebreakers That Rock

As with all other team-building activities, have fun and choose something you actually want to do with them! After all, part of the goal is connection with YOU.

3. Break Formation Together


For building classroom community and a sense of cohesion, the formation that works best is a circle or U shape – where people can see each other’s faces.

Many classrooms around the country are experimenting with using circles to learn academics, from Spanish to Social Studies to Writing, as described in the book “Circle Forward” by Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis.

Of course, circles are not ideal for every learning activity.

Studies have shown that, for doing independent work, students seated in rows stay on task better and work more diligently.

For classroom discussions and cooperative learning activities, students benefit from sitting in circles (or semi-circles).

Students seated in circles and semi-circles for cooperative learning activities have been found to:

  • interact more with each other
  • ask more questions
  • develop a greater sense of community
  • learn more
  • report more satisfaction with the discussions

Circles also allow students to see each other’s faces during vulnerable or sensitive discussions (e.g., about gender, race, identity), creating more openness and less friction.

In many classrooms, learning in a circle even once a week has made a big difference in increasing engagement, reducing classroom struggles, and improving student connection.

Let us know how it goes!

Talking to Kids About Shootings

A father embraced his daughter after being reunited outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday. Credit Saul Martinez for the New York Times


In February, many of us were grieving the tragic loss of life in Florida. I hope it will still support some of you.

1. Limit exposure to footage

We want to watch and read about tragic events because we think more information will help us deal with them. However, repeated exposure to violent and upsetting content actually de-stabilizes us, increases our stress, and makes us LESS resilient over time. Get the information you need and move on to other strategies to support yourself and your kids, such as assuring them that schools are still safe places (while acknowledging that we all may FEEL nervous or scared or upset at the same time).

2. Support Expression of Feelings

Our tendency is sometimes to minimize kids’ feelings after a difficult event, telling them “it’s ok” or “don’t worry” or asking them to focus on something else as a distraction. While this is natural, feelings are guideposts to important unmet needs and values. Part of recovery is focusing on those feelings and understanding that they mean we have values that matter – and that is a good thing.

Begin with a moment of silence for all those who are affected by the violence in Florida and around the world. The truth is that violent acts happen every day in many communities around us, often involving young people, and do not get acknowledged in many cases.

You can then center an activity around a Feelings List like this one from CNVC – for instance, trying to identify all the different feelings we have after something awful happens. We can remind kids that all feelings are normal and ok – including relief, sadness, anger, and even numbness (which might be a way to protect one’s heart) – and that tears are just an indication that something is important to us.

3. Focus on Common Values Instead of Looking for Blame

In the aftermath of a tragedy, it’s natural to want to focus on what went wrong and who failed whom and how. However, this does not actually help kids (or ourselves) heal or move forward in a productive way.

Instead, help kids realize that underneath we are all connected by the same human values and needs, such as the need for safety, community, connection, belonging, love, and family. Again, you can do an activity using a Needs List like this one from CNVC to show how in tough times we are all one community coming together around the same desires.

4. Channel Feelings into Positive Actions 

This is a chance for your kids and you to come together and support each other and use your feelings of helplessness, fear or grief to do something positive. This helps everyone feel more empowered and less hopeless.

Begin by modeling good self-care by showing them that you have processed your own feelings with others and are giving yourself extra chicken soup for the soul today. Ask them what chicken soup for the soul would look like for each of them today?

In a similar vein, you can come up with a list of things we all do to help us get through tough times and post them around your home or classroom.

Then, turning outwards, you can make cards or write letters to the staff and families of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and send them to the principal. You can make handprints or leaves or hearts with positive messages and send them to Florida or hang them around your home or classroom. You can pray or send loving kindness to the people who have been affected by this, listing them one by one (students, staff, students who were injured, students who were killed, families who were affected, the family of the young man, and depending on your spiritual beliefs, the young man himself).

You can also ask kids what they would like to do, if anything, giving them some examples. The important thing is to model that during tough times we focus on expanding our hearts by being open about our feelings and being loving – and remembering that we are part of a bigger whole.

Other resources from the web

What mental health experts say to their kids about school shootings

Going back to school after a tragedy

Managing your distress in the aftermath of a shooting

Helping kids after a shooting from American School Counselor Association

How to Feel More Love for Our Kids (and others)


Life as a teacher or parent can be hard, and we need all the help we can get being more loving, patient, and compassionate.

In the first issue in our Love series, I explored how experiencing our negative feelings can create more love and wellbeing for us.

In this issue, I want to share a practice that we used to do with our kids at home regularly (we need to pick it up again!). This practice, called “loving kindness meditation” or “metta” has been shown by multiple studies to increase our compassion, kindness, and social connections.

Metta asks us to send kind thoughts to ourselves, people we know, people we may not know, and even a person with whom we are having difficulties.


Monks and serious practitioners who have done loving kindness meditation for 10,000 hours or more can have significantly more activation in the empathy and emotion areas of their brains via MRI scans.

However, even 10 minute of loving kindness meditation a day has been shown to increase people’s feelings of social connection and positivity towards strangers.

Metta even helps people experience less interpersonal bias.

Click here for summary of studies by Dr. Emma Seppalla


Want to give Loving Kindness meditation a try?

Short loving kindness practices for kids

By Sharon Salzberg
By Greater Good

Longer (20 minute) loving kindness practice from our family that has been modified by our kids (You can shorten this by reading only the bold lines)
Loving Kindness Meditation (Metta) for kids
Adopted from:
By Gregory Kramer
BEGIN by sending loving-kindness to yourself.

May I be free from anger.
May I be free from sadness.
May I be free from pain.
May I be free from jealousy.
May I be free from fear.
May I be free from all suffering.
May I be filled with loving-kindness.
May I be happy and healthy and healthy.
May I be at peace.

I spread this loving-kindness out.
I send love to my family members
who live here with me and to our pets Zoe and Maggie.

May they be free from pain and sadness.
May they be free from anger and fear.
May they be free from all suffering.
May they be healthy and happy.
May they be at peace.

I now send loving-kindness to our good friends and family members who live far away.
May they be free from sadness and anger.
May they be free from sickness and worry.
May they be free from all suffering.
May they be happy and free.
May they be at peace.

I now send loving-kindness to the teachers and kids at school
and the faculty, staff, and students at the University.
and to all our colleagues around the world who are doing peace work.
May they be free from sorrow, suffering, and anger.
May they be happy and healthy.
May they be at peace.

I now send loving kindness to one person i’m not getting along with or I’m upset with.
May that person be free from sorrow, anger, bitterness, and illness.
May they be free of suffering of any kind.
May they be happy and healthy.
May they be free and at peace.

I now send loving-kindness to all the people I don’t know – everywhere on this earth.
May all people on the planet be free from suffering.
All people of all ages and backgrounds.
May they be free from pain, grief, sickness and despair.
May they be happy and healthy.
May they be at peace.

I now send loving-kindness to all beings of all kinds.
All the animals and birds, and fishes, and plants and trees.
All the insects, bees, and amoebas [AH-MEE-BAS] and tiny unseen microbes.
All beings and creatures, with no exceptions.
May they all be happy and healthy.
May they all be free.
May they be at peace.

I now open my heart and accept loving-kindness of every being and creature in return.
I let that love into my heart.
And I share the benefits of this meditation with everyone.
May all beings be well and happy.
May there be peace.