An In-Depth Look at The EQ Super Strategy

The Sharing Circle's Underlying Theory

Sharing Circles are a unique small-group discussion process in which participants (including the leader) share their feelings, experiences, and insights in response to specific, assigned topics. Sharing Circles are loosely structured, and participants are expected to adhere to rules that promote the goals of the process while assuring cooperation, effective communication, trust, and confidentiality.

The nature of the Sharing Circle — the messages it sends to students and the behaviors it encourages and discourages are highly conducive to their development. Students follow clear rules of conduct, accept ownership of those rules, are supportive of one another, and experience a sense of satisfaction by complying with the guidelines and procedures. Regular participation in these Sharing Circles can noticeably accelerate the development and internalization of the qualities and skills of emotional intelligence.

With Sharing Circles you can make a difference in the lives of your students. There are three
primary areas in which you can have tremendous impact. We know that emotional competence begins with greater self awareness. This is followed by developing the ability to understand and manage emotions and to control impulses. Last, is the building of relationship skills. These are the areas that you can work on in school which will help students develop emotional competence that will serve them throughout their entire lives.

Self Awareness:

How do we help children gain self awareness? Try this. Imagine you are a long green caterpillar and that you are crawling along a tree branch. All of a sudden you see a bird land on a branch near you. What are you feeling right now?

Surely, you can describe the feelings you have. That is what children need to be able to do. They need a vocabulary of words that describe emotions. Words are the only tool we have for systematically turning our attention and awareness to the feelings within us, and for describing and
reflecting on our thoughts and behaviors. When we inwardly sense an idea we can’t
put into words, we struggle to find the words. Without words, we can’t deal with the idea, share it with others, or clarify its meaning for ourselves. The effective use of words constitutes the first step in developing the ability to grasp previously unspoken feelings and understand the connection between feelings and behavior.

For students to be able to manage their feelings, they must know what those feelings are. To know what they are, they must practice describing them in words. When a particular feeling is grasped in
words several times, the mind soon begins to automatically recall ideas and concepts in association with the feeling and can start to provide ways of dealing with the feeling; e.g., “I’m feeling angry
and I need to get away from this situation to calm down.”

With practice, the mind becomes more and more adept at making these connections. When a recognized feeling comes up, the mind can sort through alternative responses to the feeling. As a
student practices this response sequence in reaction to a variety of feelings, he will find words floating into consciousness that accurately identify what is going on emotionally and physically for him. This knowledge in turn develops the capacity to think before and during action. The ability to put words to feelings, to understand those words, to sort through an internal repertoire ofresponses and to choose appropriate, responsible behavior in reaction to a feeling indicates a high level of emotional intelligence.

One of the main objectives of the sharing circles in this book is to provide a consistent, structured and safe place for students to develop self awareness and a feeling vocabulary through sharing their feelings, thoughts and experiences (and listening to others do the same).

Self Management:

Self management has to do with learning to manage our responses to the feeling messages our emotions give to us. Not all emotions require the same kind or degree of control. Those we want to focus on are the ones that get in the way of or compromise our abilities to perform. Whether children or adults, managing distressing moods well and controlling impulses is of critical importance. Why don’t we begin by looking at two related emotions that are actually at opposite
ends of the emotional scale. One is anger, the other is sadness.

Let’s focus on managing anger first. Anger is at the high-arousal end of the emotional spectrum.

Try this. Think of yourself driving down a busy road and you notice in your rearview mirror another driver who is following you way too closely. This driver continues to “ride your bumper” and then suddenly passes you and cuts you off. Take a moment right now and think about your first feeling and impulse for action. Be honest.

Would you act on this first impulse or feeling? If you don’t, then you’ll need to do something else. What is it? What do you do?

In the past, we thought teaching strategies to use in situations like these was enough, but we’ve come to understand two things. First, the emotional content of some situations allows our sentry (the amygdala) to overwhelm our neocortex strategist. In these cases we don’t do what we know is best, we do whatever it is we’ve learned to react with, our response habits. This means that it is not enough just to know what to do. In fact, research indicates that very often people who do regrettable things in response to highly emotional situations actually know better ways of responding but fail to use them. Acting out is often something children do as they react in response to things going on in their lives. Rather than act, using the thoughtfulness of the strategist, behavior is orchestrated by the unconscious influence of the sentry.

This leads us to the second understanding. That is, that we must teach students a single method for establishing emotional control first before they can then focus on appropriate responses. We need to know how we can teach students to successfully get a hold on their impulses to act. The
topics provided in this book allow students the opportunity to first understand that feelings are messages that can help them maintain control of emotional situations thus permitting the
strategist to shape appropriate responses to emotional situations and suppress the sentry’s efforts to take control. Second, students begin to develop the master skillof buying time that lets them take the time necessary to act rather than react in these situations. This single approach becomes
the gateway skill, and the key to self management and control.

The other emotion is sadness which is a state of low arousal that depresses the minds ability to deal effectively in almost all areas. It can produce lethargy, reduce the ability to reason and respond, and it can lead to despondency or even depression.

The first key to responding to impulsive behavior associated with highly emotional events or to the depressed state brought on by sadness is to be aware that we are experiencing them. We learn to be aware through discussing our feelings and listening as others discuss their feelings. Students experiencing anger need to have internal skills and an external support system to process feelings and to avoid accumulation of anger. Letting it all out is not helpful. They must learn the master
strategy of buying some time. Time to let the chemistry of either anger or sadness dissipate. They need to learn to re-frame situations so that they can be seen from a positive perspective.

In this book our aim is to accomplish both skill development and the means to control the sentry so that the strategist can help children respond appropriately in challenging situations. By participating in sharing circles, students have many opportunities to focus on their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, and those of others. Through regular verbal sharing, they develop an awareness of their feelings, they talk about their responses, and they listen to how others
have responded in similar situations. Their repertoire of feeling words increases as does their ability to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and, thus, learn awarenesses and strategies that help them manage emotions and control impulses.

Relationship Skills:

The last area we must attend to in helping students develop emotional competencies is a big one called relationship skills. It includes such skills as empathy, influence, cooperation, conflict resolution, and listening.

Relating effectively to others is a challenge we all face. People who are effective in their social interactions have the ability to understand others. They know how to be cooperative with others
and interact flexibly, skillfully, and responsibly. At the same time, they recognize their own needs and maintain their own integrity. Socially effective people can process the nonverbal as well as verbal messages of others. They possess the very important awareness that all people have the power to affect one another. They are aware of not only howothers affect them, but the effects their behaviors have on others which is vital in conflict resolution.

The sharing circle process has been designed so that healthy, responsible behaviors are modeled by the teacher or counselor in his or her role as leader. The rules also require that the students relate positively and effectively to one another. This process brings out and affirms the positive qualities inherent in everyone and allows students to practice effective modes of communication. Because sharing circles provide a place where participants are listened to and their feelings accepted, students learn how to provide the same conditions to peers and adults outside the group.

One of the great benefits of the discussion process is that it does not merely teach young people about social interaction, it lets them interact! Every discussion is a real-life experience of social interaction where the students share, listen, explore, plan, dream, and problem solve together. As they interact, they learn about each other and they realize what it takes to relate effectively to others. Any given discussion may provide a dozen tiny flashes of positive interpersonal insight for an individual participant. Gradually, the reality of what constitutes effective behavior in relating to others is internalized.

Through this regular sharing of interpersonal experiences, the students learn that behavior can be positive or negative, and sometimes both at the same time. Consequences can be constructive,
destructive, or both. Different people respond differently to the same event. They have different feelings and thoughts. The students begin to understand what will cause what to happen; they grasp the concept of cause and effect; they see themselves affecting others and being affected by others.

The ability to make accurate interpretations and responses in social interactions allows students to know where they stand with themselves and with others. They can tell what actions “fit” a situation. sharing circles are marvelous testing grounds where students can observethemselves and others in action, and can begin to see themselves as contributing to the good and bad feelings of others. Sharing circles can also noticeably accelerate the development and internalization of conflict resolution skills and strategies. With this understanding, students are helped to conclude that being responsible towards others feels good, and is the most valuable and personally rewarding form of interaction.

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Rules That Govern the Sharing Circle

Rules for Discussion

1. Everyone gets a turn to share, including the leader.
2. You can skip your turn if you wish.
3. Listen to the person who is sharing.
4. There are no interruptions, probing, put-downs, or gossip.
5. The time is shared equally.

This section offers further clarification concerning the Sharing Circle Rules and how you can best ensure that they are observed.

Who gets to talk? Everyone. The importance of acceptance cannot be overly stressed. In one way or another practically every ground rule says one thing: accept one another. When you model acceptance of students, they will learn how to be accepting. Each individual in the group is important and deserves a turn to speak if he or she wishes to take it. Equal opportunity to become involved should be given to everyone in the discussion group.

Members should be reinforced equally for their contributions. There are many reasons why a leader may become more enthused over what one student shares than another. The response may be more on target, reflect more depth, be more entertaining, be philosophically more in keeping with one’s own point of view, and so on. However, students need to be given equal recognition for their contributions, even if the contribution is to listen silently throughout the session.

In most of the discussion groups, plan to take a turn and address the topic, too. Students usually appreciate it very much and learn a great deal when their teachers and counselors are willing to tell about their own experiences, thoughts, and feelings. In this way you let your students know that you acknowledge your own humanness.

Does everyone have to take a turn? No. Students may choose to skip their turns. If the discussion becomes a pressure situation in which the members are coerced in any way to speak, it will become an unsafe place where participants are not comfortable. Meaningful discussion is unlikely in such an atmosphere. By allowing students to make this choice, you are showing them that you accept their right to remain silent if that is what they choose to do.

As you begin the discussion, it will be to your advantage if one or more students decline to speak. If you are imperturbable and accepting when this happens, you let them know you are offering them an opportunity to experience something you think is valuable, or at least worth a try, and not attempting to force-feed them. You as a leader should not feel compelled to share a personal experience in every session, either. However, if you decline to speak in most of the sessions, this may have an inhibiting effect on the students’ willingness to share.

A word should also be said about how this ground rule has sometimes been carried to extremes. Sometimes leaders have bent over backwards to let students know they don’t have to take a turn. This seeming lack of enthusiasm on the part of the leader has caused reticence in the students. In order to avoid this outcome, don’t project any personal insecurity as you lead the session. Be confident in your proven ability to work with students. Expect something to happen and it will.

Some leaders ask the participants to raise their hands when they wish to speak, while others simply allow free verbal sharing without soliciting the leader’s permission first. Choose the procedure that works best for you, but do not call on anyone unless you can see signs of readiness. And do not merely go around the group.

Some leaders have reported that their first group fell flat—that no one, or just one or two students, had anything to say. But they continued to have groups, and at a certain point everything changed. Thereafter, the students had a great deal to say that these leaders considered worth waiting for. It appears that in these cases the leaders’ acceptance of the right to skip turns was a key factor. In time most students will contribute verbally when they have something they want to say, and when they are assured there is no pressure to do so.

Sometimes a silence occurs during a discussion session. Don’t feel you have to jump in every time someone stops talking. During silences students have an opportunity to think about what they would like to share or to contemplate an important idea they’ve heard. A general rule of thumb is to allow silence to the point that you observe group discomfort. At that point move on. Do not switch to another topic. To do so implies you will not be satisfied until the students speak. If you change to another topic, you are telling them you didn’t really mean it when you said they didn’t have to take a turn if they didn’t want to.

If you are bothered about students who attend a number of sessions and still do not share verbally, reevaluate what you consider to be involvement. Participation does not necessarily mean talking. Students who do not speak are listening and learning.

How can I encourage effective listening? The Sharing Circle is a time (and place) for students and leaders to strengthen the habit of listening by doing it over and over again. No one was born knowing how to listen effectively to others. It is a skill like any other that gets better as it is practiced. In the immediacy of the discussion process, the members become keenly aware of the necessity to listen, and most students respond by expecting it of one another.

In these Sharing Circles, listening is defined as the respectful focusing of attention on individual speakers. It includes eye contact with the speaker and open body posture. It eschews interruptions of any kind. When you lead a discussion, listen and encourage listening in the students by (l) focusing your attention on the person who is speaking, (2) being receptive to what the speaker is saying (not mentally planning your next remark), and (3) recognizing the speaker when she finishes speaking, either verbally (“Thanks, Shirley”) or nonverbally (a nod and a smile).

To encourage effective listening in the students, reinforce them by letting them know you have noticed they were listening to each other and you appreciate it.

What are some examples of put-downs? Put-downs convey the message, “You are not okay as you are.” Some put-downs are deliberate, but many are made unknowingly. Both kinds are undesirable in a discussion group because they destroy the atmosphere of acceptance and disrupt the flow of discussion. Typical put-downs include:
• over questioning.
• statements that have the effect of teaching or preaching
• advice giving
• one-upsmanship
• criticism, disapproval, or objections
• sarcasm
• statements or questions of disbelief

How can I deal with put-downs? There are two major ways for dealing with put-downs: preventing them from occurring and intervening when they do.

Going over the rules with the students at the beginning of each session, particularly in the earliest sessions, is a helpful preventive technique. Another is to reinforce the students when they adhere to the rule. Be sure to use nonpatronizing, nonevaluative language.

Unacceptable behavior should be stopped the moment it is recognized by the leader. When you become aware that a put-down is occurring, do whatever you ordinarily do to stop destructive behavior. If one student gives another an unasked-for bit of advice, say for example, “Jane, please give Alicia a chance to tell her story.” To a student who interrupts say, “Ed, it’s Sally’s turn.” In most cases the fewer words, the better—students automatically tune out messages delivered as lectures.

Sometimes students disrupt the group by starting a private conversation with the person next to them. Touch the offender on the arm or shoulder while continuing to give eye contact to the student who is speaking. If you can’t reach the offender, simply remind him or her of the rule about listening. If students persist in putting others down during sessions, ask to see them at another time and hold a brief one-to-one conference, urging them to follow the rules. Suggest that they reconsider their membership in the group. Make it clear that if they don’t intend to honor the rules, they are not to come to the group.

How can I keep students from gossiping? Periodically remind students that using names and sharing embarrassing information is not acceptable. Urge the students to relate personally to one another, but not to tell intimate details of their lives.

How can I ensure the students get equal time? When group members share the time equally, they demonstrate their acceptance of the notion that everyone’s contribution is of equal importance. It is not uncommon to have at least one dominator in a group. This person is usually totally unaware that by continuing to talk he or she is taking time from others who are less assertive. An important social skill is knowing how you affect others in a group and when dominating a group is inappropriate behavior.

Be very clear with the students about the purpose of this ground rule. Tell them at the outset how much time there is. When it is your turn, always limit your own contribution. If someone goes on and on, do intervene (dominators need to know what they are doing), but do so as gently and respectfully as you can.

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How to Organize and Lead a
Sharing Circle

Group Size and Composition

This is a time for focusing on individuals’ contributions in an unhurried fashion. For this reason, each session group needs to be kept relatively small—eight to twelve usually works best. Once they move beyond the primary grades, students are capable of extensive verbalization. You will want to encourage this, and not stifle them because of time constraints. Each group should be as heterogeneous as possible with respect to sex, ability, and racial/ethnic background. Sometimes there will be a group in which all the students are particularly reticent to speak. At these times, bring in an expressive student or two who will get things going. Sometimes it is necessary for practical reasons to change the membership of a group. Once established, however, it is advisable to keep a group as stable as possible.

Length and Location

Most sessions last approximately 10 to 20 minutes. At first students tend to be reluctant to express themselves fully because they do not yet know that this is a safe place. Consequently your first sessions may not last more than 10 minutes. Generally speaking, students become comfortable and motivated to speak with continued experience.

In middle-school classrooms, discussions may be conducted at any time during the class period. Starting discussion sessions at the beginning of the period allows additional time in case students become deeply involved in the topic. If you start late in the period, make sure the students are aware of their responsibility to be concise.

In elementary classes, any time of day is appropriate for Sharing Circles. Some teachers like to set the tone for the day by beginning with this process; others feel it’s a perfect way to complete the day and to send the students away with positive feelings.

Discussions may be carried out wherever there is room for students to sit in a circle and experience few or no distractions. Most leaders prefer to have students sit in chairs rather than on the floor. Students seem to be less apt to invade one another’s space while seated in chairs. Some leaders conduct sessions outdoors, with students seated in a secluded, grassy area.

Leading a Sharing Circle

This section is a thorough guide for conducting Sharing Circles. It covers major points to keep in mind and answers questions which will arise as you begin using the program. Please remember that these guidelines are presented to assist you, not to restrict you. Follow them and trust your own leadership style at the same time.

Sharing Circle Procedures for the Leader

1. Opening and setting up the Sharing Circle
2. Reviewing the rules for the Sharing Circle*
3. Introducing the topic
4. Sharing by group members
5. Asking key questions
6. Closing the Sharing Circle

*optional after the first few sessions

1. Setting up the Sharing Circle

As you sit down with the students in a discussion group, remember that you are not teaching a lesson. You are facilitating a group of people. Establish a positive atmosphere. In a relaxed manner, address each student by name, using eye contact and conveying warmth. An attitude of seriousness blended with enthusiasm will let the students know that this discussion group is an important learning experience—an activity that can be interesting and meaningful.

2. Reviewing the rules

At the beginning of the first session, and at appropriate intervals thereafter, go over the rules for the discussion. They are:

Rules for Discussion

1. Everyone gets a turn to share, including the leader.
2. You can skip your turn if you wish.
3. Listen to the person who is sharing.
4. There are no interruptions, probing, put-downs, or gossip.
5. The time is shared equally.

From this point on, demonstrate to the students that you expect them to remember and abide by the ground rules. Convey that you think well of them and know they are fully capable of responsible behavior. Let them know that by coming to the group they are making a commitment to listen and show acceptance and respect for the other students and you. It is helpful to write the Rules for Discussion on chart paper and keep them on display for the benefit of each discussion group.

3. Introducing the topic

State the topic in your own words. Elaborate and provide examples as each discussion suggests. Add clarifying statements of your own that will help the students understand the topic. Answer questions about the topic, and emphasize that there are no “right” responses. Finally, restate the topic, opening the session to responses (theirs and yours). Sometimes taking your turn first helps the students understand the aim of the topic. The introductions, as written in this book, are provided to give you some general ideas for opening the discussion group. It's important that you adjust and modify the introduction to suit the ages, abilities, levels, cultural/ethnic backgrounds and interests of your students.

4. Sharing by members

The most important point to remember is this: The purpose of these Sharing Circles is to give students an opportunity to express themselves and be accepted for the experiences, thoughts, and feelings they share. Avoid taking the action away from the members. They are the stars!

5. Asking key questions

Discussion of the key questions is the cognitive portion of the process. During this phase, the leader asks thought-provoking questions to stimulate free discussion and higher-level thinking. Each discussion topic in this book includes several key questions. At times you may want to formulate questions that are more appropriate to the level of understanding in your group—or to what was actually shared in the group. If you wish to make connections between the discussion topic and your content area, ask questions that will accomplish that objective and allow the answering of key questions to extend longer. We have left a space on each page for you to note significant other questions that you create and find effective.

What should the leader do during the key question phase? Conduct this part of the process as an open forum, giving students the opportunity to discuss a variety of ideas and accept those that make sense to them. Don’t impose your opinions on the students, or allow the students to impose theirs on one another. Ask open-ended questions, encourage higher-level thinking, contribute your own ideas when appropriate, and act as a facilitator.

6. Closing the Sharing Circle

The ideal time to end a discussion group is when the key question phase reaches natural closure. Sincerely thank everyone for being part of the discussion. Don’t thank specific students for speaking, as doing so might convey the impression that speaking is more appreciated than mere listening. Then close the group by saying, “This discussion is over,” or “OK, that ends our discussion.”

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