Research & Action Report Spring/Summer 2006

In 1987 Pamela Seigle, a teacher and school psychologist, was invited to work with six teachers from two of the most diverse schools in Framingham, MA. The teachers took a leap of faith and signed up to participate in an action-research project focused on what was then described as a “coping skills” program. Together, they explored ways to help young school children develop critical communication, self-control, and problem solving skills. They also wanted to discover ways that schools could create safe learning environments that would support both the social and academic success of children. with those who did not. The benefits are evident as well in the day-to-day lives of scores of children and educators in schools that use the program.

The initial funding for this project came from Grace and Robert Stone, founders of the Stone Center at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), who were committed to the importance of prevention programs in helping all children become healthy adults. “ When my parents founded the Stone Center, they were clear that the mission was the prevention of emotional problems,” recalls Kathy Stone Kaufmann, daughter of the founders. “My father, in particular, hoped that one of the Center’s projects would involve working with children in school settings to develop model programs that would reduce psychological stress and prevent the kind of serious problems that my own sister had suffered.”

In the mid-80’s, the Stones helped jump-start what became known as the Open Circle Program, and with generous support since 1989 from Pat and Barbara Roche, Roche Bros. Supermarkets, Inc., and many other funders, the Open Circle Program at WCW flourished.

Under the direction and leadership of Seigle, for nearly two decades Open Circle’s dedicated staff has developed, enhanced, and worked to implement its model curriculum for grades kindergarten to five. They have trained more than 6,250 teachers who have introduced the Open Circle Curriculum to more than 300,000 children in over 285 elementary schools and 100 diverse communities in New England, New Jersey, and New York. The impact of Open Circle’s work is felt even more widely in its role as a model program in the field. The value of Open Circle has been demonstrated through scientific research which shows a marked positive difference in the behavior of students who participated in Open Circle during their elementary years, compared with those who did not. The benefits are evident as well in the day-to-day lives of scores of children and educators in schools that use the program.

Open Circle is…

Pencils poised over answer sheets, the time has come for students in Mr. Nguyen’s fifth-grade class to take one of Massachusetts’ high-stakes, standardized tests. But first, their teacher reminds them that it would be good to “calm down.” The students know what to do. They breathe in slowly and deeply, filling their bellies with air. “Let’s do that a few more times,” Mr. Nguyen says. Then they begin.

In Ms. Ricca’s second-grade classroom, students are using their Open Circle time to plan how to welcome the new student who is joining their class next week. “Have you ever gone some place new where you didn’t know anyone?” she asks. “How did it feel? What helped you to feel more at home?” The discussions begin.

Out at recess, a first-grader comes running to Ms. Rayleen, the playground aide. “He won’t let me have a turn on the swing.” Instead of immediately stepping in herself, Ms. Rayleen first asks the child, “Is this a Double D?” “No…it’s not,” says the boy, calming down as he realizes that what’s going on isn’t really dangerous or destructive. “What can you do if someone isn’t giving you a turn on the swing?” Ms. Rayleen prompts. “What are some things you could say to that person?” Soon, the boys are playing happily.

Scenes like these happen every day in thousands of classrooms and playgrounds in hundreds of elementary schools that use Open Circle.

"At its heart, Open Circle is about building positive relationships, which are the foundation for the social and academic success of children,” says Seigle.

To help children develop positive relationships, now and throughout their lives, Open Circle provides schools with year-long curricula for each grade level from kindergarten through fifth grade. The program teaches children social and emotional skills, including how to communicate effectively, listen well, recognize and manage emotions, cooperate and collaborate, respect and appreciate differences, and solve “ people problems.” Open Circle also works to create a safe and caring environment in the classroom and school — the type of environment in which the best teaching and learning can happen. Schools receive the curriculum through an extensive training program that helps classroom teachers and other staff members learn the Open Circle approach to fostering social and emotional development.

In Open Circle classrooms, students bring their chairs into a circle, typically twice a week, leaving an extra chair open as a sign that a new person— or a new idea—is always welcome. The classroom teacher facilitates as students discuss a lesson topic and take part in an activity, such as a roleplay or team-building game, that reinforces the concept addressed. Throughout the rest of theday, the teacher makes connections to Open Circle through children’s literature and in other parts of the academic curriculum. In the process of coming together regularly in the circle, a context is created that not only allows children to learn and practice social and emotional skills but also provides a forum to discuss issues of importance to the class.

This focus, not only on fostering social skills but also on building community, is one of the unique aspects of Open Circle. As one teacher involved in the training this year remarked, “Open Circle has really given me a program that will help me build a community in my classroom. I feel that I am trained to help students take control of themselves and the environment that they are in.”

Open Circle’s impact

Educators from a diverse range of schools have noted the effectiveness of Open Circle in their classrooms and schools. At the Everett School in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, Deb Mason, a teacher with over 30 years of experience in the classroom, was initially skeptical. “When it first started, I thought ‘I don’t have the time.’ But then I started taking the time, and the kids starting to treat each other better. This is a city school, and they are going to come up against a lot of things. In Open Circle, we are teaching life skills.”

Suburban schools have also noticed positive results from their use of Open Circle. At the Hardy School in Wellesley, MA, principal Gayle Vonasek is enthusiastic about the positive impact of the program. “I have hired teachers who were brand new to teaching and teachers who were very experienced—and all came in and embraced the Open Circle Program. They could feel its effect in the school when they came in the door.”

Formal research has also demonstrated Open Circle’s effect. A study coordinated by Beth A. Hennessey, professor of psychology at Wellesley College, compared fourth-grade classrooms that used the Open Circle Program with similar classrooms that did not. Students using Open Circle showed significant increases in social skills and fewer problem behaviors than students in comparison classrooms. These effects held in both urban and suburban classrooms.

A study conducted under the leadership of Linda Williams, then Director of Research at WCW’s Stone Center, explored the longer-term effects of the program. Students who had at least two years of Open Circle in elementary school continued to show positive effects into middle school. Girls who had at least two years of the program showed significantly higher self-assertiveness and an easier adjustment to middle school. Boys who had participated in Open Circle for at least two years showed higher social skills and selfcontrol and fewer problems with physical fighting.

Because of its strong program design and demonstrated effectiveness, Open Circle is one of only several dozen programs in the country to appear in the U.S. Department of Education’s Expert Panel guidebook, Exemplary and Promising Safe, Disciplined, and Drug-Free Schools Programs, which lists researched-based prevention programs that “[show] promise for improving student achievement.” Open Circle was also chosen by the Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning (CASEL) as among 22 programs nationally identified as “‘Select SEL programs’ that are especially effective and comprehensive in their SEL coverage, their documented impact, and the staff development they provide.”

Open Circle’s evolution

While Open Circle continues to focus its core program around the unique role that teachers play in their work with children in the classroom, the program has responded to suggestions and feedback from educators and evolved over the years to work with other important members of the elementary school community, including principals and other administrators; specialists; paraprofessionals such as cafeteria workers and recess aides; as well as parents and other adult caretakers.

Open Circle’s focus on relationships informs its approach to working with schools. Open Circle programs include extensive contact over time with educators, both in group training sessions and in consultation at the school site. To make these deep relationships with educators and schools possible, Open Circle has chosen to focus its work largely in the Northeast, and has established several additional training sites in the region.

Open Circle’s vision includes carrying its principles and practices into its own culture as an organization, into its wide-ranging collaborations with other local and national social and emotional learning programs, and into other organizations involved in related work.

Recent Open Circle projects include work with Project Aspire at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to continue to develop effective approaches to social and emotional learning in urban schools; a partnership with FamiliesFirst Parenting Programs funded by the Klarman Family Foundation to develop a series of workshops on topics related to social and emotional learning; and an extensive project on the links between social and emotional learning and reflective practice, and the success and retention of teachers who are new to the classroom, funded by the DuBarry Foundation.

A time of change

After nearly 20 years providing creative leadership for the program, Seigle is stepping down as executive director of Open Circle.

“For me, all that we do in Open Circle comes out of a deep respect for educators and a belief that teaching and leading in schools is the most important work in our society,” she reflects. “I’m so grateful for all that I have learned from my treasured colleagues at Open Circle and in the field, and from the educators we work with so closely.”

Over the last ten years, Seigle has been a facilitator of Courage to Teach, a program based on the work of educational activist Parker Palmer, and Seigle has integrated many of the practices of that work into her leadership style and into the programs of Open Circle. She will continue to work with teachers and principals by developing a regional Center for Courage & Renewal in the Northeast, based on the work of Courage to Teach, and will stay connected to Open Circle through the programs’ partnership around this work.

“I’m so proud of all we’ve achieved together,” Seigle says. “The work of Open Circle is more important than ever. As schools address the challenge of preparing students for the 21st century, for technologies and circumstances we can only imagine, certain truths remain constant. As human beings, we need to learn to work together, to empathize, communicate, and collaborate. And we need to develop the capacity to form relationships with others that give our lives meaning, challenge us to look beyond ourselves, and inspire us to create a better world. Open Circle is in a strong position to continue to thrive and grow with its talented staff and cutting edge initiatives. I know that in the coming years, the program will have an even greater impact on the lives of children.”

"Open Circle has really given me a program that will help me build a community in my classroom. I feel that I am trained to help students take control of themselves and the environment that they are in.”

For more information about the Open Circle Program, please visit www.wcwonline.org/opencircle.