Developing relationships with person centred thinking


How to use person centred thinking to develop relationships at school, in the community and within the family

It’s not always possible to see the people who are important to us as often as we like, but these relationships are critical in defining how we see ourselves as individuals and as members of our community. It can be calming, comforting and grounding to have reminders of the people who we love, and who love us. In this issue, we will look at ways to build relationships and celebrate people who mean the most to us.

Relationship circles

Rosie came home upset one evening as she was struggling with her friendships at school. She did have a few friends, but there always seemed to be lots of fallings out and problems. Her Mum, Louise, wanted to understand who Rosie was friends with now, and who she wanted to be better friends with. So, Louise drew a relationship circle with Rosie at the centre. She asked Rosie to put in the names of her friends on the circle, with the friends that she felt closest to in the inner circle, and then other friends in the next circle. This helped Louise to understand who was most important to Rosie. She had a good idea of who her best friends were, but there were some surprises concerning who was in which circle.

Louise then asked Rosie to show on the relationship circle how she would like her friendships to look, and Rosie drew two arrows to represent moving Aoife and Ella into the closest circle. Louise and Rosie talked about what they could do to help strengthen these friendships and they put together a plan to invite Aoife for a sleepover and Ella to attend Pottery Corner with Rosie at the weekend.

Every couple of weeks, Rosie and her mum got out the relationship circle and talked about how the friendships were going. Using the relationship circle helped both of them understand what was happening with Rosie’s friendships, and to be able to talk about how relationships develop and what can help with and get in the way of making and keeping friends.

This person centred approach is useful for finding out who matters to the child, and for identifying relationships that could be strengthened. It is also possible to identify any themes or patterns in the relationships.

A personalised table mat reminds Freya of her favourite people.A Table mat with a difference

Freya gets to look at her favourite people at every meal. She is two years old and her table mat has been created from photos of family and friends. She loves it and points to everyone while saying their names.

It’s easy to make a table mat like Freya’s at home or school. You can either buy a kit online or you can use your school’s laminator. The advantage of getting a kit is that they are reusable, and you can change the pictures to include new people. If you want to make them from scratch, though, each student will need to first mount their photos onto a flexible background, such as light card, before you put them through the laminator. Be sure to round the edges with a pair of scissors before you hand them back.


There are lots of websites selling kits to make these clocks. All you need to do is find pictures of people who are important to you and your family to take the place of the numbers around the clock face. If you want to do this at school, you could use pictures of people in the class. In most instances, there won’t be exactly twelve students, but you can always take pictures in groups and include teachers or support staff who are important to the class.

Friendship profiles

A friendship profile is a kind of one page profile. The purpose of these is to share key information with others about what’s important to you, now and in the future, and what good support looks like for you. For examples of one page profiles, see the Celebrating Families website (below).

Liz was worried about her daughter’s transition to secondary school, particularly that she wouldn’t make friends or would be bullied. Although she was confident of the staff’s abilities to include a child with Down syndrome, she wasn’t sure about how the other children would be; would they baby her, exclude her or worse?

None of the children at secondary school had grown up with Elsa, so Liz created a friendship profile. A lot of resources go into ensuring that teaching staff have the right skills, but it is classmates that make inclusion succeed or fail from a child’s point of view. Elsa says she has lots of friends at school now and she is proud to show everyone her profile.

Circles of support

Some people aren’t able to live their lives the way they want to and fulfil their aspirations without support. A circle of support, or a circle of friends, is a group of people who meet regularly to help somebody (the focus person) achieve their goals. The focus person decides who is invited to be part of the circle and the kinds of discussions and decisions that the circle will be part of. The circle is usually made up of friends, family and community members who have a real interest in helping the focus person achieve their goals.

Jennie’s story

Jennie is nineteen, and Helen has been part of her circle of support since she was fourteen. Jennie is on the autistic spectrum and her circle is there to help her navigate the transition to adult life.

Helen felt honoured and humbled when Suzie, Jennie’s mum, asked her to be part the circle, and it involved her on quite a journey. Sitting in Suzie’s lounge over the last five years, Jennie’s family and friends have worked together to figure out what an ideal future would look like for Jennie and what her perfect week would be. They have also looked at specific issues, such as what her connections in the community are and how they can be built upon, how to make transport work better for Jennie and, most recently, how she can use a personal budget.

During the creation of a forthcoming Department of Health DVD, filmed as Jennie was starting to move into her new flat, Helen discussed her thoughts on Jennie’s transition experience: “Suzie was seeing her youngest daughter leave home and all our plans over the last year come together. It was emotional and Suzie and I both cried during the filming (they promised to edit that out!). I thought I knew a lot about personal budgets, support planning and recruiting staff, but being part of making it happen from a family’s perspective, and as part of a circle, took my learning and experience to a different place, and brought new, important relationships into my life.”

Further information

Helen Sanderson has worked as a government advisor on person centred approaches and is co-author of Celebrating Families: simple, practical ways to enhance family life:

For more information about circles of support, visit:

This article was first published in issue 47 (July/August 2010) of SEN Magazine.

Helen Sanderson
Author: Helen Sanderson

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