The power of peers

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How a social skills intervention can promote positive behaviour and reduce social isolation

This is a success story about a boy who, for the purpose of this article, will be called Peter. The article discusses the development and evaluation of a Circle of Friends approach to peer support in a mainstream school, which produced significant gains for Peter and for his peers, who also proved to be very influential in promoting positive behaviour and reducing isolation.

What is Circle of Friends

The Circle of Friends (CoF) is an approach developed in North America by Jack Pearpoint and Marsha Forest, supporting the integration and socialisation of children and adolescents of all ages described as having deficits in social skills (Newton et al., 1996). Its popularity increased in the United Kingdom during the 1990s and it was endorsed by the Department for Children, Schools and Families as a useful strategy for supporting the inclusion of children with ASD into mainstream schools. Although its creators intended it to be more of a tool, it is now widely accepted as a supportive intervention for children who struggle to make friends and potentially become vulnerable to social isolation. Equally, peer support groups have been successful for children experiencing emotional, behavioural or social difficulties.

Peter’s story

At the time of the CoF intervention, Peter was in Key Stage 2 at a mainstream primary school, where he found school expectations to be increasingly challenging. When he was happy and calm, he showed glimpses of his strengths and academic potential. However, although he was proficient at deciphering emotions, he found it hard to empathise and tolerate others’ emotions, resulting in gradual isolation from his peers. His social isolation became a barrier to his learning, due to repeated refusals, leaving the class and being aggressive towards other children. The interplay between Peter and his learning environment was identified; this is in line with the acknowledgement that situational and peer factors affect a child’s social functioning, which can be a predictor of a child’s social competence (Frederickson et al., 2005). As Peter was at risk of exclusion, CoF was proposed by a multi-disciplinary team as an approach that would support a more positive relationship with his learning environment and peers.

Department for Education figures (DfE, 2009/10) show that pupils with a statement are eight times more likely to be permanently excluded than pupils with no identified SEN. As Peter was becoming vulnerable to exclusion, preventing social isolation and promoting positive behaviour and raising self-esteem became the driving forces behind the project. In order to collect measurable data, a frequency and severity chart was completed weekly to monitor occurrences of undesirable behaviour, alongside qualitative data gathered through peer questionnaires with stakeholders (parent, SENCO and teachers).

Implementing the group

The intervention ran for eight weekly sessions, lasting 30 to 45 minutes. Each week, targets were discussed and reviewed by all the children and decisions were made regarding their continuation or alteration; Peter was involved in the decision making and evaluation of targets. In the first session, the facilitator explained the complexity of the sessions and the children shared why they wanted to be involved. The children discussed the impact of unhappy playtimes and shared any worries that they had at school. Later they discussed their opinions of Peter’s behaviour and the positive aspects of his personality. Finally, the group reflected on behaviour targets for the following week.

Figure 1: The Circle of Exchange process (Newton and Wilson, 2003, p.25).The initial session for the implementation of CoF took place in the classroom with all the children, but without Peter. The children were given a diagram to fill in, using the circles of exchange process (see Figure 1); the circular rings were filled in individually by the children to show a clear system of social connections. The rings represent intimate relationships, such as parents and siblings, friendships and acquaintances like class teachers, doctors or dentists. It is believed that this helps the class to focus on the people they have around them and the importance of these relationships. The area of friendship is highlighted and the children are encouraged to share how they would feel if they didn’t have any friends to talk to or play with. The aim and expectations of the group were discussed and the children were made aware of their voluntary participation.

Eight children were involved in the group, four girls and four boys. All eight children were between nine and ten years old and in the same class as Peter. The individual peers were chosen by the facilitator, from amongst those who had volunteered, for their honesty, empathy and problem solving skills, as well as for their existing relationship with Peter. For each child involved, permission was obtained from parents/carers prior to the start of group sessions. The ethos, from the very beginning, was to empower all the children involved. Each child had a turn at being the Chairperson and was responsible for running the session and directing the other children to take turns, listen to others and respond appropriately throughout the meeting. The school SENCO observed a session and described it as “a moving experience. All the children were engaged in offering strategies and helping Peter with the difficulties he faces in all aspects of school life; it was wonderful to observe this openness”.

Making a difference

It was fundamental to the group to create an atmosphere of trust and closeness, encouraging a relaxed forum for the sessions each week. The children discussed difficulties and decided on strategies using problem solving skills. The main focus for the adult was to facilitate rather than control, and to observe the relationships at work. When Peter was asked how he felt about the sessions and the discussions that took place, his response was: “it is okay when they talk about good things but a bit hard when it is bad things, but my friends are helping me. I like it when the group see and say good things about my behaviour”.

The evidence collated throughout the research indicates that the CoF approach is an intervention that has contributed to positive changes in behaviour and social acceptance, both in the classroom and playground, from peers and adults. The data collated from the frequency and severity behaviour logs over one week are shown in Figure 2. It shows a significant drop in Peter’s difficult behaviour, especially “refusing to follow adult instructions” which was deemed Peter’s most problematic behaviour for staff.

Listening to peers’ voices

Figure 2: Impact of CoF on Peter’s behaviour in the classroom.The children observed that Peter was making an effort to be more positive with his behaviour and commented on this in their questionnaires: “Peter has not just got up and left the classroom in ages”; “I’ve noticed he is calmer in the classroom and playground”; “I think he is calmer since CoF; before if he got upset in the game he would push us or shout, now he explains why he is feeling cross and he listens to me more now”. When the children gave Peter positive feedback on his behaviour and he could see that they were proud of him, his body language would change; his self-esteem grew visibly week by week.

It could be claimed that the success of this particular CoF intervention lies in its ethos of security and trust, adopted by all group members, reducing the focus pupil’s anxiety and desire to control his environment. Peter was genuinely surprised at how his behaviour affected the other children in the class, especially when he refused to participate. The children commented that it was annoying if he didn’t get changed for PE, as their lesson was delayed. Group members explained how they felt about supporting Peter: “It has been really fun listening to each other; I have enjoyed thinking of ways to help Peter”; “I trust him and I think he trusts me, I think it is a good thing because we are all helping each other”.

Looking forward

Being excluded from a social group is an unpleasant experience; loneliness and feeling different can be heartbreaking to observe in some vulnerable children. The CoF approach, though, encourages a unified forum to support children in the formation of friendships with their peers. It is not about focusing on the child’s deficits and trying to “fix” them, but instead it emphasises giving more attention to the child to increase skills and enable independence.

Interaction with peers can have a big effect on behaviour.CoF gave those in Peter’s school environment the opportunity to see beyond his difficult behaviour. It also changed the perceptions of the other children involved. They began to realise that Peter was not just a “naughty boy” and that he had worries and difficulties just like them, but was unsure how to deal with them. Peter’s class teacher noticed that Peter seemed more relaxed following the CoF intervention, and that he had fewer behavioural outbursts. She reported “fantastic progress as a result of the CoF. Peter’s new-found confidence and emotional wellbeing is visible. Peter is more popular, a considered member of the class and because of this Peter appears to be much happier.”

Peter’s parents agreed, commenting that “Peter often discusses Circle of Friends with us at the dinner table. He is always talking about it and told us how much he likes it and how much it has helped. He seems more popular at school, and we are so pleased. Peter would regularly refuse to do as he is told and most things would become a battle. Since CoF, Peter is more amenable to doing what he is asked.”

Peter’s example highlights the importance of peer relationships, and the transformation that can take place in terms of a child’s self-regulation, confidence and friendship skills. It is important to remember, though, that Peter is still on a journey; as he approaches secondary school, he will need to continue to develop his newly acquired confidence. Positive feedback on his efforts to self-regulate will be crucial to this process. A well supported programme for his transition to secondary education should help ensure that Peter sustains his ability to make friends, as he now has positive friendship experiences to build on.

The Circle of Friends approach is not a new one, but it is worth revisiting. Small qualitative studies have repeatedly shown that the perceived benefits of this approach for all children involved include increased social awareness, empathy and acceptance, developed problem-solving and listening skills, greater awareness of human change, and enhanced self-esteem. Such schemes have also had a very positive effect on the integration of children in mainstream classes (Newton et al., 1996; Whitaker et al., 1998; Kalyva and Avramidis, 2005).

Further information

Deborah Litten undertook an evaluation of Peter’s Circle of Friends project as part of her BA (Hons) degree in Children’s Special Needs and Inclusive Education at Kingston University. Dr Paty Paliokosta is Senior Lecturer in Inclusive Education at the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education, Kingston University and St George’s, London.
www.kingston.ac.uk

All names have been changed and the children pictured are not those involved in the study.

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