In 2009 Ecclestone and Hayes published The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, which was critical of social and emotional learning (SEL) in school settings. They asserted that this was potentially a form of group therapy conducted by teachers. This risked opening Pandora’s box with students who may be further traumatised by being required to talk about personal experiences and strong emotions. Although there is much evidence on the value of SEL for addressing issues both for individuals and society, they had a point. There needs to be a clear pedagogy for SEL that ensures that all teachers and students feel safe. ASPIRE does this: the acronym stands for Agency, Safety, Positivity, Inclusion, Respect and Equity, the principles that underpin Circle Solutions.
This framework has arisen from research and practice over many years and across many countries, including Australia, the UK, China, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore and Egypt. The evidence indicates that when the principles are adhered to there are positive experiences from the process, as well as learning outcomes.
This is what each of the ASPIRE principles mean in practice. Although given separately, they are interactive, and each influences others.
Agency. There is now significant evidence for the value of self-determination for wellbeing – having a voice and being able to make decisions about what is of concern to you. A corollary of agency is responsibility. When you make choices, you cannot blame others for their consequences. SEL requires a Socratic rather than a didactic teaching approach to address both perceptions and skills. Students who are told what to think may not sustain positive changes they do not own. They need to come to their own conclusions based on discussions, reflections and experiences. The role of the teacher is to provide material and activities to stimulate this learning which may include appropriate media, hypotheticals or role-play. A simple example is giving students agency for their class climate: working in small groups, they are asked to write a recipe that would make their class a happy and safe place for everyone and how they would make that happen. The teacher collates ideas and shares them with the whole class.
Safety. Young people are more likely to engage and take risks with learning if they feel safe. This is critically important in SEL. Safety is addressed by discussing issues, never incidents, giving students the right to stay silent and ‘pass’, using the third person rather than the first, using a solution-focused rather than problem-based approach, and promoting collaborative rather than individual activities. Avoiding the use of 'I' and ‘my’ has been particularly helpful. In some activities, students talk in pairs and use ‘we’ to give feedback which is more acceptable. Students are given activities that stimulate discussion and reflection on issues such as values, emotions, identity, and choices.
Positivity. Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions enhance creativity and problem-solving, so it makes sense to promote positive feelings within SEL. Many activities are presented as games, and shared laughter is encouraged. A frequent comment on Circles is that they are fun, and students feel happy participating. Positivity is also enhanced by a strengths and solution focus. Strengths-based language encourages students to have a positive self-concept to live up to, rather than being defined by deficits. An example of activity might be to put strength cards/photos/symbols cards (depending on age) in the Circle centre and mix students up to work in pairs. Each chooses a card that represents a strength their partner has and tells them why they picked up that card. This not only changes how students think about themselves but also promotes a positive class climate.
Inclusion. A sense of belonging is now recognised as a central component of wellbeing. But for the benefit of all, this needs to be inclusive, not exclusive belonging. Exclusive belonging enhances a sense of superiority for those within the group and can lead to dehumanising others, whereas inclusive belonging welcomes all and values diversity. In Circles, everyone is regularly mixed up – usually by playing a game - so they interact with those outside their usual social group and get to know people they would not normally associate with. This promotes both understanding and cohesion within the class. Activities are in pairs, small groups and the larger Circle. Even worksheets can be completed together.
Respect. This is demonstrated by listening to each other and not putting anyone down with words, expressions or gestures. Being courteous includes being kind and being non-judgmental, and respects both contexts and cultures. Activities that build awareness of a range of situations promote consideration, empathy, positive perspectives as well as skills. This is activated in ways that are impersonal – such as discussing different ways to be a family.
Equity. Students are not all the same. Some need flexibility and/or support to access the same opportunities as others. This could include choices about which activities they engage with, having some support, or working in threes rather than pairs when this is helpful. Most activities in Circles are focused on talking rather than writing, which enables children who are not yet literate to participate fully. The facilitator is a full participant in every activity, both to model expectations and to be part of the group. Feedback suggests that this changes teacher-student relationships for the better.
Evidence suggests that ASPIRE can make all the difference both to students’ experience of SEL and the perspectives and competencies they acquire. And teachers also benefit.