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Keeping the Peace: Peace Keeper Circles in Early Childhood Classrooms

by Joan Scheuerman (10)

I have had the privilege for about nine years now to be a part of a restorative circle called Peace Keeper circles in early childhood classrooms. Sitting in circle with young children – ages 3 to 5 – has been an interesting and humbling part of my growth as an early childhood professional. Interesting to really understand how competent, empathetic, and kind children can be to one another. Humbling to understand how little I have to do with these children becoming their unique and competent selves – I need to set up a safe and welcoming environment with clear and loving boundaries, and get out of the way. Teaching the ideals and process of Peace Keeper circles to other teachers has allowed me to solidify my understanding of restorative work generally, and specifically with this age group. These understandings began in the teachings of Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia philosophy of educating young children, grounding my thoughts in beautiful environments and collaborative interactions with children. My biggest revelation while studying this philosophy was seeing children as competent to create their own learning. Because I have the privilege to work with young children daily, I see this idea played out in their curiosity, their kindness and their sense of justice.

Peace Keeper circles give time and space for classrooms to deliberately build respectful relationships. The circle focuses on understanding others’ feelings and perspectives. Circles have the potential, when practiced regularly, to address complex issues that arise in any social setting, including early childhood classrooms. The capacity for building a kind and safe community grows with every circle, as the norms of respectful interactions become our lived experience. This type of classroom communities allow children to feel safe enough to take the risks that are inherent in learning – whether it’s writing their name, working a puzzle or approaching a peer – and children know they will be emotional and socially supported. 

The format of a circle is simple. Teachers and children are all included in the circle and are encouraged to participate, yet have the option to pass if they desire – they get to choose. It’s made clear to the children that while the teacher facilitates the circle, everyone is in charge of the circle. It is a place where all voices are important and everyone gets a turn. We use a talking piece to designate whose turn it is to talk, as everyone else practices active listening. The initial purpose of these circles is to practice sharing our feelings – honestly, and without comment, and without someone trying to fix the feelings.  Next, we work on public acknowledgement of other people’s kindness through giving appreciations, where each child can tell another how they felt when they were treated kindly, using a specific format to get started. We can also respectfully air small grievances and hurts using the same format. I often use this format when addressing conflict during the day.

Often teachers express concern about the students who do not get an appreciation. Because the goal here is honest and open communication, there’s not a requirement that everyone gives or receives an appreciation, and there are times when one child gets three or four. Often the students in the classroom who are struggling with social situations or self control or learning something new are the ones who get an appreciation, a testimony to the perceptive abilities of our students. Children have an intrinsic empathy and kindness that only needs a safe place to grow and flourish.