Circle of Friends (CoF) is a school inclusion program that provides opportunities for students of all abilities to build genuine friendships, as well as to model appropriate social behavior, promote awareness and tolerance of differences, and decrease bullying.
Standard School District first implemented the Circle of Friends program at Standard Middle School (SMS) during the 2014-15 school year. The following year, the CoF program was begun at the three elementary schools. The program continues to be a success at each school site, with lunches and activities happening every week at all of our campuses. There is a CoF team at each campus, which may consist of general education teachers, special education teachers, school psychologists, and/or speech pathologists. Both “peer friends” and “friends” - students without and with disabilities - participate together. Often, peer friends are recommended by their teachers and complete an application. These students then participate in a “Peer Friend Training” which teaches them about various disabilities and ways to interact with their friends to promote positive relationships and foster friendships. SMS also puts on a school-wide “disAbility Awareness Training.”
Students with and without disabilities participate in weekly activities in a fun and relaxed setting; they gather together and do what kids do - they talk, laugh, share, play, and eat - together. They build rapport and relationships with one another in inclusive settings and the distinctions between “general education and special education” are erased. These regular gatherings have built relationships that extend beyond the 45-minute lunch and into students’ daily lives at school. Middle school students were asked about the impact that Circle of Friends has had on the campus, and some shared statements such as: “People are nicer”; “There’s less bullying and more friendship”; “[It has] made it a friendlier place to be”; and “I think [it] has made kids feel more welcomed on campus.”
SMS teachers and staff have also spoken of the positive impact this program has had. Stacey Catlin shared, “Circle of Friends brought out nourishing, kindness, and inclusive qualities in some of my general education students that I never would have expected to see. It was fun to watch genuine friendships develop between students that probably wouldn't have been given an avenue to connect otherwise.” Jennifer Stewart noted, “I have watched students accept each other without asking questions...they help each other when they see struggles happening.”
Staff in the district make Circle of Friends possible and contribute to a more inclusive setting for our students. The CoF program takes very little funding to implement, is easily replicable and adaptable to elementary, middle or high school settings, and has contributed to an improved school climate.
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