Wellesley Centers for Women Program, Open Circle, Implemented in 23 Boston Schools

December 11, 2013

In classrooms throughout the City of Boston this year, students are devoting time to Open Circle, a social and emotional learning program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade a program designed by the Wellesley Centers for Women. The program helps students build the skills they need to recognize and successfully manage their emotions, develop positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and constructively handle challenging situations.

Boston.com recently reported on one classroom scene, from a third grade classroom at the Tobin K-8 School in Roxbury. Tobin is one of nearly two-dozen Boston public schools that adopted the Open Circle program last year following the announcement of a $1 million grant to the Boston Public Health Commission by Partners HealthCare and its founding hospitals Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General Hospital.

In participating schools, teachers hold 15- to 20-minute Open Circle Meetings twice a week that include a range of activities, such as group discussions, role-playing, storytelling, and community-building activities. The accessible lessons allow teachers and students to bring in their own voices to address conflicts or talk about difficult subjects such as peer exclusion, teasing, or bullying. In each gathering, one chair remains empty, symbolizing that there is always room for another person or voice in the circle.

“Success depends as much on students’ social and emotional development as on their cognitive abilities, and Open Circle can help improve these outcomes by providing teachers with evidence-based tools and techniques,” said Nova Biro, co-director of Open Circle at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

Research has shown that Open Circle increases students' demonstration of pro-social skills, decreases violence and other problem behaviors. Biro told the Globe that the Boston Public Health Commission views social-emotional learning as integral to long-term violence prevention in the city. “By teaching children social-emotional skills and fostering safe learning communities, Open Circle gives children the tools to manage their emotions and productively work through conflict,” she said.

Open Circle is celebrating its 25th year. The program was launched in 1987 as a pilot designed to improve the social skills of students in six schools in Framingham. It has since been adopted by more than 300 schools in over 100 communities across the country, reaching more than two million students and 13,000 educators.

The program is planning for continued growth in Boston and other large school districts with support from a $220,000 growth and scaling grant from NoVo Foundation. Plans include development of an updated train-the-trainer program, leveraging technology to increase accessibility of training and coaching, further incorporating mindfulness practices for educators and students, and bringing Open Circle to pre-Kindergarten and Grades 6 through 8.