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Pure Friendship for Individuals with Special Needs
Karen Wang
Resources, Special Education

Circle of Friends: A Type of Person-Centered Planning

Person Centered PlanningOne of my happiest days in 2011 was the day I met the new social worker at my son’s school. I went into the meeting with two questions: 1. Have you ever heard of a type of peer-led Person-Centered Planning called Circle of Friends? 2. How can I implement a Circle of Friends for my son, either formally through my son’s IEP or informally with the school’s permission to contact peers? I had read about this type of planning years earlier, but I lost the original article.  I couldn’t find any more information about it, and none of my son’s team members at his previous school knew what it was.  So imagine my surprise when the social worker started explaining her role on my son’s team: her primary function is to initiate and facilitate a Circle of Friends, which would be written into the IEP.  My face lit up, and I burst out: “You just made my day!” The Basics of Person-Centered Planning Person-Centered Planning (PCP)  is a process that helps a focus person to do the following:
  • Gain control over his or her life
  • Develop relationships, skills and community involvement
  • Identify interests and personal goals
  • Create a plan to turns those personal dreams into reality
Person Centered Planning is considered a successful, evidence-based practice in many countries, including the UK, where it was adopted as government health policy in 2001.  According to the Virginia Department of Education, three of the most widely-used types of PCP are Making Action Plans (MAPS), Planning Alternative Tomorrows with Hope (PATH) and Circle of Friends.  The MAPS process consists of a series of questions to collect information for a plan.  PATH uses the information from MAPS to develop short-term and long-term goals (For an online course on PCP, click here).

Circle of Friends

In her book The Socially Included Child, Laurie LeComer writes, “A socially included child will be a more successful child.  Each and every outing and new social experience will give your child the practice and the familiarity needed to learn to cope with and function within the different work and leisure environments he or she may need to move through more independently as a teen or an adult.”  This is exactly why a Circle of Friends can be a pivotal piece of a child’s education.  Today I want to explain how to set up a Circle of Friends: 1. Permissions If the focus person is a child, then the child’s parents must give permission for the process.  If any of the activities will take place on school property, then the school administrators must also give permission. [caption id="attachment_5567" align="alignright" width="210" caption="Circles of Support"]Circles of Support[/caption] 2. Rings of support The focus person draws a picture of his or her circles of support, beginning with him or herself.  The focus person is the center circle. The first ring around the circle includes the people closest to the focus person, usually parents and siblings. The second ring includes friends who care about the focus person and want to be involved in the process. The third ring includes the professionals who help with medical, therapeutic and educational needs and those who facilitate the planning process. 3. The Facilitator The facilitator gives a short presentation about the focus person’s needs to the group of friends.  This may mean the focus person’s classmates at school or a different set of peers, depending on the situation.  The presentation may be done in the presence of the focus person, or with the focus person absent if that makes the focus person more comfortable. I donated a copy of “The Autism Acceptance Book” by Ellen Sabin to my son’s class before the presentation, and the social worker showed them the video, “A is for Autism, F is for Friend.”  Outside of a school setting, parents can be the facilitators by sending out a letter inviting peers to a meeting and doing the presentation at their home. 4. Volunteers At the end of the presentation, the peers are invited to volunteer to be in the Circle of Friends for the focus person.  My son’s school limits the circle to 6 students, and my son’s circle has a waiting list. 5. Explaining the Circle The facilitator meets with the focus person privately to discuss the circle’s purpose, function and schedule. 6.  Regular Meetings The circle must commit to meet on a regular basis over a period of 1 year, with the hope that peers will choose to remain in the circle for several years.  At weekly meetings, the circle identifies areas in which the focus person needs assistance, develops creative strategies and learns how to interact effectively with the focus person. This is the beauty of the Circle of Friends: the younger the group is, the more creative they are. They may suggest activities or companionship during recess, line-ups or after school.  They may suggest ways to teach social skills or recommend a group that will welcome the focus person (such as a pottery class or chess club) or identify ways to make the friendship reciprocal: “Louie can help me with my spelling, and I can help him with math!” It is also cost-effective for schools, because the facilitator is only needed for 30 minutes per week, and the peers apply their strategies for the rest of the week.  It’s a pro-active way to prevent bullying and build a sense of community in the school.


Recent research has demonstrated that the peers participating in the circle benefit as much as the focus person.  The reason is that the Circle of Friends teaches social interdependence, a necessary life skill. Author Chantal Sicile-Kira interviewed adults and adolescents with autism for her book Autism Life Skills, and found that interdependence was a recurring theme: “They remember growing up as children very independent by nature of their lack of social skills, but were unable to ask for help or approach people in an appropriate manner to make a connection... Many of the adults on the spectrum whom I spoke to told me that it took them a very long time to realize that to be interdependent was okay, that most of us nonautistics survive and thrive because we know how to be interdependent and how to give and take assistance and make connections, something people on the spectrum don’t just learn by osmosis.”

Changing the World, One Child at a Time

Why was that first meeting with the school social worker so happy and memorable for me?  One in 110 American children (one in 70 American boys) is now being diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then I think of the children who have survived premature birth and birth injuries, and all the children with ADHD, severe food allergies, genetic issues and other special needs -- more children than in any previous generation. Because of the laws regarding Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in the USA, more of these children are being placed in general education classes than ever before, and my son is one of them.  Every single one of these children needs peer support.  Every single one of these children deserves to be surrounded by a Circle Friends through childhood and into adulthood.  If that were to happen, I think there would be some eye-opening changes in the world. A few days after the school social worker made her presentation to my son’s class and got a list of volunteers for the Circle of Friends, our doorbell rang.  A boy from my son’s class was standing on the porch.  He said, “I wasn’t sure if this was your house.  Can Louie come out to play?”  It was the first time anyone had ever asked that question.

WRITTEN ON January 11, 2012 BY:

Karen Wang

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"