Magic Circles: Self-Esteem for Everyone in Circle Time


Murray White

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    About the Author

    Murray White represents the UK on the International Council for Self-Esteem, an organisation formed in 1990 and now established in over 70 countries. Its goals are to promote the concept of self-esteem and its significance in individuals and society and to facilitate the co-ordination of self-esteem activities and projects throughout the world. The most recent conference held in this country was in Liverpool in 2006. Speakers attended from North and South America, Australasia and Europe. Murray was a head teacher for 30 years. In 1990 the Institute of Social Inventions gave him the education award of the year for his pioneering work introducing Circle Time and said, ‘it could be used with advantage in all schools’. His self-esteem programmes for the classroom received an enthusiastic response when he initiated the Supporting Children Learning Through an Understanding of Behaviour Project for the local education authority. He is recognised internationally as lecturer and consultant, having presented workshops and keynotes in Europe, the USA and all over the UK. His interactive presentations are designed to enhance self-esteem in many settings, including families, schools, organisations and for individuals.

    His main studies in psychology, counselling and therapy were undertaken at the University of Surrey, the Psychosynthesis and Education Trust, London and The Parent Network, London.

    Like many residents of Cambridge, Murray cycles everywhere in this wonderful city. He sometimes finds time to imbibe the cultural atmosphere and enjoys some quick games of table tennis with friends. He confesses that what are intended to be healthy brisk walks along the river usually end up as slow rambles. Details of Murray's work can be seen on his website: He can be contacted at 5, Ferry Path, Cambridge CB4 1HB;

    Murray White emerges as the earliest and most significant influence on the establishment of this group process in the UK. His contribution for practitioners of techniques to raise pupils' self-esteem and his inspirational work on Circle Time has helped to ensure that the emotional well-being of young people in schools is never forgotten. Through his work the lives of countless numbers of young people have been improved.

    George Robinson and Barbara Maines, Lucky Duck Publishing

    Above all, watch with glittering eyes, the whole world around you – because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.

    Roald Dahl, the final words of The Minpins, his last book written for children


    I owe much to John Heron, who was the Director of the Human Potential Research Project, and his colleagues at the University of Surrey for opening my eyes to the wonders of humanistic psychology and to Lady Diana Whitmore and her colleagues for giving me more inspiration during my studies at the Psychosynthesis and Education Trust, London. It was from the experiences I gained in these places that I was able to see what was needed on the school timetable and so Circle Times began. My thanks go to Robert Reasoner, President of the International Council for Self-Esteem, for the guidance I received in incorporating a clear self-esteem structure into the circles and to George Robinson, who, through his many superb Lucky Duck publications, has promoted the value of Circle Times far and wide. I must also include Christine Rees and Rachel Voss, two good friends and teachers who made some valuable suggestions about what they would like to see in this new edition. And, of course, I do not forget all the girls and boys and grown-ups who brought their magic to my Circles and to all those teachers and others who continue to do a Lighthouse. Thank you. You are great.

    The ‘diagram for behaviour change’ principle on page 31 is the work of John Heron, author of Helping the Client.

    The Quick Relax on page 137 is printed with the permission of B. Remsberg and A. Saunders, authors of Help Your Child Cope with Stress, Piatkus Books.

    Please note: Where children are referred to in the text please substitute young people or adults if they are appropriate in your situation. Similarly with he and she. Both are used in the text.


    We first encounted Murray when we read an article in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) (30 May 1989) entitled ‘Magic Circles’. Here was a primary head teacher describing the work he was doing to enhance self-esteem through a process he was calling ‘Circle Time’.

    We had just published our first pack on Self-Esteem and Positive Behaviour Management and were excited to be introduced to a new technique. Though we recognised some of the activities and games, we had never seen them presented within a cohesive practical package that recognised the children we worked with. One particular example he used in the article shone out for us because it so accurately described children with low self-esteem who, despite contrary evidence, found it hard to see the positive in themselves. An 11-year-old who is good at maths was doing a sentence completion exercise and said in a low voice, ‘I'm good at maths’ and then finished in a whisper ‘sometimes’.

    We were pleased to see Murray expand his ideas in 1991 to produce the first substantial book in the UK on Circle Time. With hindsight we think he made a mistake not to use Circle Time in the title. We kept in touch and were thrilled when he suggested he might publish with us at Lucky Duck. It was a great honour to have the ‘father’ of British Circle Time add to our growing list of Circle Time publications and in 1999 we published Magic Circles, reverting to his original TES article title.

    With an association going back nearly 20 years it is still an honour to be asked to write the Foreword for this new edition. In fact, in looking at the structure and content, it is so different from the first edition and, with the addition of ‘Picture This’, it feels like a new book rather than a new edition. However, with all the new content, the essential elements that Murray conveys so well are still evident.

    • The clarity of the process of Circle Time:

      ‘Circle Time is like the scaffolding which is erected to support a building while it is being built. It supports the children while they grow and develop their esteem. The teacher is the architect who plans and devises the activities and uses all her skill and experience to give information and assurances at the level the children need.’

    • The aspects that are developed:

      Under the umbrella of self-esteem, within the security of the process, children develop a sense of security, identity, belonging, purpose, competence and well-being. Murray was writing these things years before Goleman (1995) introduced us to emotional intelligence or recent initiatives such as ‘Healthy Schools’, ‘Every Child Matters’ and ‘SEAL’.

    • Practical ideas:

      The book is full of ideas to implement immediately in the classroom. This is a practical book to pick up and use every day.

    • A sense of hope:

      What bursts from every page is the same message of hope that inspired us in 1989. Here is a person who not only believes in young people but can inspire us to believe that we can make a difference. We can help every young person to believe they are important people, full of strengths and capabilities.

    We hope you will find as much inspiration in this book as we have received from Murray over two decades.

    GeorgeRobinson and BarbaraMaines

    Introduction to the First Edition

    Probably the most important requirement for effective behaviour, central to the whole problem, is self-esteem.

    Stanley Coopersmith, The Antecedents of Self-Esteem

    Every teacher wishes for a class of pupils who all take pleasure in behaving well and are all keen to study. A room which contains such a class is a good place to be, an ideal learning environment. In order to achieve such a situation, the issue of self-esteem must be addressed as self-esteem is the pivotal point between success and failure in school. It has a marked effect on both behaviour and learning. The connection between behaviour and self-esteem is well documented; behavioural difficulties do not occur where a healthy level of self-esteem is present and research shows that the correlation between self-esteem and school achievement is as high as between IQ and school achievement. Where teachers are aware of, and adopt strategies which enhance, the self-esteem of their pupils, they find that attendance is high, that there is a real enthusiasm to learn and that relationships flourish. This book is a contribution to the understanding of self-esteem and sets out to show teachers and others responsible for the welfare of children and young people how they can help to enhance their self-esteem, while at the same time developing an awareness of their own. The ideas and strategies presented here are based on my experiences with children and on discussions with teachers and others in staffrooms and workshops over many years. I take this opportunity to express my appreciation to the many super young people and their mentors who shared such a lot of their lives with me.

    Circle Times are now being conducted in schools and other settings all over the country for children of all ages. The teachers and leaders concerned need everyone's encouragement and thanks for the vital role they are taking in helping our children and young people attain the self-esteem they need to fulfil their potential and to lead productive, fulfilled lives.

    Introduction to the Revised Edition

    One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Le Petit Prince.

    The world of self-esteem and Circle Time has got much bigger in the UK since my article ‘Magic Circles’ was published in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) in 1989. Much much bigger. At the time there was a tremendous positive response to it from readers both here and abroad but it was not possible to foresee the long-term consequences. As it turned out the article and the book which followed acted like dropping a stone into a pond or planting a seed in the ground. The ripples have turned into waves and the saplings into a forest. Many teachers have adopted the idea and conducted their own circles and now, nearly 20 years later, Circle Time gets official recommendations in government literature and there is a proliferation of books about it. We have witnessed the passing of the Children's Act, Every Child Matters, the introduction of the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning guidance, the Healthy Schools programme, the formation of the PSHE Association, and schools devote much time to philosophy, emotional literacy/intelligence, happiness lessons, and other activities which, in their different ways, all promote the self-esteem of their pupils. This is very good news, as the value of the possession of a healthy level of self-esteem cannot be underestimated.

    The intentions in this new edition differ from the first and are fourfold. First it attempts to counteract the myths and misunderstandings about self-esteem which still abound today by setting out clear definitions given by leading authorities in their research on the subject. It is really important that the significance of the possession of a high, healthy level of self-esteem and the affect it has on both individuals and society is understood. It is very unfortunate to see the facts misinterpreted so frequently.

    Second, to give some guidance on what individuals can do about having healthy self-esteem themselves. The good news is that we can always get ourselves more if we are prepared to invest the time and effort. Third, to advocate the wider use of Circle Time. Not only does this activity have a place in schools, both primary and secondary, but also in any establishment where a group of people is gathered. If the appropriate materials and activities are used I can see a genuine beneficial use for it from nurseries to care homes. The book is intended as a guide for those who wish to facilitate the promotion of self-esteem and personal development activities in groups of people of any age, from children in schools and After School clubs, to teenagers in Youth Clubs, students in teacher training and other colleges, members of Women's Institutes, Rotarians, business meetings, all places where people gather and where they could nourish and enhance their self-esteem by participating in Circle Times. The author has extensive personal experience of using this material in many different settings and the participants all testified to the benefit it brought them.

    Fourth, to ensure that those who take responsibility for facilitating Circle Times have clear ideas on its structure and purpose, that they have addressed the issue of their inter-relating skills, and have taken account of all the preparations necessary to ensure a successful outcome.

    Whenever I have received negative feedback about any Circle Time it has always been evident that this has been the reason. It has not been because of the process itself. Of course enthusiasm is to be commended, but first things first, so I hope if you are intending to be responsible for presenting Circle Times you will take account of the views and information in this book. I wish you much enjoyment and many rewards in your magic circles.

    Existence never repeats itself. It is very creative and inventive. And it is good, otherwise, although Gautam Buddha is a beautiful man, if there are thousands of Gautam Buddhas around – if wherever you go you meet Gautam Buddha, in every restaurant! – you will become bored and easily tired. It will destroy the whole beauty of the man. It is good that existence never repeats. It only creates one of a kind, so it remains always rare. You are also one of a kind. You just have to blossom, to open your petals and release your fragrance.

    Osho, Beyond Psychology, Discourse Five. Part of 44 discourses given in April and May 1986 on the many techniques of self discovery
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