Today host Lori Boll speaks with Robyn Reagan who is the Executive Director for Circle of Friends. Circle of Friends is a school inclusion program for students who experience social isolation due to disability or other challenges.  Through weekly lunches and meaningful activities students develop compassion and the understanding that they are more alike than different.

CoF promotes a culture of acceptance and genuine friendship. In our show today, Robyn shares about this fantastic program and the research behind it. By the end you’ll know how you can become a Circle of Friends advisor in your school. And you’ll have HOPE. and that HOPE is for our future and also an acronym which you’ll hear more about later.


Robyn has been improving systems and supports for children, youth and families for over three decades. Her first role model was Annie Sullivan, “Teacher” and friend to Helen Keller. Robyn is a lifelong advocate for children who struggle to make their gifts and needs known.


Transcribed by Kanako Suwa

[ Introduction music plays ]

Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour Podcast with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour’s worth of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour. 

Lori: Hello, SENIA listeners. Today I speak with Robyn Reagon who’s the executive director of Circle of Friends, the path to inclusion. So Circle of Friends is a school inclusion program for students who experience social isolation due to a disability or other challenges through weekly lunches and meaningful activities. These students and their peers develop compassion and the understanding that they are more alike than different. Circle of Friends promotes a culture of acceptance and genuine friendship. In our show today Robyn shares about this fantastic program and the research behind it. By the end you’ll know how to be an advisor to Circle of Friends at your school and you’ll have hope- hope for our future and also HOPE is an acronym which you’ll get to hear more about later. So let’s get to it! And now, onto the show. Hello Robyn and welcome to the podcast! 

Robyn:  thank you, I’m excited!

Lori: Well, you are the executive director of Circle of Friends – the path to inclusion. I was first introduced to this model when my son was in kindergarten and I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Can you give us some background on Circle of Friends and how it came to be? And then later we’ll get into what the basic model is. 

Robyn:  Well I think it’s a great story so I’m happy to share it. In 1999 in Santa Monica, California,  a speech language pathologist named Barbara Palilis was brought into an education meeting where a young man, named Alec with Down Syndrome, and his mom was at the meeting and she requested that one of his behaviour goals be to make a friend. And in 1999, this stumped the IEP team. But Barb was one of his therapist and she had a good reputation with the parents, and so she asked her if she would figure out how to make that happen. She reached out to some neurotypical peers that she knew were great kids and she said “Alec needs some practice talking about spending time and he needs friends, would you commit to having lunch with him one day a week for the rest of the school year?” And they said yes. And so that was the beginning of the adventure. These youth leaders, so they started off and became Alex’s friends, they took it upon themselves to create ability awareness presentations and they gave them to the 9th grade science classes and within 3 years, it was the most popular club that they saw on campus. And CBS came out and did a news story. A few years later when Barbara retired, the parents of those first students said “this cannot retire with you, you need this in every school”, and in 2005, we became a non-profit. 

Lori: Oh that is a good story. Yes, that’s beautiful. How would a decision be made in a school or anywhere to create a Circle of Friends around an individual? 

Robyn: Well, we’ve actually been invited or requested at schools from lots of different sources – we have heard from teachers and principals, and in many cases, parent who learn about the programme. We’ve heard from students who are, in many cases, siblings of students with special needs who learn about us and want us at their sibling’s school. Sometimes, it becomes a part of an IEP as I mentioned, or it could be a service learning project. In some cases, it may be a result of bullying or a problem on campus that administration has been requested to address and Circle of Friends is suggested as that strategy. As you know, bullying is an issue. Research shows in 2019, 33% of students reported bullying and there probably were many that didn’t report. We know the students with disabilities are 2-3 more times likely to experience bullying and research shows that 57% of bullying stops when a peer intervenes. It shows how powerful a peer interaction is. 

Lori: Very. Very powerful. So how does this basic model work? What’s it look like? 

Robyn: Well, what it looks like is, after I’m connected with an administrator, I meet with them to assess their programme needs, whether they’re an elementary or high school, for example. In many cases, they might, if they’re addressing a need like bullying prevention or youth leadership, then we align how Circle of Friends looks to what’s going on with them. We then provide some orientation at the school level, and I work with teams of volunteers on site, multidisciplinary, they could be gen-ed teachers, special ed teachers, speech pathologists, counselors, assistant principals, we work with 3-4 volunteers at each site that I provide training for. And they become our Circle of Friends advisors. And they provide the implementation. They implement the programme, those advisors select and connect the students that are seen as being in need of this programme, and do orientation and recruit neurotypical peers, and the programme is usually realised as a lunch outing one day a week. As leadership grows, they want to plan other things, activities, parties, things in the community, and most of that is student-driven with the advisor providing the additional support. 

Lori: So, one thing I noticed when my son went through this programme was that the teachers showed… or no, we came in, now that I think about it, we as parents came in with pictures of our son snowsking or swimming in the pool showing these kindergarten students what our son had in common with them, that kind of made him “the same” as them, rather than…. So they were noticing his similarities rather than his differences. Although we acknowledge the differences as well and shared those were. So, is that part of the official Circle of Friends? 

Robyn: Yes. That’s part of the orientation, that peer friends receive. We don’t go a lot into technical detail or confidential information about the students. What we do is identify strengths and commonalities and identify challenges and needs, framed as “we all have stuff we’re working on, and your new friend is working on speaking more slowly when they’re excited, or your new friend is working on tone of voice” or whatever. And the rest of it really just grows organically from them spending time in spontaneous social environments, like lunch. There are a lot of social programmes that may incorporate lunch but they’re more scripted, like “now we’re going to chew two times and make eye contact!”. Circle of Friends is about the opportunity of bringing students together and finding out what they have in common and appreciate how unique. 

Lori: That’s amazing. I did a modified version of this with some of my students in the past, and one of the most powerful statements I heard from a classmate, one of the peers, was “you know, I liked, let’s call him Joe, I liked Joe and wanted to get to know him because of his differences, but after learning about him, we have so much in common that I like him even more”. 

Robyn: And that’s what we hear from our neurotypical students, which we refer to in our programme as our “peer friends”. 

Lori: Peer friends. Got it. I love it. So let’s talk about the pandemic. How has Circle of Friends evolved throughout this time? 

Robyn: Well, like so many non-profits and so many education based organisations and families across the globe, we’ve had to make a lot of adjustments. When schools shut down in March of 2020, and school either wasn’t happening or happening online, all of our advisors and administrators were completely overwhelmed. So Circle of Friends actually kind of went dark. We had to shut down! I kind of went on furlough but I was committed to our chapters and I, throughout the pandemic, continued to send them resources and strategies for online learning and engagements, social emotional learning, and self care, because I knew the amount of stress they were going through to try to meet student’s needs. And during that time, I tried to keep abreast of changes and what was going on, I attended a lot of seminars and meetings online, and realised the potential of  the online forum. And so I spent my time at home adapting our in-person workshop model so that they could be provided online. And something I hadn’t thought about but we certainly realised as we came back on board, was one of the challenges for new schools that want our programme was the cost. And the amount of additional costs, finding a meeting space, getting substitute coverage, advisors to come to 3 workshops a year… and when we went virtual, we could shorten the amount of training, we record it so if someone gets called out, they can revisit the materials and the trainings on their own time, and its brought down the cost to about a third of what we were charging in person. And we can do it anywhere, one of our newest chapter is in Bentonville, Arkansas, and it’s one of the 6 districts that we started working with in the 2021 school year. 

Lori: And I imagine you could do international schools as well, right? With the virtual model…

Robyn: Yes! We had an inquiry from Australia but it hasn’t come to fruition yet, but yes, we can. Absolutely. We can only do it in English, we don’t have the ability… but with close captioning and translation, we’d be excited. We know how valuable this programme is. 

Lori: Fantastic. So, how can people access your virtual model> 

Robyn: So what they do is they contact Circle of Friends and we explain how we work with them, and they enter into what we now call an annual membership. So right now, for example, in the spring, I’m currently meeting with the administrators to say “how has the year been, how would you prepare for the fall, how might you tweak your model?” We have schools in their second year who might add grades, they might add English Language Learners, or other marginalised groups. 

As part of our annual membership, we provide 3 – 90minute workshops online and recorded, so they can revisit it, and we schedule a follow up for a few weeks after the workshops so the advisors who now have questions that they didn’t have during the workshops because now they’re using it. We provide a guide, everyone has a Google folder with all of the information, it includes forms and strategies and supports that we’ve gained over the last 20 years of practice. I also send out monthly resources to our chapters including links to videos, activities, and campaigns. For example, in October, bullying prevention is on everyone’s minds, and for this month, autism awareness, for April. So I send them out great tips and guides to increase awareness for their students. And lastly, we have, on going, even between the workshops, they can reach out to me by email or phone and I continue to work iwth them as a coach. 

Lori: I see. So a school might decide to have 3 advisors or whatever. I see. That makes a lot of sense. And we should probably just mention again that you are non-profit organisation. So your goal is not to make money from these trainings, but it’s more the mission. Right. Perfect. 

So when I was chatting with you earlier, you mentioned there was recent research of the impact of Circle of Friends on the gen-ed population. Can you speak to this? 

Robyn: Yes. Now we knew, over 20 years, we knew through anecdotal evidence and stories that students with disabilities clearly benefitted from our model. In 2014 and 2018, two educators used the Circle of Friends model to show our impact on neurotpical students. In 1 case, they went over 10 years of training and reached out to educators, neurotypical students, family members, and community members to talk about what, how Circle of Friends had changed them and changed the school environment. The other young man, Dr.Delouchi, he actually looked at emotional intelligence and spoke to peer friends that were now in their 20’s who had finished college and were now in their first jobs, to have them reflect back on what they learnt and what they thought the impact was on their lives as adults and as workers. 

And it was quite profound to hear what they’ve learned that those young people are now bringing to more inclusive spaces and communities. 

Lori: That’s great! So I imagine that this Circle of Friends could work in a workplace community as well, for our older students or older population.

Robyn: Yes, and at several high schools in Santa Monica, we actually had something called Circle Summer in which students that were now transition age were paired with speech language majors or psychology or education majors from Cal State Northridge and they got together for 3 weeks over the summer and did various things in the community. So they went to the beach, they had lunch, they, we brought in service activities like cleaning up a park or donating something to a local pet shelter, to show that we all have something to offer. And that was very powerful to the college students as well as the young adults with disabilities.

Lori: Yep. So powerful. This year, SENIA is 20 years old, and our theme for the year is the Inclusion Revolution. And this just seems like such a great tie-in to that. And I guess my call to action for our listeners is to well, first, research more on Circle of Friends, and then get involved! You know, bring it to your school, it’s it can be one of the most powerful thing out there, for our kids. Well, I have good news for our listeners. You are going to be one of our presenters at our next SENIA virtual conference. So, you’ll be… I’m sure you’ll mention Circle of Friends in your presentation but your main focus is going to be on ACEs and HOPE. So can you give us a brief introduction, without of course, ruining the whole presentation, giving it all away, in 2 minutes…! 

Robyn: Of course! I’m very very excited about the opportunity, thank you again, and excited about this work. My background, before I came to Circle of Friends, I worked in residential treatment, and in urban schools. And saw the level of need and what students were being impacted by, and I was always fascinated by the resilience that they could show. And how they could come back even stronger. So as you mentioned, it was a 1998 study by the Kaiser Foundation in Southern California, that found a correlation between ACEs, which are Adverse Childhood Experiences – examples are domestic violence, poverty, parental separation, so they found a connection between those and increased health problems in adulthood like heart disease, diabetes, and mental illness. 

More recent research went beyond the households to include different domains like community, things like substandard housing, lack of access to parks, structural racism, and the environment, drought, fires, extreme heat… the research shows that 4 or more adverse childhood experiences can have a negative effect. Both children and adults have experienced between 15 – 20 ACEs in the past 2 years of COVID, racial unrest, and climate change. And that can leave us feeling very overwhelmed and hopeless. I was excited to learn about the work at Tufts University – they’ve been studying what families, teachers, healthcare providers, and community members can do to help our young people overcome this global trauma that we’ve experienced. And they call their acronym “HOPE”, which stands for Healthy Outcomes from Positive Experiences and the 4 building blocks for HOPE are healthy relationships, creating safe environments for living and learning, social engagement to help develop a sense of belonging and connectedness, and opportunities for emotional growth. And those 4 building blocks are what Circle of Friends is actually doing. So, I’m excited to share more about that. I recently became a trained facilitator in the HOPE model and I’m excited to be a part of your conference! 

Lori: Oh, wow, we are so excited. And HOPE, I think that’s such a great way to end our discussion today. We can think about HOPE for all of our students and all of our teachers and families who might be struggling at this time. Thank you so much! 

Robyn: Thank you!

Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information including how to subscribe and show notes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcast. Until next time, cheers.