The children sat in a circle playing Duck-Duck-Goose. As the music stopped and the circle grew smaller, the children cheered and laughed with one another as it’s supposed to be.
This wasn’t recess with a group of friends getting together. The game was part of the Friendship Circle at Hermosa View Elementary School that brings together children with and without developmental disabilities— and telling them apart was difficult while they smiled and laughed.
Carrie Montreuil has worked as a special education instructor as well as reading group teacher for kids without special needs at Hermosa View School for three years. When she began working, she noticed that children were having some difficulty playing with other children and even simply talking with friends, whether they had special needs or did not.
Montreuil, who had taught for four years previously in Washington State, had heard of the Friendship Circle and knew a club existed at Mira Costa High School. She contacted them and asked if they would be interested in starting a group at Hermosa View, which began last year.
“It was really originally designed for older students,” Montreuil said. “But I thought they might be willing to collaborate and they were. So we set up a program together that really offers our students structured opportunity for socializing, and it’s been really great for kids without disabilities, too.”
Social skills development isn’t often specifically taught in school curriculum, and children often pick up social cues from adults and older students, said Montreuil, who wasn’t sure how many kids would turn out for the new Friendship Circle when it debuted last year.
Montreuil and other organizers opened the program up to everyone in the school because they didn’t want it to just be a program for kids with developmental disabilities. They thought they’d get about 20 kids participating, but ended up getting about a hundred. They’ve since had to rotate classes through in order to keep the numbers manageable.
The Friendship Circle commences every Wednesday at lunch at Hermosa View. Lunch periods are stacked to start every fifteen minutes apart, beginning at noon with kindergarteners and 1st graders at 12:15 p.m.
Over a quick lunch, Montreuil and adult volunteers assist students with structured conversation, which might include asking children what their favorite kind of cake is and then prompting them to ask one another what their favorite kind of cake is.
After lunch, the children break up into smaller groups to play a structured game, whether it’s a board game or a whole group game, such as Duck-Duck-Goose. Montreuil or an adult volunteer will set out some clear rules for the game, and oftentimes the kids will know some of the rules or have experience playing the game with differing rules that other kids haven’t heard of. That means the children through the adult supervisor must establish agreed-upon rules of the game. Just as important, Montreuil said children are guided to be supportive of classmates who exit the game and won’t be the winner.
Some students participate in the Friendship Circle at View because their parents want them to or the school teachers believe the child can benefit. And though last year was the first year of the Friendship Circle at View and there were more kids participating than expected right away, this year whole classes want to join in.
“So the program has good word of mouth with the kids,” Montreuil said. “There are kids who find each other during Friendship Circle because maybe they haven’t been in class together. I’ve absolutely seen friendships form.
“The other cool thing is that some of the students have taken the games that we’ve taught them in friendship circle and I’ve seen them playing at recess, which was the ultimate goal and was so rewarding to see,” Montreuil said. “They’re using a lot of their skills, like establishing rules and cheering for each other when they get out of the game, those sorts of things we are teaching them. That’s been really, really rewarding.”
At recess, there are a lot of kids that can be very loud, which over-stimulates some children. The smaller, quieter setting of the Friendship Circle is very appealing to many students, who find each other within the structured playtime, Montreuil said.
Hermosa View, like many other schools, has an inclusion program that’s based on the theory that kids with developmental disabilities should be in their classrooms as much as possible. Montreuil said the purpose of kids being in the classroom is academic. And when kids don’t pick up on social cues naturally in their environment, they’re not going to pick up on lots that’s happening in class, Montreuil said.
“The Friendship Circle really allows them a time when there are no academic demands,” Montreuil said. “There are no exceptions that you are sitting quietly and learning— other than what we are presenting, which is all play based. The kids, I don’t think they always realize they are learning things.”
Jason Flentye, program director for the Friendship Circle based on North Redondo Beach, said there are more than 800 developmentally disabled children participating in the program at about 20 schools in the South Bay that brings kids together over lunch. Most of the schools are high schools and middle schools, Flentye said. Hermosa View, along with Grand View in Manhattan Beach and Lincoln Elementary in Redondo Beach, are the only elementary schools offering the Friendship Circle to students, though more schools are expected to participate soon, Flentye said.
“Now it’s at a bunch of other high schools in the area, a lot of middle schools and we’re slowly starting to build the last couple years getting into the elementary schools,” he noted.
The Friendship Circle was brought to the Beach Cities in 2005 by Rabbi Yossi Mintz of the Chabad Jewish Community Center in North Redondo Beach, who serves as the executive director of the Friendship Circle South Bay. Mintz’s longtime friend Michael Greenberg of Skechers helps put on the annual pier-to-pier walk to raise money for the program.
Mintz picked up the idea from a close friend who began a Friendship Circle in the Detroit suburbs. The program began to really grow in 2005 after students at Mira Costa High School led by Xan Saks began the first Friendship Circle club in Room 114, Flentye said.
Friendship Circle activities center around bringing companionship to kids with special needs, and include Friends at Home in which youth volunteers visit a child with special needs in their home. They also include community outings, which bring together groups of children after school or on the weekends for various social and recreational programs, as well as summer camps and summer activities. The Friendship Circle is supported by more than a thousand teenage volunteers.
Flentye said the Mira Costa club was used as a model for other high schools, including Redondo Union and Palos Verdes High School.
“At a glance, Friendship Circle wants to provide social-recreational programs in the three main areas of a child’s life: in their home, in their school and in their community,” he explained.
Flentye, who often visits Hermosa View and assists Montreuil at lunchtime, credits Montreuil for bringing the program to Hermosa View.
“Carrie does a wonderful job of facilitating a program but stepping out of the way so kids can be kids and let the peer relationship happen,” Flentye said.
Melanie Gourzis is one of five parent volunteers who assist with the Friendship Circle at Hermosa View. Her son learned to speak more slowly than other children, and she witnessed his anxiety at not being able to interact with his peers so easily.
“I understand the struggle and frustration of not being able to communicate at all,” Gourzis said.
This sensitivity allowed Gourzis to see that plenty of her son’s classmates also struggled to find the right words to communicate with others, whether they had developmental disabilities or not. Children who can’t communicate so easily tend to stand out, and empathy is something children are very open to learning, Gourzis said.
“It’s not just special ed kids that don’t know how to communicate ‘Do you want to play with me,’ or ‘I’m sorry I hurt your feelings,’” Gourzis said.
Sometimes adults can guide a more assertive child to ask a less assertive child to play— a communication breakthrough some children experience more easily with a little guidance, Gourzis said.