Buddy Circles: A Model of Peer Support to Promote Self-Awareness, and Partnership for Change

What if children understood their own value, and could tap into and share their value as a way of helping peers find their own value?

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Because emphasis is placed on social and emotional intelligence, and the cultivation of holistic wellbeing, time is taken to guide our students through processing big emotions, which often arise from conflict. Buddy Circles were born out of a naturally-occurring dialogue between two students who had failed to understand each other, and things had escalated. As the adult observed, the student, who had experienced trauma in his early years and had a flat affect, said, "I know people think I’m mad when they look at my face, but that’s not how I’m feeling on the inside; I’m trying to work on that." The peer replied in awe, saying, "Oh, I never knew that." The adult prompted, "Now that you know that, what do you think you can do?" She responded, "I can ask him how he is feeling." The peer also sought permission from the student to share this interaction with others, acting as an advocate for this student without even realizing it. We were moved to find a way to make conversations like this happen on purpose, before conflict occurs, to help students not only understand each other, but reach a new level of self-awareness through this kind of dialogue. Buddy Circles were initiated the following school year to establish a network of peer support, provide a safe space for sharing, and model empathetic problem-solving. Since then, Buddy Circles have allowed students to discover the value the carry, and offer that to their peers as a measure of support and partnership.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Missouri

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Soulard, Saint Louis

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Missouri

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Saint Louis

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Too often, we fail to see each other or recognize the value we bring. This likely occurs because we struggle to see the value within ourselves. We attribute this as an “adults only” struggle, but this is all too real for many children, particularly those who have experienced trauma or discrimination, have become codependent or over-reliant on others, or have a social or learning disability. When children question their value, conflict inevitably unfolds as they navigate their world ill-equipped with tools that can stem from self-preservation. Buddy Circles counteract these thoughts of worthlessness through a process of: I see you, I learn from you, I partner with you, I make change with you, and I belong. As students feel seen, they recognize they can learn and grow with others to partner and make change, thereby establishing a sense of self, purpose, value, and belonging.

Buddy Circles are a formalized approach to self-advocacy and peer mentorship, and an avenue for collaborative strategizing for problem-solving. Born out of a naturally occurring conversation between peers who were able to express themselves without judgment, we were moved to keep the dialogue going in a meaningful, proactive way, and find opportunities for all students to participate.

Within this safe zone of sharing thoughts, ideas, concerns, and vulnerabilities; and within the opportunity to gain meaningful feedback and genuine recognition from a peer group without judgment, our students learn about themselves, their value, and how to share that value as a means of supporting their peers.  Students learn the importance of building trust, and "that what happens in a Buddy Circle stays in a Buddy Circle," thereby respecting the sharing of sensitive information.

These types of conversations act as a predecessor for anti-bullying campaigns within local middle schools, and foster a strong sense of self as students equip themselves and others with a toolkit that includes flexibility, mindfulness, acceptance, and sincerity. 

Students take turns acting as the Center (the student asking for support) and are able to communicate their needs without feeling criticized.   The Buddies (the students acting as support), are practicing compassion, understanding and respect, normalize the vulnerable moments, and provide strategies and solutions based on their own experiences. They also build empathy and social competence, while practicing executive function practices like: goal-setting, planning and organizing, adapting/shifting, and thinking flexibly. 

Student Quotes on Buddy Circles:

“It’s very important to help all people, not just the Center.  It’s not just about who is the Center in the Buddy Circle, it’s about other people.” -- 4th Grader

“A buddy is like a non-judgmental friend.” -- 5th grader

“It’s like helping someone swim who doesn’t have floaties.” -- 1st grader

“A Buddy Circle helps you when you’re struggling with basically anything.” -- 5th Grader

“Being a buddy is basically being someone who helps others, and cares for the whole school.  And just because you’re in one Buddy Circle doesn’t mean you can’t be a buddy to all the people.” -- 3rd Grader

“I can help. I am happier. I am more helpful.” – 2nd Grader

“Being a buddy is helping lots of people find their way.” – 2nd Grader

“I used to have loads of fits, and now I have my strategies, and I like them.” – 1st Grader

“Buddy Circles help me because sometimes I am feeling frustrated, and then we can come to Buddy Circles and talk about how to fix the problem.” – 1st Grader

“Buddy Circles have helped me be more self-aware of how people are treating others.” – 5th Grader

“Instead of getting angry and having nothing to cope with, I have new ideas.  I am not stressing about everything.” -- 3rd Grader 

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Children who are differently abled
  • LGBTQ or non-binary individuals
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Childcare
  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education
  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Within the first Buddy Circle meeting, we "see" each other, and make "noticings," segueing into what our peers might need from us, and what they might demonstrate that could help with our own needs. They begin to learn about, and from, each other as they self-share those vulnerable moments, "when things are feeling hard." Feelings are normalized, as students often respond with, "Me, too!" and, "That is really hard, here is what I do when... ," and strategies are offered and discussed. Students partner in their individual and common goals, and support each other in overcoming perceived obstacles, both within Buddy Circle and independently. Through these interactions, students’ open-mindedness, empathy, and self-reliance increases.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

As part of our initiative to share our model with the larger community, we have monitored Buddy Circles and its ripple-effects. With Webster University, we can say with certainty that we are, indeed, on to something here. Initial looks at data collected indicate that students are building stronger and more meaningful connections, with each other and within themselves. We know that students are expanding an emotional and executive-function-based vocabulary, including “flexibility,” “communication,” and “strategies.” We know that students are deepening their understanding of confidentiality, building trust, and the respect and empathy that accompany those practices. We also know that students who are working to support others experience the greatest "ripple" in these effects, as they begin to see the bigger picture of "being a buddy to all the people" and where their purpose lies.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $500k - $1m

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Thus far this project has required no budget, as materials have been created and maintained in-house. We are hoping to share this movement with other agencies, through continued research in partnership with Webster University, presenting our observations and findings locally and nationally via appropriate conferences, and ultimately crafting a curricular outline. This is our first attempt at securing financial backing to grow this project.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Many schools may deliver social skills instruction, or provide peer-mentoring in some capacity. Our model is different because of its ability to meet those needs, and then some. The meeting agendas provide a framework, and within that, conversations can naturally unfold in a way that the students feel empowered. The adult facilitator poses a question, a prompt, or an occasional redirect, while the students steer the ship. This allows for strategies and solutions to be student-driven as opposed to adult-imposed. With that ownership comes a sense of purpose and belonging.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Professional conversations have focused on mindfulness, grit, and executive functioning as indicators for later success, whereas parents use words like contentment, resilience, and kindness. The word that everyone is getting at is "value." When a child is made to feel valued and experiences how that feels through their purposeful contribution, and when they can guide their peers in discovering their own value, regardless of the medium, they are partnering for and making intensely purposeful change.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

The Disruption Department

Program Design Clarity

Support is reciprocal. While underserved students regularly participate, each student can share moments of vulnerability: things that "feel hard" or uncomfortable. Through out their Soulard School tenure, students aged 6-12 will participate in Buddy Circles. Research indicates the ripple-effects reach even further than the systematic circles, as naturally-occurring "buddy moments" are produced. Students meet weekly, and through a framework lead by classroom and special education teachers, essentially deliver their own service as they set goals and problem-solve through organic conversation.

Community Leadership

Students are our stakeholders and are regularly surveyed at the end of Buddy Circles, with questions ranging from, "What does it mean to be a buddy when we're no longer meeting?" to "Are Buddy Circles something we should keep doing? Does it need to change?" Additionally, Buddy Circles have been introduced to our parents via workshops, and we will initiate Parent Buddy Circles this fall. We also hope to partner with the Boys and Girls Club.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 6 - 12

Spread Strategies

We are bringing our parents into the fold, and will initiate Parent Buddy Circles this fall following our Buddy Circle workshop. We intend to partner with the Boys and Girls Club and other educational agencies to gain meaningful feedback on the implementation of Buddy Circles in another setting. Buddy Circles will be shared with pre-service teachers and current teachers through professional development opportunities with Webster University.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

As one student with a traumatic background said, "I learned that I matter." Students learn that support is reciprocal, and necessary, to build a sustainable partnership. They learn healthy strategies for navigating conflict not just from an adult, but from their peers. They identify partners (their buddies) who they trust to support them. In being identified as a trusted buddy, regardless of their own struggles, they find their value.

Leadership Story

There is a community shift going on. It is our responsibility to be responsive. The way that UC Berkeley Professor John A. Powell speaks to this paradigm shift is through the Lens of Belonging. He says: “We need to do things to connect. And on one hand, thats right, but on the other hand, it understates what it is. We are connected. What we need to do is become aware of it, to live it, to express it. The human connection is one about belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship." -- Sarah Christman, Soulard School Co-Founder/Executive Director

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Accepted at the Association of Positive Behavior Support International Conferences 2015 Accepted at the Council of Exceptional Children International Conference 2016 Accepted at the Missouri Council of Exceptional Children State Conference 2016

Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)


Attachments (1)

Buddy Circle present San Diego CEC 2015-2.pdf

As part of our initiative to share our model, this presentation, adapted from a Keynote to a PDF, was created, and includes the "nuts and bolts" of Buddy Circles, as well as initial looks at research from Webster University. Though the videos won't play, the student quotes are included in the Solution portion. Data indicates students are building their vocabulary, deepening their connections, and increasing their understanding of reciprocal support as a means of discovering their own value.


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Photo of Jessie Mandle

Great program! Would love to learn more about the outcomes and impact you're seeing! Really enjoyed getting to read the student testimonials too- thank you for sharing them!!

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