Circles organizes the chaos borne out of toxic stress and trauma, helping young people envision and create a future in which they can thrive.

Components of the Circles model:


Circles are conversations. Young people talk about what really matters to them and learn together how to manage the stressors associated with daily life. The model supports recovery from the misuse and/or abuse of power inherent in adversity and trauma by intentionally sharing power with participants.


When exposed to overwhelming life experiences, young people can have difficulty staying safe, identifying and managing their emotions, navigating losses, and imagining a future. As a result, they are frequently vulnerable to risky situations, have difficulty managing their emotions or are numb to them, and are stuck in time and unable to move into a future they envision.

The lessons are organized around four concepts that are central to the experience of being human.

These four concepts serve as the organizing framework for conversations that support participants’ ability to manage emotions, problem-solve, and develop an internalized locus of control to effect change in their lives.

Safety, Emotions, Loss, and Future


Safety is the foundation of Circles because without safety, the work of healing stalls. The absence of safety causes a spike of stress hormones, which triggers a flight/flight/freeze/fawn response to protect oneself from danger. When our stress hormones stay at high levels or repeatedly spike, this can lead to a lifetime of physical ill health and employment and relationship challenges.

Circles breaks down safety into five types, all of which are essential to function in a healthy way:







Traumatic experiences can bring about overwhelming emotions. Because this can be extremely uncomfortable, people may seek to numb or avoid the intense feelings by misusing substances such as drugs or alcohol, engaging in problematic behaviors related to sex, eating, or self-harm, or shutting down altogether. Intense emotions can also create employment and relationship challenges. Building skills to effectively manage emotions enables young people to develop positive relationships with others.


Losing a dream, hope, person or something else we value can arouse many different kinds of intense and disturbing feelings. When this happens, our brains are overwhelmed with stress hormones, and learning is more difficult. If a loss is not addressed, emotions often become disconnected or disproportionate to past, present, or future events, which makes it difficult to let go of behaviors that do not help realize hopes and dreams.


People who have a history of trauma and other adverse experiences may have difficulty imagining a future that is not dominated by the losses. Developing a belief that the future is something young people can actively choose supports movement toward healing. As we learn to make meaning of intense and hurtful experiences, we become more able to solve problems and develop a plan for our future goals.


At the heart of Circles is coaching. Co-facilitators are coached to infuse the model’s core principles (shared power, inclusion, nonviolence, and growth and healing) into every conversation. This is essential because Circles conversations can be emotionally difficult. Co-facilitators learn to tune into the presence or absence of safety so that participants can practice emotional safety and problem-solving skills and develop affirming relationships with themselves and others. 

Circles holds space for cultural ownership in each implementation of the model. It has a culturally responsive design that is adapted through a co-designing relationship with each new group of young people. Each iteration offers rich opportunities for learning. 

Just as young people who participate in Circles learn from one another, co-facilitators learn from one another through an ongoing community of practice.