Yes They Can: Students with Disabilities in Circle 

Some people believe that students with disabilities can’t participate in community-building circles. These students prove them wrong.

“People think my students can’t understand what’s happening around them or how to resolve conflict. But they can,” says Jolie Moorhus, who teaches K-2 students with cognitive and learning disabilities at a school in upstate New York.

Many people also believe that young students or students with disabilities can’t participate in community-building circles, which require students to focus, listen mindfully to others, and wait their turn to participate. And yet in Jolie’s classroom, students have been learning the skills and practices needed to co-create these circles from the moment they set foot in her classroom last year. 


They know to gather in a circle around their center piece, and that the rubber duckie talking piece serves as an invitation to share or pass when their turn in the circle comes around. They also know to listen when it’s someone else’s turn. They know!

Center pieceAs part of my work to bring culturally-affirming SEL and restorative practices to schools in Jolie’s district, I’ve had the good fortune to participate in circles in her classroom, to listen to students’ stories, and share my own. It’s been a joyful experience and confirmation that when teachers have high expectations for their students and support them with care, even our youngest ones, no matter their ability when they first walk into the classroom, can soar.

Jolie’s students proved this in no uncertain terms last year, when two of them were involved in a conflict during gym. When they got back to the classroom, they asked Jolie for a restorative circle to address the conflict.  

In the video, Jolie shares what happened. (See my photos for clues!) As you’ll hear Jolie explain, by the end of the circle, the students had pretty much solved the problem on their own and returned to their seats, ready to learn. 

students in circleJolie is very clear about how building caring relationships provides the foundation needed for restorative practices – because, as we know, you can’t restore what you haven’t built. Students need to have relationships that they value and want to repair when there’s a problem – using the skills they are learning in classrooms like Jolie’s every day.    

“Just trust and love, that’s really important,” says Jolie. “That’s what I try to give my students every time they walk in the classroom.”