Circle Time Fun!

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Or Circle Time Nightmares, just depending on your perspective really.

In case you are unfamiliar with the term, by “circle time” I mean group instruction or overview of a variety of tasks (academic, motor, songs, etc.) that usually takes place with the students sitting on the floor of the classroom. Circle time usually involves the entire class, and can last anywhere from 10-30 minutes depending on the age of the children.

For many of my young clients, a common problem I hear about over and over is “He/she just won’t sit during morning circle time” or “He/she is most disruptive during circle time”.
Considering that even preschools are implementing circle time now, this is a skill (really it’s a complex set of skills, but more on that below) that even 2 year old’s are expected to know.

So what’s the deal here? Why is circle time such a common issue that parents and teachers bring to me over and over again?

As much as it may seem like one skill, circle time encompasses a tidal wave of individual behaviors. Such as:
  • Appropriate near peers (absence of problem behavior)
  • Stay seated for extended duration/sitting still
  • Attending to the teacher as necessary
  • Attending to other students as necessary
  • Raises hand to gain attention
  • Raises hand to answer a question
  • Follow a group instruction (“everybody clap”)
  • Follow group instruction with a discrimination (“all the boys clap”)
  • Turntaking during group instruction
  • Quiet unless responding to a directive/answering a question

Add to that being in close proximity to multiple kids, thin schedule of reinforcement (usually), a high delivery of demands, and for many of my client’s circle time is a dreadful time that they hate. So what I usually see when I go into classrooms is everyone goes to circle time, and my client runs out of the room. Or, paces back and forth in the back of the classroom. Or, sprawls out on the floor and starts kicking peers.

There are tons of ways to improve your client’s ability to participate in, and learn during, circle time. That should be the overall goal: that your client can gain the same social and instructional gains from circle time as the other students in the class. Not just “sitting still and being quiet".

As the title of this post says, let’s get to the F-U-N already! **Some of these suggestions will require teacher approval. Also, it’s easier to incorporate these strategies across the entire class, not just for your client

  1. Create a schedule, or a loose outline, for how circle time will run. Turn this into a visual support and use it to help your client understand what will happen during circle time and how long circle time will go on (use of a timer can be helpful too). Refer to the visual before and during circle time.
  2. Reinforcement! From the perspective of your client, why should they sit “criss-cross applesauce” on the colorful rug? Connect specific behaviors to powerful motivating items or activities that can be delivered during circle time or immediately after.
  3. Embed manipulatives as often as you can. I find that it helps my clients stay seated with the group if they have something to touch or hold. So if the class is going to read a book about insects, see if plastic bugs can be passed around. Or as the class names different colors, have your client hand you a crayon of each color (“give me red….give me blue”).
  4. Be sure to think of ways to modify instruction based on learner needs. Think: adapting. If your client communicates with sign language, or through an iPad, do they have opportunities to respond to questions during circle time? If not, these are missed opportunities for learning to occur, or for the student to contact reinforcement. Tasks should be presented receptively as well as expressively, learner choice should be embedded (“should we read this book or that book?”), and opportunities for movement should be included as well. Think active engagement rather than students just quietly sitting and listening to the teacher.
  5. Let the teacher know what your learner knows. Here is a problem I see often: my client completely disengages from circle time, so none of the teachers call on my client or present him/her with any demands. So now we have a situation where not only is my client not participating, they have no opportunity to be reinforced for correct responding. Make sure that the teacher knows what skills your client has, and then you can prompt the client to respond if necessary (or provide reinforcement when they do respond). A way I have done this in the past is to make a simple sheet of several mastered tasks my client can do. Then the teacher can refer to the sheet when they call on my client. Maybe my client can’t say the alphabet, but they can clap hands on demand. Or they don’t know their numbers, but they can receptively identify colors. Again, modifying instruction will be key to making circle time fun for your client.
  6. When initially beginning intervention, it may be unrealistic that your client can participate in the entire circle time. You may need to start small and build the time up. When I am with a client we may sit with the group for 2-5 minutes, and then take a break away from the group for 1-2 minutes.  These breaks get shorter and shorter over time....but do not provide a break immediately following problem behavior. That will only shape up more escape maintained behavior.
  7. Repetition is your friend. The more streamlined circle time can be, the better. Many of my clients need the repetition of working on the same skill for multiple days in a row. In some classrooms the content of circle time can change daily, but I find that for many of my clients the more predictable the content is, the better able they are to participate. Previously, I have worked with some students where we came up with weekly circle themes (colors, numbers, plants, etc.). So each day of the week we explored the same theme. This routine helped keep my client interested and engaged, but the repetition also helped them grasp the concepts.
  8. Capture learner attention by embedding favorite items into circle time. Let’s say your client loves Hello Kitty, so have the students stick Hello Kitty faces on the calendar to mark days of the week. Or, if your client loves airplanes then the class can sing a song about airplanes or watch a short video about airplanes. Another way I have done this in the past was to have the children bring items from home, and the teacher would incorporate them into circle time. For my client, his face just lit up when the teacher began using photos of his dog to talk to the class about animals.
  9. Encourage peer interaction. Again, we want engagement not silent sitting. One of my favorite ways to encourage interaction is through songs or games that can be done before or during circle time. Have the kids sit facing each other and sing your greeting songs, but as you sing the kids need to wave at each other, shake hands, etc. Or, play a game such as Hot Potato or Parachute and have the kids work together in pairs or small teams. You can also do group games or activities that require sharing, such as having the children pass things to each other, or share materials .

*Recommended Resources:

Barton, Erin E., et al. "We can all participate! Adapting circle time for children with autism." Young Exceptional Children 14.2 (2011): 2-21.

Crozier, Shannon, and Matt Tincani. "Effects of social stories on prosocial behavior of preschool children with autism spectrum disorders." Journal of autism and developmental disorders 37.9 (2007): 1803-1814.

Garfinkle, Ann N., and Ilene S. Schwartz. "Peer imitation increasing social interactions in children with autism and other developmental disabilities in inclusive preschool classrooms." Topics in Early Childhood Special Education 22.1 (2002): 26-38.

Circle Time - Skill Building cheat sheet freebie


  1. Thank you for this post, it is very informative. I have read many posts including the FAQ and how to become an ABA but have not found the answer to a question I have. I know it is acceptable for an ABA to have a masters in education, psychology, or Behavior analysis. However do most employers generally prefer one major out of those three? Thank you,

    1. Hi & Thanks for commenting,

      I'm not sure what you mean by become an "ABA". Do you mean a line therapist/RBT or a BCBA?

      A Masters' degree is not necessary to work as a line therapist/RBT. It is necessary to work in a supervisory role/as a BCBA. For the specific degrees allowed,check out the BACB website (
      What employers require will vary greatly depending on your area and the available funding sources, so I would focus more on the BACB guidelines.

  2. Dear Tameika, My 3.5 year old is functioning ok in NT preschool. He listens to directions and is engaged when the teacher distributes tasks, like coloring, cutting , and doing patterns. He has some friends, and plays games in recess with other kids.

    But there is an obvious difference in the way he attends in circle time in comparison to the other kids. He sit there quietly, but he would yawn or dig in the carpet if the activity is not interesting to him. If they sing songs, or ask questions related to skills that he is really good at, he will answer and participate...but while most kids are eager to volunteer and attend to the teacher, my son seems bored in the group. I would think this is something about his ability to focus but this same kid can do academics at home with full concentration for 30 minutes! In addition, his academics skills are way above the its not mental state delay.

    So is this reduced social "motivation" type of issue? No desire to learn anything new? Social delay? While the other kids also disengage, they usually socially interact with each other...while my son seems kind of isolated on and off during circle time.

    1. Thanks for visiting the blog,

      There are so many possible variables here, so without knowing your son I can't speak specifically as to what the issue is.
      What I can say is that for my clients, usually circle time difficulties are rooted in: lack of reinforcement (the child lacks motivation to participate), group instruction deficits, or the demand is too high (circle time is 15 minutes or longer). Each of these issues would require a different type of intervention, so my suggestion is to work closely with a BCBA if you are not already.

      The BCBA can conduct an observation/assessment to determine what the deficits are, then create an individualized intervention for your son.

      Good luck!


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