Circles® Curriculum: White Paper

Harvard University Finds Circles Curriculum Proven Effective

Curriculum Teaches Social Boundaries and Protects Against Abuse and Exploitation


Organizing social connections based on a person’s objective “closeness” is something that comes naturally to most. We categorize individuals and, based on previous interactions or connections, we decide how to act towards them: these decisions include how to talk to someone and what we talk about, how much we can trust them, and how much touch and what types of touch are appropriate with them.

However, children on the autism spectrum, children with intellectual/developmental disabilities, and children with affective disorders have greater difficulties understanding these appropriate social boundaries, and how to categorize relationships. This difficulty inhibits children from creating healthy social relationships.

Unfortunately, lacking an understanding of appropriate social boundaries also makes these students more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and exploitation. That’s where Circles® comes in. Circles® was developed to provide these children with the tools to organize relationships and determine what levels of touch, talk, and trust are appropriate.

With Circles®, students learn:

  • Social distance: students learn social distance when they can “see” social boundaries
  • Relationship building: learn that intimacy levels change as relationships change, and learn which changes are inappropriate vs. appropriate
  • Intimacy level signs: students can recognize degrees of variation that indicate relationship rules and recognize signs that a relationship is changing
  • Rejecting intimacy: if a relationship change is not mutual, students learn to reject intimacy and develop strategies for social success and self-protection when intimacy is rejected
  • Recognize & react to exploitation: Learn appropriate protective behaviors

School-based programs like Circles® can help students learn the rules of intimacy and social boundaries. Circles® VideoModeling Curriculum teaches social and relationship boundaries and relationship-specific social skills, using a simple multi-layer circle diagram to demonstrate the different relationship levels students will encounter in daily life. Circles® is a concrete, organizational paradigm for students with special educational needs that helps them learn to act and interact in self-enhancing ways.

“I strongly believe that participating in this program helped a student of mine report that she was being sexually abused by a member of her family. I have taught over 20 years and this is one of the best programs for my students.” —Jerri Chronister, Teacher

Circles® is used in over 10,000 facilities across the U.S to help students recognize exploitative relationships—as well as develop mutually respectful ones. The curriculum’s strong content validity has been noted by many experts in the field who have evaluated the Circles® curriculum using their professional judgment and have endorsed Circles® as an effective vehicle for teaching social boundaries and personal safety (examples below).

But does a school-based program, like Circles®, actually work in teaching healthy social relationships to children with disabilities?


In a Harvard University study, the Circles® curriculum was proven effective in “increasing knowledge of social safety and appropriate vs. inappropriate behaviors for children with developmental disabilities.1


Download & read the entire white paper research report HERE!


Circles Intimacy & Relationships: Level 1, has been completely remade.

To ring in the new school year, we released an all-new version of Circles Intimacy & Relationships: Level 1. This update uses the same proven-effective paradigm as before, but includes many important updates to further emphasize the guidelines of social boundaries and reflect current cultural and technological trends. Visit our Circles Level 1 page here to learn more about what is included in the newest edition and how you can get your copy.

Categories: Autism , Life Skills , Social Skills & Fitting In , Special Education , Whitepapers
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