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Holistic circles – a visual representation of a child’s strengths and needs

Writing EHC assessments tends to be linear and for me there is a frustration in ‘chopping up’ a person in to the pre-defined four areas of need as detailed by the code of practice.

More recently I have developed a way of visually representing the extent and interacting nature of needs which I thought might be helpful to share and collaboratively improve upon as a profession. EHC assessment reports can be very wordy and my experience is that many parents (and sometimes professionals) struggle to make sense of the information contained within these long documents.

My guiding questions when developing this approach were:

  • Is there a way of visually representing needs alongside the narrative?
  • Is there a way we can succinctly capture some of the strengths and support networks some young people have and which are instrumental to progress?

Using circles to create a holistic view of strengths and needs

When I use this approach I draw a circle for each presenting area of need. I don’t stick to the areas of need described in the SEND Code of Practice as quite commonly an area of significant need is prior traumatic or family experience(s). I take the needs as they become evident to me. I don’t draw a circle for an area of need as defined by the code of practice if in fact that area is not a need.

The size and interaction of the circles is important. Bigger circles indicate greater need impacting on learning progress. Overlapping circles indicate the interacting nature of needs. A circle is also drawn for any strengths or support networks. I have trialled using the strength circle as the one that encompasses all the other circles that depict need. I hope this gives the message of the importance of strengths and support

Where I’ve used ‘holistic circles’

I’ve used holistic circles in my reports and in EHC assessments. I have also used the circles during discussions with family and staff. Using the circles has helped us to see the young person as a whole and to formulate a plan for ‘putting the first things first’.

Initial feedback on using ‘holistic circles’

So far, families and school staff have been very positive about the visual representation. School staff have commented that the needs of more complex individuals appear clearer. There have also been comments that the strengths and support aspects are important to consider.

A worked example of holistic circles: Daisy

Background and initial thinking

Daisy is 17 years old and currently in care. She presents with unsafe social choices and currently has no educational qualifications. EP involvement has been requested to support planning for the future. Holistic circles will need to represent the PfA outcomes:

  • Employment
  • Independent living
  • Community inclusion
  • Health.

Deciding on circles: strengths and needs

My analysis of paperwork indicated a long and peppered history of changes in educational provision and home.  Daisy is a young person who has experienced much adversity – she has experienced a significant number of adverse childhood experiences. The largest circle of need must reflect the impact of her life experiences, much of which would have been out of her control.

Figure 1: Circle of Need 1 – Life experiences

My conversations with staff in the children’s home indicate that Daisy saves money and absconds to other cities, putting herself in vulnerable and risky situations. Her skills in deciding on a plan and saving money are strengths even though at present Daisy uses these strengths to put herself in risky situations. It is also evident that staff know Daisy very well and have a sound understanding of her strengths and needs. Given Daisy’s situation in care, the knowledge from staff is acting as a protective factor and is stated as a strength.

Figure 2: Circle of Strength – Protective factors

Daisy has missed significant amounts of school due to placement changes and difficulties engaging in learning. Daisy is not on a pathway to gain any qualifications.

From my own work with Daisy it was evident that she has many affective and cognitive learning abilities in addition to basic maths and English skills. Daisy and I talked about education and she wants to get GCSEs but finds school difficult as she feels she doesn’t fit in. Daisy’s learning and skill level is reflective of her life experiences and so the employment circle must sit inside the life experiences circle.

Figure 3: Circle of Need 2 – Employment

Daisy wants to have her own living accommodation. Her ability to manage money indicates that she is able to budget, but her choices regarding what to do with the money she has saved are not currently keeping her safe. Daisy would require support from trusted adults to help her manage choices around keeping herself safe. Independence skills are at a similar level of need to the employment skills and so the circle is the same size. Likewise, Daisy’s vulnerabilities in being independent are reflective of her adverse life experiences.

Figure 4: Circle of Need 3 – Independence

Daisy attends a local drama group and has managed these sessions with some support from adults in the children’s home. Daisy is therefore included in her community. When speaking to Daisy she was positive about going to this group and was also keen to try out a local boxing class. There are therefore no significant needs in the community inclusion area so no circle is needed.

Eliciting feedback on the holistic circle formulation: collaborative final adjustments

Discussion with staff that know Daisy well indicated that they think Daisy’s independence needs are greater than her employment needs. In their view they think Daisy is capable of learning if the environment of teachers and peers is suitable. My own assessment indicates similar. Staff view Daisy’s independence needs as ongoing and that wherever she lives she would need at least weekly ‘check-ins’ to support keeping herself safe. We therefore adjust the circles so that the independence need is larger than the employment circle.

The circles are discussed with Daisy. She is interested to see our thinking and is particularly intrigued by her strengths circle.

Figure 5: Final Holistic Circle diagram for Daisy

A note on IT skills

My IT skills are not the most advanced. Initially I used Word to draw the diagrams but found there were many moments of angst due to the text boxes and shapes jumping around, often disrupting the format of the report.

I have found that Microsoft Publisher is just as easy to use and comes without the ‘jumping about’. The diagrams can be quickly made in Publisher then copied into Word based reports. I do wonder if there is an IT whizz out there who could make the whole process quicker…?

Final thoughts

These circles came from a desire to make complex EP formulations and the subsequent written reports, be that EHC Needs Assessments or otherwise, more accessible to those reading them in addition to fostering a ‘whole child’ view of strengths and needs. I hope you have found the above interesting and can follow my thinking.

I started this blog stating my desire for feedback and I would like to invite you to consider the following questions and leave a comment below.

  1. What are your first impressions of the use of circles to capture strengths and needs?
  2. Do you have a different way of pictorially capturing similar information?
  3. Is there any aspect which isn’t clear or would warrant additional explanation?
  4. Is there a better way of achieving the same desired goal of sharing complex information in a pictorial manner?
  5. Are there better computer programmes or packages that could be used to create holistic circles or something like them?

About Mary Stanley-Duke

Mary is an educational psychologist working within Bristol City Council for 14 years. Mary is currently leading on cognition and learning across the city and has a keen interest in EP assessment and the communication of assessment findings that are accessible to all.

View all posts by Mary Stanley-Duke



2 Comments so far:

  1. Emma Miller says:

    I think this is brilliant and thanks for sharing I’m going to share with colleagues in my team.
    I’m always experimenting with visual ways to convey complex messages – the issue with writing into the distinct categories in EHC assessments is one I also struggle with and it takes such a long time because it doesn’t follow my natural thought process. I will experiment with this idea in reports. Thanks

  2. Dawn Starley says:

    Yes – love this. Visual representations always tend to go down well with those we work with – my only reservation would be how this style would be received by SEN Casework officers converting advice into EHCPs…they tend to need a high level of detail and clarity which they (if not us) may feel to be lacking in this. I love it though and would gladly write in this style – well done, such a fab idea.

    I think it’s a very empowering way to show complex information for the young person in particular with such a brilliant focus on strengths. Thanks for sharing!

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