Frontline Initiative: Supporting Healthy Relationships



Leslie Walker-Hirsch, IMEd, FAAIDD is a social development and sexuality consultant based in Santa Fe, NM. She may be reached at

circles registered trademark, intimacy and relationships curriculum. Colorful set of concentric circles.

After many hours spent teaching people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), their families, and school and agency personnel about social development and sexuality education, I have discovered that inadequate or inappropriate sexuality education frequently undermines a person’s successful inclusion in their school, community, workplace, and even in their family. It can also put them at greater risk for sexual abuse or exploitation and create greater risk for making sexual errors that cause problems.

Many people with IDD cannot name their private body parts, or describe the reproductive systems of men and women, or name different kinds of birth control methods. These factual deficits are not integral to their successful community inclusion. The social aspects of social/sexual behavior and relationships are the most challenging and most important for people with IDD to master. Lacking an understanding of the basic social expectations and the boundaries of touch, talk, and trust in social and sexual situations are an obstacle to independence, personal safety, and positive life quality. Understanding the unwritten rules of the social paradigm and acting accordingly are basic building blocks of sexuality education for healthy mutual relationships. The CIRCLES® Curriculum Series , produced and distributed by the James Stanfield Company, focuses on teaching social boundaries, self-protection skills, and acceptable behavior along the parameters of touch, talk, and trust. It’s designed to be used with youth and adults with IDD or other behavioral issues that interfere with socialization.

“How you act with someone else depends on the kind of relationship you have with them” is the underlying concept of the CIRCLES® multi-modal curriculum series.

The CIRCLES® Curriculum Series focuses on teaching social boundaries, self-protection skills, and acceptable behavior along the parameters of touch, talk, and trust. It’s designed to be used with youth and adults with IDD or other behavioral issues that interfere with socialization.

It uses an array of tried and true techniques to teach social boundaries. These include, a live-motion, lighted video image; teaching through story; pairing; color coding; motor memory; rehearsal strategy; role play; and artistic expression and modeling, to name a few. The CIRCLES® concept is simple: Six color-coded concentric circles categorize the degree of closeness in a particular relationship and pairs that color with the physical and emotional distance of the relationship. The video stories model the expectations of touch, talk, and trust within each relationship category.

caucasian woman with long dark hair and wearing purple top standing in front of the circle concept diagram of six color-coded concentric circles. From inner to outer: private space, big hug circle, far away hug circle, handshake circle, wave circle, stranger circle, and stranger space

Circles: Image used by permission of James Stanfield Company

Each person is the center of all of their circles and decides who shall be close and who should stay away. There is only room for one person in the center circle. It is called the “Purple Private Circle.” A sign for self-love is associated with this sense of self.

Around that center circle is another circle. It is a little bigger and a little further away. There is space for a few close family members in that circle. It is called the “Blue Big Hug Circle.” It is designated by its-color and the iconic close-hug sign.

There is another even bigger and more distant circle surrounding that blue circle. It is color coded green and called the “Green Far-away Hug Circle.” It has space for a few more people, such as friends or extended family members, and uses the iconic far-away hug sign.

The next concentric is circle color coded yellow and again it is bigger and more distant from the center circle. It is an arms-length away and is called the “Yellow Handshake Circle.” This circle is for people whose names you know and who also know your name. An extended hand is the iconic sign for this circle.

Around the yellow circle is the “Orange Wave Circle.” It is beyond the reach of any touch and substitutes a wave of acknowledgement for physical touch. This circle is reserved for children and people with familiar faces. Waving does not involve touch.

The final ring is the “Red Stranger Circle.” and “Stranger Space.” It allows necessary health or business touch with community helpers and no touch at all for total strangers that populate this very large space. Most of the world’s population consists of strangers.

leslie walker, short blond hair, black top

Each student has the opportunity to develop their own pictorial graphic to represent and specify their personal relationships by color coding a placemat-size CIRCLES® graphic blank, and adding photos or icons to their artistic creation. They can practice the designated behavior on the life-size role-play floor or wall mat.

The CIRCLES® Curriculum is well-suited for classroom use, with small groups, and in individually-delivered services. Direct Support Professionals use the CIRCLES® principles to guide their interactions with the people they support. The CIRCLES® principles can help them teach those they support to differentiate and categorize the various levels of intimacy associated with the relationships they already have in their lives. They can teach the social boundaries of touch, talk, and trust at every teachable moment as it arises.

For more information about CIRCLES® or to talk about sexuality education or staff development, go to my website. You are invited to subscribe to my FREE quarterly electronic newsletter by going to my website and clicking on the purple signup button.