Introducing Circles of Reflection: A Toolkit for SEAs

Circles of Reflection is an opportunity for state education agencies (SEAs) to lead with equity and to affect systemic transformation by giving invested groups the opportunity to communicate, collaborate, and identify opportunities for improvement in state-wide Native education.


The Native Education Collaborative, supported by the National Comprehensive Center (NCC) and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, developed the Circles of Reflection to engage SEAs[1], Tribal education departments (TEDs)[2], and local education agencies (LEAs)[3] in rich, reflective discussions and strategic planning to provide high-quality, motivating educational experiences that improve Native students’ educational attainment. This toolkit provides detailed information and instructions for using Circles of Reflection efficiently and effectively while also being highly adaptable to meet the needs of local contexts.

Why Circles? Talking circles or circle talks are common in some Indigenous Tribes and allow multiple voices and perspectives to be shared, problems to be solved, challenges to be addressed, and common ground to be built.

Circles of Reflection is an interactive, easy-to-use toolkit that guides participants through the three Circles with printable and customizable worksheets, facilitation guides, and other supporting materials. In the first two Circles, participants will explore six key categories, featuring Reflection Questions that can be adjusted to meet and accommodate the unique needs that exist across states and Tribes. The Reflection Questions will help participants gain authentic understanding about partners, stakeholders, and Tribes’ various perspectives on crucial topics to Native education. Based on the priorities identified in Circles one and two, Third Circle participants will develop short and long-term goals to improve the education and well-being of Native students.

Keep in Mind

  1. This toolkit uses the term “state education agency” in a general way to refer to the agency responsible for education in the state or jurisdiction.
  2. In some Tribes, a Tribal education department (TED) or Tribal education agency (TEA) is the focal point of the Tribe’s education interests. In other Tribes, that function is performed by designated Tribal leaders. This guide uses the term TED to represent TEDs, TEAs, and Tribal leaders in these efforts.
  3. This toolkit uses the term “local education agency” to represent smaller education agencies such as school districts.

The word “state” is used broadly and represents all states and jurisdictions. We encourage all education agencies including Tribal education agencies, regional education agencies, and those in U.S. outlying areas and territories to use the resources included.

The categories the participants review during the guided Reflection Questions include:

  • Native Culture and Language
  • Tribal Consultation and Sovereignty
  • Effective Teachers and Leaders
  • College and Career Readiness and Access
  • Physical and Behavioral Health
  • Identification and Support of Promising Programs and Practices

Objectives for Each Circle

First Circle

Seeing from the Inside Out

Second Circle

Widening the Circle

Third Circle

Mapping a Path Forward

  • First Circle: SEA participants reflect on the extent to which the state is involved in initiatives that positively influence the education of Native students (at least a 3–4 hour gathering).
  • Second Circle: an expanded group—including the First Circle participants, TED representatives, and LEA representatives—discusses the SEA’s self-reflection, provides additional insights, and then chooses the topics of highest priority for the Third Circle (at least a 6–8 hour gathering).
  • Third Circle: the SEA participants from the prior Circles and other invited participants, including TED and LEA representatives from the Second Circle, identify areas of opportunity to be addressed; develop 90-day action plans with strategies that have specific, measurable outcomes; and identify more ambitious, longer term goals (at least a 3–4 hour gathering).

Why This Work Matters

Collaboration and Commitment

Circles of Reflection can be used as a tool for achieving meaningful Tribal consultation. The process demonstrates a commitment to the advancement of Tribes’ roles in the lives of their youngest citizens, opens new levels of important communication, and advances transparency and accountability of state- and district-level efforts.

As sovereign nations, Tribes have the potential to exercise great influence over the education of their citizens, including decisionmaking with local schools through formal consultation, developing or selecting culturally relevant and culture-based curricula, and appointing advisory council members to help schools make the right decisions on behalf of Native students. Tribal nations, SEAs, and LEAs share interconnected concerns and abilities to safeguard and care for students and provide healthy, positive educational environments.

“It was a very pleasant surprise how everything went down. Coming together like that was the very first time that we had experienced sitting with school districts, sitting with other Tribes, and sitting with the State Department. It was great.”

Regina Riley Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma

In addition to school and family, Tribes enhance students’ overall educational progress through bonds and support that connect and strengthen their communities and citizenry.

To honor the government-to-government relationship between Tribes, LEAs, and the SEA, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes a requirement “to ensure timely and meaningful consultation on issues affecting American Indian and Alaska Native students” and must be done “in a manner and in such time that provides the opportunity for such appropriate officials from Indian Tribes or Tribal organizations to meaningfully and substantively contribute” to plans under covered programs. 

Toolkit Materials and Resources

Materials may vary depending on the needs and goals of the participants, SEA, and Tribes. However, below is the standard collection of resources you can expect to see and use during Circles of Reflection:

  • Facilitation guides with detailed step-by-step instructions of how to implement each Circle and other customizable templates

  • Reflection Questions

  • Presentation slides for each Circle

  • Resource Bank of research-based tools and materials

Up Next:
What to Know to Get Started

Continue to the next section to learn how to prepare for the Circles of Reflection process, including a breakdown of the three Circles.