Restorative Practices for the Win!

This year, I transitioned from a more traditional disciplinary approach to Restorative Practices. As a side note, when I first started this transition, I referred to the approach as Restorative Discipline/Restorative Justice. But, I recently attended a conference on Restorative Practices where the speaker explained that Restorative Practices focus more on relationships/relationship building, as opposed to rules, discipline, and consequences. Therefore, we should refer to them as “practices”, rather than some set of disciplinary procedures to follow.

Initially, I think this is what interested me most about Restorative Practices. I was drawn to the notion that, sure, rules, expectations, consequences, and traditional disciplinary measures help. In fact, I’ve worked with students for whom a detention and a parent phone call home suffice and are the only disciplinary measures necessary. However, as I continue in my career in education and meet more and more students, I’ve noticed that traditional disciplinary approaches and consequences are only a band-aid. Traditional disciplinary measures don’t seek to understand the underlying causes of behavioral issues. In order for me to truly understand my students and the underlying causes for their behaviors, I have to build relationships with them. After all, it’s not the right rules that make a classroom or a school an amazing place to be for kids; it’s the right relationships (Maynard and Weinstein, 2019).

Anyways, things started off slowly with the transition to Restorative Practices. By no means are restorative practices time-efficient. Truthfully, Restorative Practices require more time, patience, and energy as opposed to more traditional disciplinary measures. What is more, the transition is often confusing for both teachers and students. I recall working through an issue with a student in my office who proclaimed, “I don’t want to do another circle. Just give me the stupid detention so I can get out of here.” To be honest, a few students shared this sentiment. Nevertheless, I kept at it throughout the year.

At the end of the year, I received a pleasant surprise from one of the students who so eloquently expressed her disdain for Restorative Practices, particularly Restorative Circles. She’d been in my office multiple times throughout the year. She had difficulty understanding emotions (hers and other students’ emotions) and seeing things through other students’ eyes. At first, I remember her being dead silent during a circle I was facilitating with her and another student. Yet, as we worked through her issues in circles throughout the year, she really started to come out of her shell and express herself. I used different circle techniques and questions to get her to think about her actions from other perspectives. I encouraged her to dialogue with me and her peers about how her actions harmed herself, her friends/classmates, and the school community. In our circles, we analyzed the harm of our actions, discussed ways to repair the harm, and dialogued about how we could prevent future harm. Eventually, she became a leader in some of our circles. Going from not saying anything to actually helping to facilitate our conversations was eye opening for me. She truly began to understand the importance of relationships and their importance to herself and the school community.

On the last day of school, she gave me a card (see the image above). There wasn’t much to the card. However, like I said before, we started out in a pretty rocky relationship. She didn’t like me and she didn’t want to work through her issues in our circles. She saw traditional disciplinary measures as a way to get out of talking and working through her problems with others. But, as we talked and built relationships, she really began to blossom. She built relationships, started to see how her actions impacted others, and began to empathize with her classmates. For me, that’s a big win for the relationship building power of Restorative Practices!

Empathy: We Need It Now More Than Ever

While listening to talk radio over the weekend, I heard an analyst posit that there has been an increase in violent shooter massacres across the world. As a rebuttal to the analyst’s statement, someone called in and asserted that there’s been no increase in these types of situations, just an increase in their media coverage, and that we’re more aware of these situations now because of social media and the 24-hour news coverage cycle.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there actually has been an increase in these types of events. That being said, no one seems to agree on the root cause of these issues. Researchers, analysts, talking heads, and armchair experts have blamed these massacres on everything, including video games, popular movies and music, traumatic home lives, healthy diet imbalances, mental health issues (which may result from Adverse Childhood Experiences/trauma), etc.

Through my preliminary research, I’ve noted that it’s very difficult to isolate one variable as the root cause of these situations. Granted, in many cases, the perpetrators seem to come from broken homes where they may have experienced some sort of trauma that may have resulted in mental health issues. In no way am I downplaying that explanation. In fact, I agree that trauma and mental health issues probably contribute to the majority of these situations. However, I hypothesize that there’s another issue at play.

In my career as an educator, I’ve noticed something very troubling.   Many students (not all) have serious difficulty understanding someone else’s emotions, coupled with the inability to sense and understand how someone else is thinking or feeling. This is usually referred to as empathy. In my day-to-day experiences with students from a variety of grade levels, I’ve seen that many students don’t grasp the concept. Many students lack the ability to predict/foresee how their actions impact others or how their actions are perceived by others. Often times, they can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They don’t conceptualize that, “Hmm. I wouldn’t like it if someone did this to me, so I probably shouldn’t do it to them.” I don’t know why students seem to lack empathy. What’s happening now that’s causing this major paucity of empathy? I can’t put my finger on it, yet.

Regardless, I try to employ certain practices/strategies/approaches that will help teach/display empathy. For instance, while dealing with behavior issues, I always employ Restorative Practices. For years, Restorative Practices have been touted/advertised as a way to decrease the school-to-prison pipeline, and subsequently decrease crime and other issues. Restorative Practices emphasize how our actions can harm our relationships with others and our community. While using these practices with students, we focus on our actions, the consequences, and how members of our school community feel as a result of our actions. Not only do we focus on the way our actions harm relationships, we brainstorm and implement solutions that help repair said harm.

What other ways can we inculcate our students with empathic dispositions? I know some schools have social-emotional curricula. But, I’m just looking for ways throughout my everyday interactions with students where I can help teach and model empathy.

Reintegration: Essential for Schools AND the Real World Post Education

Historically, human justice systems have generally encompassed four main tenants of punishment: retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation. Retribution refers to the idea of the punishment for a crime being proportionate to the harm caused by the offender. Rehabilitation, which is preventative in nature, supposes the offender requires some type of treatment or intervention to improve the mind and body. Ideally, deterrence uses punishment to dissuade potential offenders from choosing crime to begin with. Incapacitation refers to the possible permanent removal of an offender from society who is deemed too threatening.

It’s no secret. Crime results in offenders experiencing stigmatization. With crime, offenders often spend the rest of their lives with the stigma of being a criminal. In addition to experiencing this stigmatization, offenders are often then subject to other societal disadvantages (loss of the right to vote/difficulty finding gainful employment/constant stereotyping/etc.). If you work in a school, you may notice that this experience is not all that dissimilar to that of our students who exhibit behavioral issues. Our “problem kids/bad kids/behavior problems” (whatever you want to call them) are often stigmatized after exhibiting behavior problems in the classroom or in the school, and may be labeled as such. Considering that our self-identity is immensely impacted by how others view or label us, Lents and Kazemian (2017) state:

Individuals form their self-identity on the basis of how they perceive others to view them… Once individuals are marked by a deviant label (ex. Offender), this label reinforces their feeling of being an “outsider,” alienating them… The resulting loss of status weakens the desire to conform to social norms, and thus leads to further deviance… As the label reinforces the identity, the negative identity, in turn, reinforces deviance. (p. 15)

Thus, labels carry burdensome weight, and it would appear that these offenders who have been labeled, also feel alienated and are less motivated to even try to prevent future offenses or reintegrate back into society. The negative identity associated with the label is reinforced after an offender has been labeled and faces obstacles to reintegration.

When I think about this in the context of schools, I recall “restorative justice” practices. Though I’m not an expert in this area, I like to think that I employ aspects of restorative practices, such as encouraging the repair of harm caused by misbehavior, mediating cooperative and reflective practices and dialogue that lead to relationship rebuilding, and reintegration as I invite students back into the school community. I need and want them to be contributing members of our school society.

The focus of any justice system should be on that system’s positive effects, such as how well the system prevents “reoffending” or “recidivism.” Research has shown that systems that focus on retribution, deterrence, control, and incapacitation are highly ineffective at reducing reoffending. In fact, not only have fear-based interventions been ineffective at reducing recidivism, research has found that they may actually contribute to the problem. However, systems that capitalize on human beings’ innate desire to reintegrate into society and culture are more successful at reducing recidivism.

Knowing what we know about criminal justice systems, if we don’t work to reintegrate students after they’ve served consequences/done their time/whatever you want to call it, aren’t we just exacerbating the problem? If students remain stigmatized and see no point in reintegrating into the school society/culture, aren’t we perpetuating a system that does more harm than good?

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