Friday, 8 November 2013

Restorative practices in schools: build community, strengthen relationships and repair harm

What are restorative practices?

The term “restorative practices” was derived from a sector of the youth criminal justice system and is also a highly valued approach to problem solving in First Nations communities.

The basic goals of this philosophy are to build community, strengthen relationships and repair harm through open dialogue, problem solving and accountability.

Rather than simply punishing the person who has done wrong, individuals are held accountable for their actions by participating in face-to-face discussion with the people they have harmed. The restorative approach to problem solving brings together those who have been harmed, the person or people who have harmed them and affected family, friends and community members.

The resulting dialogue aims to build understanding between participants, explore how people’s actions have impacted those involved and develop agreements for what will be done to make things right. Research on this approach indicates positive outcomes for both victims and offenders, including reduced rates of re-offending.

How we use restorative practices in schools

Restorative practices can be implemented in many ways, beginning with the creation of a strong sense of community in a classroom and moving up a continuum to a more formalized restorative circle that is run by trained facilitators. Here are a few examples beginning with general classroom and school-wide practices, and moving to more formal procedures:
  • School staff working to create a safe, caring and respectful classroom culture and taking advantage of opportunities to teach social skills within the context of everyday events
  • Classroom circles. These may include check in/check out circles at the beginning and end of the day, group decision making circles or discussion circles based on a specific issue or discussion topic (e.g. what does respect look like when we line up for the bus? What is acceptable? What is not acceptable? Why?)
  • Small, impromptu discussions with students who are in conflict (many school staff even carry the restorative questions on a lanyard worn around their neck so that they can refer to them whenever the need arises, such as on the school yard)
  • Use of a “restorative room.” As a part of our recess duty schedule, my school has a staffed room with trained restorative facilitators who work with students to help them solve ongoing minor conflicts. These students may not require a formal circle but need time and support to work through their difficulties.
  • Community circles. These are more formalized, scripted circles run by trained facilitators. These involve the person or people who has been harmed, the person or people who have done harm and others who have been affected. In the case of formal circles, the members of the group may vary but could include students staff, parents and community members

Why sit in a circle?

You may have noticed that a number of the approaches involving restorative practices include sitting in a circle. The shape of a circle promotes interconnectedness and equality. Members have to face each other and communicate to work out an issue, even if it is uncomfortable. Through this process, they learn that their opinion is valuable and that through difficult conversations, problems can be resolved in a meaningful and lasting way. In the circle, all participants, regardless of role, age or gender or other characteristics, are considered of equal importance, with equal voice.

Restorative questions for impromptu discussions and formal circles

Questions asked of the person who has done harm
: What happened? What were you thinking of at the time? What have you thought of since? Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way? What do you think you need to do to make things right?

Questions to help those affected: What did you think when you realized what had happened? What impact has this incident had on you and others? What has been the hardest thing for you? What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

After all members have had a chance to speak, they work together to come up with a mutually agreeable solution and set up a specific plan to move forward. Depending on the situation, this may involve something as simple as a sincere apology and promise to not repeat an action, or something more considerable like financial restitution for a stolen item. At this time, a date is also set for a “check in” with the facilitator to ensure the agreement is being honoured over time.

Traditional approach vs. restorative approach

A traditional approach to discipline in schools focuses on blaming the offender, establishing which school rule has been violated and making them accountable by punishing them.

Many of us grew up with this approach and many teachers have practiced their behaviour management in ways that reflect this. Implementing a restorative approach can challenge educators in ways that may cause discomfort. I know that when I am feeling sick tired or having a particularly stressful day, my first instinct is to take a traditional approach. Creating a restorative community takes work and it takes a lot of time.

There are also times where a restorative approach may not be the most appropriate solution to a problem. In order to implement a restorative discussion, the person who has done wrong must admit what they have done, accept responsibility for their actions and agree to participate. The people affected must also be willing to openly share their experience which can be intimidating and painful (this is also why it is important for supporters to be involved). If there are multiple, repetitive issues and this approach has been attempted, or in cases of very serious offenses, more traditional means may also be considered.

When we use a traditional punitive approach (i.e. suspension), we ignore the victim. The person who has done harm never really has to hear how they have affected others from that person and the people around them. This is a very powerful component of restorative practices. It can also be stigmatizing, not allowing the person who has done wrong to have an opportunity to try to make amends. They may only see themselves as a “bad person”, not a good person who has made a wrong decision, and the cycle of negative behavior continues.

The restorative approach invites collaboration, taking responsibility and being accountable. When participants have worked through the restorative questions and are discussing a solution, often the person who has done harm is harder on themself than the person who has been wronged because they truly understand the effects of their actions.

Why Use Restorative Practices in Schools?

  • fosters a strong sense of community and safety
  • creates opportunities for dialogue in an environment of trust and respect
  • takes into account the needs of all involved
  • establishes a support network
  • focuses on both prevention and intervention
  • promotes oral language skills
  • encourages and reinforces behaviours that are valued, while discouraging behaviours that are unwanted
  • helps to resolve classroom issues
  • places responsibility on the students
  • respectful of all involved
  • leads to lasting behaviour change and learning
  • teaches that, even if you make a mistake, you possess the tools to repair the harm that has been done
  • builds connectedness among students and evokes respect for different cultures, preferences and opinions
  • recognizes achievements and strengths
  • prevents minor problems from escalating
  • can be used to organize class or community action on an issue
  • teaches accountability and actions affect others

In summary, to be ‘restorative’ means to act on the belief that decisions are best made and conflicts are best resolved by those directly involved in and affected by the situation. In a world that has become increasingly disconnected, this method of problem solving seeks to develop relationships and restore a sense of community.

I will end with a quote from one of the students at my school. When asked how they felt after participation in a restorative circle they replied, “I learned that there are different sides to the same story. We all have reasons why we act certain ways…sometimes you don’t think of that. Now I know that, when there is a problem, I can say how I feel and be a part of the solution, and that feels really good.”

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