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K-12 Restorative School Practices - Important Student Lessons from the Restorative Approach

Students Learn Important Lessons Through Restorative School Practices
By Barb Blazej

(Note:  This article was first published in the Fall 2009 issue of Changing Ways Newsletter (PDF))

Well, once again summer has raced by and fall is upon us! (Does the summer season get shorter each year or is it just me?)  As we settle into the school year, our focus turns to teaching and learning–to helping our students understand important ideas and different ways of thinking, and gain competence in various practices and skills.  For a while now I’ve been describing our work with the Restorative Approach as a form of literacy–relational literacy–so at this time I’d like to reflect a bit on several lessons our students can learn when we embrace and practice this approach, particularly in the area of discipline.

Discipline, of course, is fundamentally about “educating,” and typically we hope to teach students how to interact with others in a good way, how to understand and follow rules, how to be responsible for their actions and how to change their behavior when necessary.  Too often it seems that discipline has, instead, become synonymous with punishing those who break the rules, rather than helping young people grow from their mistakes and imparting valuable life lessons.  This piece from The Restorative Practices Handbook describes this well (Costello, et al, 2009, pages 62-3):

Schools and societies have come to the conclusion that if those who misbehave or commit crimes are made to suffer with a punishment, they will be less likely to repeat the harmful behavior. If this were true, then the job of the school disciplinarian or the criminal court judge would be easy. With each infraction, he or she would impose a certain amount of discomfort. If that punishment failed to change an offender’s behavior, then the disciplinarian or judge would simply increase the level of suffering until the inappropriate behavior stopped.

The belief that punishment changes behavior is the basis for school discipline policies around the world. Yet the belief is not supported by evidence. Punishment works only superficially, primarily when the misbehaving students are in view of those in authority. But punishment does not create empathy in students and encourage them to internalize a commitment to behave properly, so as soon as they are out of sight the inappropriate behavior surfaces again. When we punish students by excluding or humiliating them, they do not feel connected to school administrators, teachers or their well-behaved peers. Rather, they feel alienated and instead seek out and bond with others who have been excluded from the mainstream, creating their own negative subculture in the school.

Alternatively, the Restorative Approach seeks to build strong, caring school communities founded on such values as honesty, respect, trust, inclusion, cooperation and true accountability.  In this kind of learning environment, we see misbehavior and discipline as an opportunity for students to learn and internalize several important lessons (and my comments are in [brackets] ):

1.  I am more than my mistakes, and I am not a “bad person.” [We recognize that it is very human to make mistakes and we focus on challenging and changing student behaviors, not on judging students as good or bad people.]

2.  My actions (misbehaviors) affect people and relationships. [Over time, this understanding can help students think through their actions before they act!]

3.  There are consequences for breaking rules. [In a restorative community, the consequences make sense, involve the student who misbehaves (and others when appropriate) in finding solutions and making reparations, and help students maintain dignity and self-respect.  Responding to misbehaving students restoratively means we want to avoid inviting feelings of shame, anger, victimization and disconnection in our students.]

4.  “Owning” my mistakes is worth doing. [Too often in our schools and society, we resist taking responsibility for our actions.  In a restorative environment, we help students become comfortable and willing to hold themselves accountable for their actions through ongoing efforts to build a sense of trust, respect, care and community in our classrooms and schools.  Students come to understand that true accountability--owning our mistakes, understanding how our actions affect others, and repairing the harm caused--is expected, encouraged and acknowledged, and they also feel good about themselves when they can fix what they have done in a positive way.]

5.  I can change my behavior in the future, and am more likely to do so once I understand how my actions hurt others, the community and myself. [This is the powerful lesson of "empathy" that is at the heart of restorative discipline.]

6.  If I make mistakes (some slight, others more serious), I am still part of the community and I will have opportunities to repair the harm I have caused. [The Restorative Approach emphasizes the importance of relationships within a community, and asks us to find ways of disciplining that avoid exclusion whenever possible, or that use exclusion (such as detention or suspension) to guide students in being accountable and "making right" what they have done, so they can still feel part of the community.]

7.  I am capable of finding ways to fix what I have done. [Rather than assuming we must impose punishment or consequences on misbehaving students, restorative discipline encourages us to see students as competent and creative in finding ways to solve conflicts and repair harm, if given the chance to do so.]

8.  I will be supported and guided by adults in repairing the harm and changing my behavior. Adults care about me and will not give up on me when I make mistakes. [Children need adults to grow, learn and mature in a positive way, and this is especially so when they misbehave.   Of course, those may be the most difficult times to stay connected with students!  This is a challenge that restorative discipline asks us to engage in.]

As a relational worldview, the Restorative Approach is about “restoring” several things:  the well-being of those who have been hurt by misbehavior, the damaged or broken relationships, the self-respect of the misbehaving student, and “a feeling of security and peace in the school community, which then makes it possible for teachers to teach and students to learn” (Costello, pg. 56).  Shifting from a punitive discipline system to one that is restorative is certainly not an easy task, but it seems worth doing in that it brings together all members of a school community to collectively teach and learn some powerful lessons in accountability, in the importance of relationships, and in how we want to “be” with others in school, at home, and throughout our lives.

Barb Blazej is the editor and publisher of the Changing Ways Newsletter, and director of the K-12 Youth Violence Prevention Project, Peace & Reconciliation Studies Program, University of Maine, Orono.

Download the article here (PDF)

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