What is restorative justice?
Restorative justice refers to a practice that empowers students to resolve conflicts on their own, in small groups that could be called ‘circle time’. Restorative justice is a growing practice at schools around the country. Essentially the idea is to bring students together in peer-mediated small groups to talk, ask questions, air their grievances, and discuss how to amend or make it right.
How did we find restorative justice for our school?
Our head of Middle and Upper School, Kaye Jacobs, is responsible for bringing restorative justice to Maharishi School. Kaye says, ” When I started to read Positive Discipline I thought, wow this makes a lot of sense! You actually work on empowering the student, which flips the way you look at their misbehavior, to get to the root of the problem.” The only thing Ms. Jacob’s felt was missing is the model that gave more structure for older children. Positive Discipline works well for younger kids but we needed a more structured model for older students.
Kaye realized that we needed the most help with Middle School students as they are at a complex phase where the triggers for defiance/misbehavior are more solidified than they have ever been before.
How can Maharishi School help?
Kaye wanted to give her teachers a method that systematically helps them get out of the pattern of punishment. This is where restorative justice comes in by creating a space to get the kids talking and sharing about a problem within the classroom. In this ‘circle time’, the kids talk reflectively about the problem while the conversation is led by the teacher. Kaye says, “the idea is to have these circle times frequently so the kids are adept at reflecting and know how to get into the mode of problem solving. This way when a problem happens they already know what to do. I want parents to understand that this is a work in progress! Parents should use restorative justice practices at home and consistently in order for it to be the most effective. We want the students themselves to feel like this is working for them too, as if to say “if I do this, then it goes better for me as the student.”
Lower and Middle School teachers have been reading a book called Hacking School Discipline by Brad Weinstein. The book makes the case for establishing expectations rather than rules and for holding students intrinsically accountable to the group for their actions and behaviors.
Example of restorative justice from Hacking School Discipline:
Suddenly two Middle School girls get into a physical altercation during class. The teacher immediately separates them from the class and sends them to the principal’s office. Then the teacher calls “circle time” with the rest of the class. The teacher will ask the class, “how did that make you feel?” and then the students have an opportunity to speak about how their learning was disrupted, or that they were scared, or upset. The teacher is resetting the classroom culture.
The teacher will go to the girls who fought and talk to them separately, asking “are you ready to talk to each other again?” and bring them back into the classroom. Once the girls are ready, the teacher will create the rules for the restoration process. Some of the rules could include saying “if you get too hot or angry then you can step out of the room, but you have to come back in when you’re ready.“ Eventually the teacher can talk about what led to the flare up not by saying “why did you do that” but “how were you feeling before you got into a place of fighting?”
The last piece of this restorative justice sample is led by the teacher. She turns to the two girls and says “how do you think this fight has affected the rest of the class and myself, your teacher?” This puts the girls who fought into self reflection mode on a broader scale of including the whole environment in the classroom. Then the restoration happens, not just between the two girls but everyone involved. After this, the girls get welcome back into their classroom and that is the goal of restorative justice!
What is the future of restorative justice for our students?
We often understand that the kids who are acting out come from unsettled home environments. Perhaps the parents are separated or going through a divorce. These are what set the context for a child who is misbehaving. They’re not acting out of isolation, they are acting because something else in the broader context of their lives is troubling them. Misbehavior is a default way to deflect those troubles.
If a child feels dis-empowered in one place, then they will deflect that behavior into the school setting, or with friends. Restorative justice is trying to avoid this deflection by empowering students to reflect and make the right choices. Restorative justice practices in school create a pattern of teachers relating to students then getting them to take down their defenses so a conversation can happen. If the action/upset happened in a classroom setting, then the restoration needs to happen there, too.
We don’t have all the answers but we want to be consistent in school and hope that things at home will improve. It’s almost always the case that there’s something in the student’s life that feels out of their control – something they can’t understand. Some trauma that they can’t digest. At school we inevitably get to see their reactions to this and our desire is to help break the cycle. The student may not even be able to articulate how they feel but we believe restorative justice practices empower our students without playing into the victim mentality.
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