Explorations of Restorative Justice in Elementary Settings
I have always had an interest in restorative practices in the classroom because they naturally aligned with and reinforced my assumptions about effective classroom environments. Naturally, when I began building school structures from the ground up this year as part of the new school team, my interest lead me to explore how we can use restorative practices on a whole-school level. I reread two books from my shelves: Restoring Justice: An Introduction to Restorative Justice (5th Edition) by Daniel W. VanNess & Karen Heetderks Strong, and, The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr.
Before reading, I spoke with my team about how we respond to student behaviors. I named two major concerns I was noticing to restorative behavior responses: the first being the discrepancies between how we each responded to similar behavior, and, the second being educators' unaddressed biases. From these, we brainstormed two main questions which I was looking to explore with specific respect to restorative justice in elementary settings:
1. Why are patterns of thinking relevant to the discussion of justice?
2. Why is inclusion important?
Why are patterns of thinking relevant to the discussion of justice?
The authors describe how patterns of thinking help us to become more efficient and productive, using the idea that if we were to take in all available information and consider it equally when trying to cross the street, we would take far too long to make a decision because of the sheer amount of available information as well as the high number of times variables change in the given scenario. Recognizing the pattern of oncoming traffic allows us the freedom to make and confirm predictions regarding the appropriate path to take. In this instance, utilizing a pattern of thinking is a positive, it benefits us; our patterns of thinking limit our perceptions so as to act more efficiently.
In an elementary school setting, we see patterns of behavior and we make assumptions about their causes as well as predictions about how our response will be received. For example, a fifth-grade boy is speaking out of turn repeatedly in class causing disruption to class lessons the week before the grade level leaves for science camp. A seasoned educator may use several patterns of thinking to explain the behavior: excitement/anxiety about camp, gender-normative behavior assumptions, or even just the fact that it’s Spring. While all of these patterns of thinking are used frequently to explain student behavior, using these patterns to make “efficient” decisions may be a mistake. Educators need to remember that patterns limit our perceptions. We may fail to notice other relevant factors about the child’s social, emotional, spiritual, or physical health. When evidence doesn’t align with what we’ve assumed with our pattern of thinking (for example, the boy returns from camp and continues the behavior into early Summer) then we need to choose to either disregard the evidence (that the behavior has continued) or seek out a new pattern (perhaps he needs better differentiation, for example). All too often, what we see is that many educators disregard the evidence instead of seeking out a new pattern.
Patterns of thinking are highly relevant to the discussion of justice because it is our patterns that frame our reference points for decision making. When I notice a kindergartener hit another student in line, I make a different decision about how to work with that student than if I notice a fifth grader do the same. It is age-appropriate social behavioral patterns that tell me if it is normative behavior or not. Similarly, in discussions of race, ethnicity, culture, and religion, educators have underlying patterns of thinking about particular groups, perhaps even negative patterns if that educator has not had positive intergroup participation. An administrator would need to work very closely with teachers and develop strong trusting relationships so as to facilitate educators’ understandings of their own patterns of thinking (specifically, their own preconceptions, biases, and history) as they certainly influence their classroom-level management, directly impacting the students themselves.
BIG IDEAS of turning "justice" into "restorative justice" in schools:
Restorative Justice (RJ) focuses on a cooperative effort to repair harm caused which can reduce the likelihood of future harm. This happens by encouraging students to take responsibility for their actions and for the harm they have caused, by providing closure for victims, and by promoting positive reintegration within the school community.
The measurement of success is different: rather than measuring how much punishment has been given (eg. our referral numbers this year have increased or dropped by an average of [enter data here]), RJ measures how much harm has been repaired or prevented.
When harm has been caused and we address it, there are four stakeholders present (person harmed, person who harmed, community of care, facilitator) and all are engaged in the conversation. This is unusual compared to traditional punitive discipline because both students hear and co-create the outcome.
Four particularly important RJ “cornerpost” values:
inclusion (all affected parties are invited),
encounter (all are given the opportunity to meet to collaborate),
amends (the person who harmed takes responsibility for repairing to the extent possible), and,
reintegration (all are supported and given the opportunity to rejoin their communities without the stigma of the harm and offense).
Why is inclusion important and what are the elements of inclusion?
As a teacher I am exasperated when a student's behavior continually derails a lesson or acts out in a way that pulls me away from the other students. I become exhausted and tired and (to be quite honest) annoyed at the inconvenience. The first thing I want to happen is for the behavior to stop. When it doesn't I want the student removed from the space so I can continue on with my plan. This is what narcissistic pedagogy looks like in classroom management, plain and simple. The truth is that my classroom environment and this child have unmet needs and exclusion isn't going to help both of those.
Critical elements of any attempt at inclusion includes invitation, recognition and acceptance of the interests of the person invited, and willingness to adopt alternative approaches that better fit that individual. When I work with my team around inclusion, I'm focusing on the opportunity for active engagement from everyone. The authors speak to the roles in contemporary criminal justice and how a move towards restorative justice would change those roles in order to become inclusive. In contemporary criminal justice, the victim becomes a tool to be used in gaining a conviction or indictment, the offender is passive and defensive, while the prosecution, attorneys, and judge make virtually all the decisions and take all the actions. In an elementary school setting, we see a pattern of the same system: the "victim" gives their side of the story and then returns to class (serving as a tool to determine guilt or innocence and then is sent back into their normal routine), the "offender" gives their side and then sits in the office (defending him/herself and awaiting a decision), the principal or teacher make the determination as to what punishment will occur and then informs stakeholders of the decision (parents, teachers, etc.). In many cases, the "victim" is never informed of what happens in a discipline situation after he/she gives his/her side of the story. I observed, at one particular school site, a principal citing privacy reasons for not disclosing the outcome/punishment of the "offender" with the "victim" and if a "victim" expresses any kind of a desire for retaliation, that student is not counseled, but rather, warned of the zero tolerance policy surrounding retaliatory behavior. Both the contemporary criminal justice system and traditional elementary discipline are disempowering systems for both the offenders and the victims. To be restorative we need to involve all stakeholders and address all harm done.
The authors describe practices (listed below from least inclusive to most inclusive) that would increase inclusion of those who have been harmed. I have noted them below and placed a corresponding elementary education adaptation in brackets.
INFORMATION: Provide victims with information [confer with victim about what will be done to ensure safety and peace in the community with regard to the specific event]
PRESENCE: Allow victim to observe the proceedings if they wish [have both children in the room at the time of “telling each side of the story” as well as during the outcome/next steps]
IMPACT: Allow them to make a victim impact statement [provide language frames and pre-discussion dialogue practice that supports them in using appropriate language to share the impact the other person’s behavior has had on them; eg. “When you… I felt… now I wish/need…”]
There are different ways to confer, sometimes community members are present and sometimes they are not. There are many structures to support the specific need of the community.
Family Group Conferencing (FGC) is facilitated (in a school this would be done by the principal, unless the principal was the person causing harm or being harmed in which case another adult would be selected from the community) and includes the victim, offender, and their communities of care (parents, caregivers, teachers, other family, etc.) with minimal preparation beforehand. The facilitator asks open-ended questions and maintains a focused sharing session in which stakeholders share their experience, how it has affected them, and direct questions to the offender(s). Thoughts and feelings from the communities of care are also shared. The group then discusses what should be done to repair the harm done. This continues until everyone agrees to a written plan.
Circles, on the other hand, are different. I've written about circles on this blog in the past and use them regularly for positive and responsive needs. Circles are community-based decision making sessions in which the same parties are present as in the FGC, however, interested community members are also present as well as representatives from the justice system. On a school level, this could be the students’ classroom community or their friends. Participants speak one at a time and share all thinking related to the situation, including cultural or community conditions that are related. The plan is determined based on group consensus and often includes larger issues beyond the immediate issues of the victim/offender situation.
Including community members in the process is appropriate in situations in which the offense occurred in such a way that there isn’t just one victim, but rather, a group of secondary victims who may feel the negative effects of the behavior. For example, in a class I taught, one of the students was diagnosed with EBD and would occasionally scream obscenities or throw objects in class seemingly for no reason. I was not able to share his diagnosis with the students so they were unaware of why he was not being suspended (in our punitive-discipline school) for this behavior. Parents of the other children were consistently emailing complaints and expressing concern that I could not legally respond to in a way that met their needs. Finally, after much dialogue, the parents of the child with EBD agreed to allow the student to share his difference with the class at which time the students were able to ask questions to better understand how his emotional regulation worked differently from theirs. It was from that point on that their fear and annoyance was replaced with understanding and care. Had we not included them in that information, they, as an entire community, would not have had the same experience of their peer or their classroom environment.
QUOTES OF NOTE:
“Conflicts are openings, doorways to new ways of being together. Because they occur within the whole, they bear a meaning that in some way relates to the whole. Perhaps the way things were wasn’t entirely working; conflicts invite us to explore how to change them. Perhaps we’ve accepted norms that conflicts call us to reevaluate” (VanNess & Strong, 85).
**Regarding Changing Behavior**
Making amends: apologize, change behavior, give restitution, have generosity
“Genuine change has two components: changed values exhibited in changed behavior… new understanding into action… change the environment, learn new behaviors, and reward positive change” (VanNess & Strong,103).
Organizational change takes an incredibly long time. I know that I am engaging on a multi-year process to implement a restorative discipline response model when I start these conversations with a team and my hope is that it is a launching-off point for further reform around social justice, bias, and cultural competency. One of the biggest pieces of learning has been my personal practice. As I mentioned above, my instinctual response when I teach is punitive and exclusionary -- it's how I grew up and it's the system I learned how to function and succeed within. I am under no illusions that I was successful in school because I was a "good kid" -- I was partially successful in school because I learned how to navigate a punitive system and work my shortcuts within it. I am constantly checking myself and am oh-so-grateful for my colleagues who put me in check as well so that I am not unintentionally training my students to do the same, but rather, to support my student community into becoming what we all hope for our world. I am reminded that the ultimate goal is to live restoratively so the process becomes natural. This is not just school reform, but self-reform and community-reform, too.