Suspensions do not improve a school’s environment, according to the Dignity in Schools campaign that identified my school district as having the fifth highest suspension rate in the state of Pennsylvania. In 2013, when this report was compiled, our district had assigned an out-of-school suspension for 58 of every 100 students. Yes, that is a lot.

The challenge was that this consequence didn’t appear to be decreasing the unwanted behavior. Instead, it was leading to greater disciplinary issues and far lower success rates of its students.

They call this School Push-Out. As the phrase may suggest, history shows that suspension and expulsion of students does more harm than good, pushing students out of the school system and leading to a greater level of dropout and harmful learning environments.

In order to combat this all too popular consequence to adverse behavior, for the 2015-2016 school year, my school became one of many in the district to implement a new form of school discipline called Restorative Practices.

What Is The Restorative Practices Approach?

Aiming to decrease School Push-Out and create a more positive school culture, the Restorative Practices (RP) approach uses various communicative techniques focused on affective statements and proactive community building activities.

Putting into considering what the protocol has identified as the Nine Affects, facilitators (e.g., teachers, administrators, other school personnel) work deliberately to more deeply understand what moves their students to and from each affect which range from joy as the most positive, to rage as the most negative.

Reminiscent to the ideas shared in a recent podcast between Getting Smart and Roger Weissberg of CASEL, Restorative Practices complements the social-emotional movement–educating the whole child through strategies to build productive mindsets, supportive cultures and character development. More specifically, RP uses questioning in hopes of inducing empathy, self-reflection and accountability.

There is little to argue against the positive relationship building that RP brings to the classroom and a school culture. It’s protocol for handling conflict, however, is where the challenges arise. Instead of the student simply being punished for breaking a rule, it is hoped that through the right questioning, the deeper impact of a behavior will be understood, thus decreasing that behavior in the future.

The overall goal of RP being to bring those who caused harmed in a scenario together with those who have been harmed, directly or indirectly. Sounds great, right? But how do we actually implement this in the classroom?

Restorative Practices In Action

It comes as no surprise that as a teacher of secondary education, I see my fair share of emotional outbursts. While the most natural response to loud remarks, defiant behavior and continuous class interruptions would be to send a student out of the room, my training in RP has provided me a whole new way of approaching conflict.

The expectation of RP is as follows: A conflict occurs in the classroom, instead of removing the student temporarily by sending him or her to in-school suspension or to an administrator, a teacher privately engages the student in a restorative conversation.

The exchange always begins in the same way:

  • “So, what happened in there?”
  • “How do you feel about what happened?”
  • “How do you think that outburst affected those around you?” etc.

If the conflict in class involved more than one student, these questions would be used in a small impromptu conference with those involved. Ideally, this conversation would lead to the root cause of the disruption. Perhaps one student felt threatened or misunderstood by another. Or frustration over a difficult concept in class lead to aggression towards the teacher, etc.

Ultimately, the issue would be resolved on the spot. Alternatively, while sending the student out for disrupting the learning environment may provide a solution in the moment, the more sustainable route, as suggested by RP, is to seek understanding and bring resolution to a problem that may otherwise be exacerbated in the future if left unaddressed.

However, this procedure should not be a spontaneous reaction, but a result of regularly incorporated restorative conversations that have already established that line of communication. For those of you who think this may add value to your classroom, consider taking the small steps below.

1. Introducing class-wide circles on a regular basis. These can either be content specific (in my case having all students ask and answer the same question in Spanish) or general community building circles (questions like, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”)

2. Respond to conflict with a conversation: Ask a student to recount what happened, discussing their emotions and rationale, eventually landing on a mutual plan of action for making the situation right again.

3. Incorporate entire class when determining potential consequences and next steps for adverse behavior: Bringing student voice into the decision making process may result in a greater understanding of how actions affect the classroom as a whole. Keep in mind, facilitation of these circles is a bit tricky. Avoid shaming or singling out just one student and aim to give everyone in a class the opportunity to consider what they can improve on individually.

4. Model the compassionate and empathetic qualities you hope to build: If that one on one contact happens often in times of peace, perhaps it won’t be quite as difficult in times of conflict.

The Challenges And Unknowns Of Restorative Practices

With less than two years into establishing RP in our school district, the true effects of this protocol remain unclear. Suspension rates have significantly decreased, but are our students actually developing a greater ability to emotionally connect? Will this reduce the number of young people pushed into the criminal justice system? And more importantly, is this response to conflict resolution entirely feasible on a regular basis?

An even more immediate challenge is how to move forward in situations where this approach does not resolve an issue. During countless scenarios in my personal experience, once engaged in a restorative conversation, many students continue to defend their actions (at times loudly and aggressively). The result always being removal from my classroom.

In these cases, what should be the next step? Despite months of relationship building, including class-wide conversation circles and one-on-one impromptu conferencing, many students still resist any deeper connection.

The result is often an unresolved issue and the loss of precious class time. Possibly the most troubling result of scenarios such as these is the possibility that the other students internalize the actions of the defiant student, recognizing that disrespecting their teacher is not a punishable offense.

I ponder this implicit message each time a student is allowed to re-enter a room without clear consequence outside of a conversation. Especially what long-term implications that message may have for the future of a student. School should be a place to learn real world consequences to behavior, right?

The next steps I have taken to resolve an issue have included those mentioned below. Unfortunately, each took up very valuable time, either directly from the classroom and other students, or from my own time to plan or to direct energy elsewhere to better my teaching practice.

  •  A class-wide circle, in which each student had an opportunity to express how the conflict affected them, eventually resulting a class-wide solution.
  • A conference with the administration and parent to resolve the issue.
  • A behavioral contract in which the student and I collaborated on a solution, giving the student ownership of future consequences to his behavior.

RP has brought a whole new procedure to very common issues in the classroom and has established a whole new culture for communication in my school. However, the long-term costs and benefits still remain a bit unclear to me. Tell me what you think about RP in the comments below, or tag me in a tweet on Twitter.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. This program is going after a large problem with the way rewards and punishments are built into schools! An issue with suspension is that it could be construed as a reward for negative behavior as it removes the student from an environment they don’t like. Unfortunately, since this reward of being away from school is targeted as the direct consequence of a problematic behavior, it can reinforce the very actions it was intended to stop. This could be especially troublesome if done frequently enough that kids can count on this consequence. This is one theory on why suspension isn’t always effective, so it’s great that your school is trying something different to combat the problem! Perhaps one of the strengths of the restorative practice approach is that the consequence of negative behavior is no longer a possible reward of avoidance of the issue? Rather, the consequence is remaining at school and putting in work to resolve the issue. Maybe because the students have to stay and engage in their conflicts, they are not only learning how to talk through issues with their teacher and one another, but also learning to avoid some conflict because there isn’t the reward of leaving school.

    • Thanks for the insightful reflection, Olivia. And absolutely! You see it all the time, especially during challenging activities in class. Those students will do anything to get removed from the classroom environment. With that, restorative practices have completely refigured what students know they can and can not do to be “Kicked out”, however, the symptom to that that students also know there isn’t necessarily a consequence to the behavior. If they still want to be sent out, they will refuse to engage in the restorative conversation, and those that just want to let some steam off on their teacher or classmates, will nod and agree during any conversation to be welcomed back into the class even after some pretty unacceptable behavior. It’s a tricky balance to strike, since the limited consequences have certainly been noticed my our student population. I guess time will tell, what true mark is being made.

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