Dr. Margy Jones-Carey

“The night before the students come for the first time, I never sleep well”. I have said this every year of my career. There is something about the new beginning that has us playing over and over in our heads how we will begin the class, how we will introduce ourselves, how we will set the expectations for learning and so often, how we will set the expectations for student behavior.

I remember so well my professors in college and my first principal telling me “You can never do the first day over. Start strong and firm and never let them see you sweat. You can always loosen up later.” I have often wondered if those were the words that kept me awake every year. I may never know for sure, but I prefer to think it is the anticipation of the new beginning that was my reason for being restless.

Educators know that you have to set those expectations right away for student behavior and student learning. Educators also know that until student behavior is “managed” student learning is often interrupted and as a result, the classroom of students lose out on learning when just one student is disruptive, disengaged, or bothersome in some way to either the teacher or the classmates. In addition, getting to the core of why students demonstrate the behaviors that they do can often be looked at through the lens of Social Emotional Learning. We need to work with students on the 5 core tenets of social-emotional learning offered by CASEL. The idea of assisting students in understanding him/herself (self-awareness) is a key component of changing behaviors. The framework of most discipline programs that schools buy, promise to engage students in some understanding of the impact of the choices (decision-making) that the student makes on others (social awareness). In the end, however, the ultimate goal of classroom management practices is that they last beyond the adult-supervised areas of the school and become a part of how students act no matter where they are (self-directed and self-managed).

So, what is a teacher to do? How do we create safe classrooms and schools?

Schools have implemented many ways of dealing with student behaviors. A few examples of the more widely known programs include PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports), and Safe and Civil School’s CHAMPS (Class-wide Positive Behavior Supports).  While both of these have been shown to be effective in reducing student behavior referrals, there is not much research that supports that these programs change student behaviors beyond the classroom.  The whole premise of Social Emotional Learning is to change the core of how the individual interacts with him/herself and the community at large. To better reach the tenets of Social Emotional Learning many schools have taken to using restorative justice. These schools believe that engaging students in creating a community of learners who hold each other accountable for the classroom and school learning environment will ultimately achieve increased positive connections with the school community that will ultimately reduce behavior referrals within the school. In addition, the research demonstrates that these restorative practices assist students with changing their behavior beyond the school as well.

Restorative justice can be traced most recently the criminal justice system’s approach to trying to engage prisoners in rehabilitative practices around the ideas of empathy and a greater sense of the importance of belonging to the community. I prefer the title restorative practices as it lends itself to the idea that we are able to teach the core values of self-management, self-discipline and empathy, which are essential skills for success in school and beyond.  In addition, the notion of practices means that if we do something over and over again (practice) we will get better at it.  So, the title restorative practices allows for us to “try it” and “try it” and “try it” until it finally becomes a part of how we live our lives in school and outside of school.

For the classroom teacher, following the direction of the school in any of these programs or any other the school might adopt, is essential to helping students with a consistent approach to classroom management. However, absent a formalized school-wide approach, a teacher is left to create their own approach in the classroom. If you are at this place, I recommend trying restorative practices. The research on the use of restorative practices by Dr. Tom Cavanagh, Katherine Evans and Dorothy Vaandering and others, demonstrates how the entire “feel” of the classroom (and the school as a whole if they adopt it) changes and how students behaviors are intrinsically changed by bringing these practices into their school lives. Restorative practices allow students to learn to manage their own behaviors as well to learn the language of creating a community that holds each other accountable for following community norms such as safety, respect, responsibility, the classroom is key to learning and whatever else you and your students determine is essential to creating a supportive classroom that allows for learning to consistently take place.

Creating a restorative practices classroom involves the use of circles that engage students first in creating the community, establishing the norms, and then when behaviors get in the way of the learning, using different types of circles allows for the teacher and the students to engage in a dialogue about how to get back on track with student behavior, student learning and keeping to the norms that were agreed to. This video shows you how to use circles and also shares student perspectives, and Gaby’s Story highlights the use of restorative practices within schools and classroom.

The goal here is to reduce our sleepless nights as teachers and to create classrooms and schools where students are safe, engaged, learning and believe that they are a part of the community of learners. “When people collectively come together and strategize and plan, working together and acting together, they create a power that they can effectively use in their situation to effect change.”(Rev. Dr. James Lawson, Jr.) Engage your students, colleagues and leaders in creating the solutions through restorative practices.

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