School discipline problems are responding well to a new approach called Restorative Practice.
“The hardest thing for me was to have to talk about how I felt.”
A male high school student participating in a restorative practice circle
The way in which conflict, tension, bullying and other discipline problems are being dealt with at local schools is changing, and educators believe it’s for the better. The Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board is embracing a new concept, called restorative practice, which is gaining momentum worldwide.
And for good reason.
The restorative practice approach to discipline is showing startling results: fewer conflicts, suspensions, and detentions, better relationships among students, higher academic achievement and safer school communities. Restorative justice is, in effect, transforming student behaviour.
How does it work? In place of the adversarial approach to discipline with its focus on laying blame, and labelling and punishing the offender, restorative practice focuses on what harm has been done and what needs to happen to make things right. The offender is held accountable for his/her actions, but instead of being ostracized, is reintegrated into the school community if possible.
Restorative practice puts victims and offenders and other affected parties together in a formal or informal restorative practice circle where they can express their feelings about the situation to one another. This approach allows offenders to clearly see and appreciate the consequences of their actions and allows victims to have a voice and to heal.
The circle includes the offender and his/her parents, the victim and his/her parents, with school staff as facilitators. During the circle, the facilitator asks the offender and victim 10 reflective questions (see sidebar). Others who are affected also get to speak. The process is designed to be constructive, not destructive, for all involved. And in the end, everyone has a say in how the offender can repair the harm that’s been done.
The process helps strengthen the relationships among all parties, allows victim and offender to move on, and most crucially, helps prevent future harm from occurring.
Alison Kneen is a firm believer in restorative practice – she sees it in action every day. Kneen is principal of C R Gummow elementary school in Cobourg, one of many schools in the Kawartha Pine Ridge School District that uses restorative practice. One third of all schools in
the district are scheduled to become restorative practice schools over the next academic year.
Kneen and other staff were trained as facilitators by Bruce Shenk, the restorative justice advisor for the school board. But Kneen recently opted not to play that role during a formal circle at the school, which used another staff member as facilitator. Her reason, “I wanted the circle to understand the effect this situation was having on me as a person.”
The circle was called because a male student had been physically aggressive with a female student, police had been called and charges were pending. The male and female student had quarreled for years, causing a great deal of stress at school. It seemed the two families had a history of animosity.
Kneen suggested a formal circle consisting of the two students, the parents, some of the siblings, herself and a facilitator. The facilitator spoke to each of the parents individually beforehand to prepare them for what to expect and to get their buy-in. “They have to want to be there,” says Kneen, “or it won’t work.”
The formal circle is designed to encourage honesty in the students in a supportive, non-judgmental environment with the people who care about them. There is a set procedure: the aggressor is asked the questions first, followed by questions to the victim. Then the parents of the aggressor are asked to talk about how the situation affects them. The victim’s parents express their feelings in turn.
Kneen says it became apparent from the circle that neither child’s behaviour had been perfect. It turned out that the girl had been teasing the boy and calling him names for years. “Both sets of parents expressed their frustration with their own children’s behaviour,” said Kneen. She notes that there are times when parents will cry because the circles can be emotional. They are also powerful. “The healing that comes about when parents have a chance to hear what the other parents are going through leads to transforming behaviour,” says Kneen.
The students were also able to see the impact on Kneen for the first time. “I was feeling very frustrated and overwhelmed with this situation. They realized ‘she’s a person who cares about us’ rather than just seeing me as the principal.”
The boy admitted that the hardest part of the circle for him was talking about his feelings. “Society doesn’t know what to do with emotions or feelings,” says Stan Baker, a facilitator and trainer in restorative practice at the school board. “But the circle provides a safe place to express how you are feeling with people who support you.”
As a result of the circle, no police charges were laid and both students signed a contract outlining their expected behaviour. Since the circle, “we haven’t had a single problem with these two,” says Kneen. “It was a success story because both parents bought into the process.”
“Restorative justice is a process, not an event,” says Stan Baker. To be effective, it must be taught to the entire school community, including students, their parents, and staff. Using a common language is fundamental to successful adoption of the program.
At Gummow, the school held gym assemblies where Baker used books and videos to explore restorative justice concepts with students. This was followed up by an evening session for parents.
Because the principles are ingrained in the students, Kneen says she uses restorative practice to deal not only with larger discipline problem, but smaller, day-to-day issues too. Restorative practice dovetails nicely with the values of respect, responsibility, honesty and initiative that the schools promote, says Kneen.
Kneen says she uses an ‘express’ version of restorative practice on a daily basis. “If an incident arises at recess,” she says, “we use it right then and there. We ask the key questions.” The questions may also be posed as part of a class meeting about an important issue, says Kneen. For example, one teacher held a restorative class meeting to discuss the class’s inappropriate behaviour when they had a supply teacher. Through the exercise, the students recognized that their behaviour affected not only their own learning, but their teacher, who was worried that her class would now have a reputation for such behaviour. “They cared about their teacher and did not want that consequence for her or themselves,” explains Kneen.
While it’s too early for statistics, anecdotal evidence from Kawartha Pine Ridge schools is showing a positive impact on school communities. Kneen has definitely seen an improvement with fewer suspensions last year than the previous year.
Tangible evidence on the benefits of restorative practice exists in Canada and around the world. For instance, the Waterloo Region District High School, which implemented restorative conferencing in 2005 to manage violence, particularly bullying, saw suspensions fall by an incredible 80 per cent in its elementary school and 65 per cent in its high schools. In addition, there was a 35 per cent drop in expulsions at both levels of school.
Studies in Australia show that restorative practice has the power to even change school culture. It does this by teaching kids the skills they need to resolve conflict, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own actions and boosting self-esteem and sense of belonging. This translates into better attitudes, better grades, and safer schools.
The Kawartha Pine Ridge School Board believes the use of restorative practice will eventually be a provincial and national directive and the lynchpin to building healthier communities. Restorative practice is already cited as a preventative tool in the Ministry of Education’s Safe Schools Act.
Baker has witnessed first-hand how school cultures are changing. He’s seen student peer mediators ask the restorative practice questions in the hallway when there is a dispute between students. “It is starting to change the tone and atmosphere of the school,” says Baker.
And it’s reaching into the community too. Stan recites a story told to him by a teacher he was training. The teacher had overheard a conversation in which a high school student from another school was talking about the number of suspensions his school had. A girl from the teacher’s high school replied, “What we do [at our school] is sit in a circle and solve the problem.”
The Key Questions
These reflective questions form the basis of restorative practice.
The person who caused the harm is asked:
- What happened?
- What were you thinking at the time?
- What have you thought about since?
- Who has been affected by what you did?
- In what way?
- What do you think you need to do to make things right?
The victim is asked:
- What did you think when you realized what had happened?
- What impact has this incident had on you and others?
- What has been the hardest thing for you?
- What do you think needs to happen to make things right?
Using restorative practice at home
“Parenting through the lens of restorative practice” is a valuable exercise, says Alison Kneen, principal of C R Gummow elementary school in Cobourg. We asked Stan Baker, a facilitator and trainer in restorative practice at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, to give us an example. He chose one from his own life.
One night his teenage son snuck in late from his midnight curfew hoping his parents wouldn’t wake up (but their bedroom is over the garage).
Rather than confront his son on the spot, Baker waited until morning and held a “two-minute circle.” He asked his son the key questions and discovered the boy was late because he drove someone home who needed a ride. He also noticed gas was cheap and filled up the family car – music to any Dad’s ear! After a good laugh together, Baker asked, “You know what time curfew is right?” His son nodded and Baker reiterated his expectations of him.
The two-minute circle allowed for two-way engagement, listening and empathy. “We are emotionally connected to our kids. It’s not about you having a bad kid. It’s about your kid doing something that hurt someone else.” He likens bad behaviour to a rock being thrown into a pond. It has a long ripple effect. “Restorative practice is about holding kids accountable in a very, very supportive environment. Every kid has the right to learn from his mistakes.”
- Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board: www.kpr.edu.on.ca. Go to “programs” and “Restorative Practice” for a slide show on restorative practice.
- International Institute for Restorative Practices: www.iirp.org