Operation Respect’s mission of “creating safe, compassionate environments for children and youth” has led us down many pedagogical roads because there are many ways to get to the place where students are respected and nurtured and where they become lifelong learners.
As I travel from school to school, the most asked question from teachers and administrators is, “How do we deal with our most challenging children?” At times, without being explicit, they want me to meet with this group of students and do something that gets them to be cooperative, to do what the adults want them to do.
Now, of course there are many, many reasons why children struggle at school and they span the developmental pathways – cognitive, physical, psychological, social, linguistic, etc. – and can be far more about the adults than the children themselves. The answers to “how do we deal?” are just as myriad as the causes themselves and take honest reflection and assessment.
But, I do understand what they are asking. Frequently they are trying to figure out how to reengage students who have become marginalized and are acting out their feelings of rejection. What I know is that there is no magical way to do this, but if there is one pedagogically powerful approach that seems to speak to the alienation of learners by empowering participants to speak their mind with a deep respect for each other, something “these students” desperately need and rarely experience, it is the work of restorative practices.
I have worked with students in morning meetings, in advisory groups, and with groups of student leaders, alongside school counselors and teachers using the principles and practices of restorative approaches, and it has made a difference. By exploring issues and solving problems in a circle, with deep listening, holding space for each other, and aiming for a result that is, at a minimum, a consensus of the group, restorative practices have become a natural fit for Operation Respect.
A restorative approach in a school shifts the emphasis from managing behavior to focusing on the building, nurturing, and repairing of relationships. A large body of academic research shows that positive attachment to school and positive adult and peer relationships are the greatest protection against risky behaviors, and nurture healthy youth development and academic success. Our professional development around restorative approaches provides direct support to teachers, counselors, and others who wish to implement it while utilizing content from works such as Circle Forward: Building a Restorative School Community by Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Prannis or in conjunction with our Don’t Laugh at Me curriculum.
But how does the work of restorative practices answer the question, “what do we do with ‘these’ challenging kids?” The simple, but not so simple, answer is that meeting with children and young people in respectful circles, breaking down the authority relationship between adults and students, conversing with them instead of to or at them brings students who may present challenges in the classroom into the circle. It builds and restores community as a prerequisite for responding to each individual student. It doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be challenges, but it builds a foundational level of trust for additional individual and group work. I’ve seen that happen from my early years creating “family groups” in the alternative school that I led for 13 years, to the schools I visit and work with to this very day.
My buddy, Molly, our President and CEO, told me the story of a kid she worked with who was eligible for expulsion from Cleveland Public Schools: “He came to my program, which we didn’t call restorative practices at the time, but really was. After about 60 days in our program I asked him to become the lead judge in a Teen Court I was establishing to handle curfew violations (a misdemeanor offense). The change from a kid who might have been expelled to a kid who knew how to give and receive respect within a formal setting was incredibly powerful.”
For my part, I have lunch about once a month with a former student who is now 48 years old (Wow! I can’t believe it). I do remember him kicking the wall in anger about something. He changed, and I often describe that process as transformational for its effect on him, but the word for what we did should really be restorative, going back to basic principles of nurturing and respectful child rearing that would accept the challenging child as a youngster whom we’ve not yet reached. That’s why I love that so many are embracing restorative approaches and practices as a “new” way to move from punitive, deficit-based practices, to more engaging, respectful, and equitable school environments.
As always, please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us what you are doing in your classroom or to post your stories to our Facebook page.