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Time to embrace restorative and social-emotional approach to discipline

An exhausted parent looks on as children scold each other. [Getty Images]

Educators are faced with situations requiring disciplinary measures daily. No one method of discipline can serve as a blanket cure for all scenarios. In balance with modern discipline practices, traditional methods of discipline will continue to be needed as well.

However, restorative discipline methods provide an innovative outlook on discipline in the school system. The philosophy of restorative discipline is solution- based, whereby a misbehaviour has occurred that needs to be solved. Restorative discipline is a proactive measure to prevent the re-offence of wrong-doers. When used appropriately, restorative discipline models humane and effective disciplinary measures to build character and establish a safe school environment. In an era where trauma (of whatever kind - social, economic) is a major impediment to mental health and wellbeing of most learners/individuals, it is incumbent upon schools and educators to employ a restorative and social-emotional approach to discipline.

The moment students step in the door to school each day/new term, they are expected to apply their social skills as they sit in a room with other students, some of whom they do not get along with, manage their emotions and be ready to learn. It is often the case, however, that students lack the social skills necessary to resolve conflict or get along with others; they also often lack the skills to self-regulate themselves and manage emotions that they carry with them from home.

It is of no surprise then, in this scenario, that these students are the ones who resort to defiance, disrespect, and violence when things do not go their way. Students’ social and emotional well-being is critical in that they need to acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, feel and show empathy, set and achieve goals, develop and maintain positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and develop the skills to navigate through challenging situations.

Improve school climate

Restorative practices do more than supplant punitive approaches to discipline. They can dramatically improve the school climate and strengthen the social and emotional skills of young people and adults. Instead of using punishments and rewards to influence the way students behave, restorative approaches address the underlying reasons for students’ hurtful behaviour and nurture their intrinsic desire to treat others with care and respect. Restorative practices offer schools an alternative to traditional disciplinary actions that centre on punishment for misbehaviour and breaking rules. These punishments push kids out of their classroom and school community. They may be simply sent to the principal’s office or suspended, but students who are pushed out may grow resentful, or drop out of school altogether.

Restorative practices focus on resolving conflict, repairing harm, and healing relationships. They support a positive and safe school climate, prevent bullying, and reduce disciplinary incidents. A restorative culture can mitigate the negative effects of punitive discipline policies that exacerbate inequity. These practices focus on repairing social harm by involving the community. In a discipline setting, it is an approach which deals with bad behaviour without only punishing offenders. Traditional modes of discipline focus on punishing bad behaviour or offenders. Restorative approach flips that script, focusing on repairing the harm done to people. It works almost like a mediation or reconciliation strategy. In fact, restorative discipline has rich ties to ancient and indigenous peoples across the globe who have used similar methods to achieve just that.

According to the Maryland Commission Report of 2018, for instance, the Maryland Law requires a learning approach to discipline. The Commission’s work led to clarification in Maryland law that the core purpose of school discipline is not to punish and exclude students. Rather, conflicts and harmful incidents present opportunities for educators and students to create responsive, and relational school communities in which students master social-emotional skills and community behavioral norms are strengthened. The approach has been successful in the US since its implementation. Perhaps, it’s about time we take this approach.

What is the Basic Process of Restorative Discipline?

For something to be truly restorative, it has to involve all three primary stakeholders in repairing the harm done by an action. The three primary stakeholders are: the victim (the person, or persons, who have had harm done to them), the offender (the person, or persons, who committed the harm), and communities of care (the people surrounding both the victim and the offender – family, teachers)

It’s important that you represent all of your stakeholders in the process too, because actions don’t exist in a vacuum. Interactions between two people can have larger effects on victims, offenders, and their communities. Each person gets a chance to have his or her voice heard and develop a repair plan that fits the community’s unique needs. Additionally, by working together, your focus is on building or restoring relationships and repairing harm done.

Restorative practices exist across a continuum. There’s a range of ways you can implement restorative discipline, depending on the severity of the action. You can use smaller impromptu conferences for less formal interactions, or restorative circles / conferences for more formal interactions. As you go right on the continuum towards more formal interactions, you’ll involve more and more people in your procedure. That’s why it’s important to understand the process for facilitating restorative discipline circles.

 The role of schools

Whole-school implementation (where all adults in a school community are trained in restorative practices and on-going coaching and support are provided) is the gold standard in adopting restorative practices, yet many schools lack a sufficient foundation. The first step of successful implementation is not implementation at all—it involves a thoughtful assessment of a school’s current capacity and readiness to embrace a holistic restorative approach. Leaders should take the lead in modeling and supporting restorative practices creating, celebrating, and sustaining a vision of a restorative school community demands critical leadership commitment. Successful restorative leaders embrace and model restorative practices— “talking the talk and walking the walk.” Leaders should emphasise and demonstrate through their communication and work with staff and students that the school’s use of restorative practices is grounded in values of respect, dignity, and mutual concern for all members of the learning community.

A commitment to a restorative approach must be comprehensive in nature. It should be integrated into policies and procedures, decision-making processes, and staff and parent interactions as well. Implementation also requires an on-going commitment of resources—money, time, staff, and space—to embrace restorative practices. Leaders should budget for initial and on-going training, coaching, and continual growth and support and should also address structural and scheduling issues to create dedicated time and support for circles, conferences, and professional development.

Shifting to a restorative mindset requires patience, consistent practice, and time. Developing restorative skills, adjusting embedded disciplinary attitudes and habits, and seeing positive results takes time. In addition to school staff, families and students should be part of the process so they understand the purpose of the restorative initiative. Three key factors have been shown to help with buy-in:1. Staff and Community Involvement 2. Sharing Data and Impact 3. Setting Reasonable Expectations. Successful implementation requires strong organisational leadership with a commitment to ensuring that restorative practices are, in fact, practiced consistently. Establishing systems for monitoring and accountability in restorative practices should be a priority. Providing opportunities for ongoing coaching and active learning for staff is also key to effective professional development.

Effectiveness/importance of restorative approaches

Reduced suspensions

Research from school case studies, district-wide correlational studies, and controlled experimental trials “convincingly demonstrate” that schools that implement restorative practices experience decreases in out-of-school suspensions. This is consistent with the 2018 Johns Hopkins University (JHU) findings in its status review of Baltimore’s pilot restorative schools. A recent randomised controlled study funded by the National Institute of Justice in Pittsburgh Public Schools confirmed the causal relationship between restorative practices and lower suspension rates. The Pittsburgh study compared outcomes at 22 restorative programme schools with 22 schools that did not have a restorative program. The majority of staff at the restorative schools (between 44 per cent and 69 per cent) reported using the restorative tools of affective statements, proactive circles, conferences, and responsive circles “often” or “always.”

After two years of implementation, the Pittsburgh study found that the number of suspensions and days lost to suspension decreased significantly in the restorative schools (36 per cent decline) as compared to the control group (18 per cent decrease). Importantly, students in the restorative schools were less likely to be suspended repeatedly as compared to students in the control group. However, the middle schools (grades 6-8) did not experience fewer suspensions. The researchers noted that it could be more challenging for restorative practices to positively affect middle school students in a two-year timeframe

Reducing disparities in suspensions

One of the goals of restorative approaches is to promote equitable disciplinary practices that do not discriminate against any students. Research has shown some promise in this regard, but outcomes have been mixed. Some large district correlational case studies have found narrowed racial disparities in suspensions. The Pittsburgh experiment found steep declines in suspensions among Black and low-income students. The declines were primarily in elementary schools. Other studies have found reduced suspensions for various racial and ethnic groups, but the narrowing of the disparities as compared to white students was small.

Promising results on school climate

Many educators and students at schools that have implemented restorative practices, report improved school climate, including strengthened relationships and social and emotional skills. The Pittsburgh randomised controlled trial found that restorative practices had positive impacts on the perception of the teaching and learning conditions at their schools as compared to perceptions of teachers in the control schools. School staff in the restorative schools also reported that they had stronger relationships with their students because of restorative practices. Students in restorative schools report less victimisation from bullying than students in non-restorative schools.

Restorative discipline is a modern approach that should be practiced regularly in schools to build cohesive communities, promote healthy decision making, and heal the parties involved. Ultimately, restorative discipline is a strong community-centred philosophy for your schools. It focuses on repairing relationships and reversing harm rather than punishing offenders.