More and more often, the conversations I have with teachers about supporting children with challenging behaviours are turning to the question of discipline. Prevention – through universally designed lessons, conversations which build understanding, mentoring, and other structures of support – is obviously preferable to reactive discipline, but often we are forced to play “catch up”, disciplining children for incidents that have already occurred.
Although I have been using the Collaborative Problem Solving model for some time to prevent and address challenging behaviours, there are points at which I have found the model to offer me insufficient tools. This is by no means a reflection on the value of CPS for individuals, but a recognition that at times CPS is not able to address the concerns of others “around” an incident (parents, other children, teachers etc.) when they have been seriously harmed by a behaviour.
While CPS is necessarily an individual approach, Restorative Justice practices can offer us an opportunity to address the needs of others who have been harmed by a particular action. These processes, when used in schools, are called “restorative discipline” and usually take the form of a conferencing circle where all those affected by an incident participate. Questions are asked which help the child to recognise the impact his or her actions have had on others, and those impacted are given an opportunity to suggest how the child might make restitution and repair the damaged relationships. Some examples of questions that can be asked are; “What were you thinking about at the time of the incident?” “What have you thought about since?” “Who was harmed by this?” “What needs to happen to make things right?” There are often times when the harm cannot be completely alleviated, but in all cases the focus is on how to make the situation “as right as possible,” given that we cannot change the past.
Punishment rarely assists others around an incident to feel better about the harm that was done to them – for example, the forced apology, or a three day suspension from which a child frequently returns angry. It also often has a ripple effect, where the punished child feels blameful of others and can often become vengeful rather than developing accountability. Most importantly however, punishment can damage relationships with adults and with the community. The fewer positive, trusting, and consistent relationships that a child has in his or her life, the more likely that child is to be at risk for self-harm, risky behaviour, and aggression or violence, or at risk to have these behaviours escalate.
Embedding restorative circle processes as a part of classroom routines is not an overnight solution. Children are often unfamiliar with these type of practices and (as Dr. Ross Greene extensively notes in his books on CPS) are often very unused to being listened to. They are uncomfortable and unsure in discipline proceedings that do not follow the pattern we have become accustomed to: one-on-one, in an office, directive rather than investigative, top-down etc. We need to be intentional in teaching students how to participate in circle conferencing if we have chosen to use this approach.
While not all children or teachers are ready to use circle processes, we can ensure that our discipline practices are restorative, regardless of what form they will take. We need to be honest in evaluating whether our discipline policies are a net loss or gain to our communities, both within the school and outside it.
Here are some excellent resources to support us in the process…
http://www.livesinthebalance.org/school-discipline-survey (Dr. Greene’s School Discipline Survey)
http://www.creducation.org/cre/homebase/content_video/2620/ (“Restorative Justice: It’s Elementary” video)
http://www.creducation.org/cre/resources/view/545 (“Teach Kids a Lesson… Or Help Them Learn?” article)
The Teacher’s Guide to Restorative Classroom Discipline (I am happy to send this PDF to anyone interested)