Classroom Strategies

Restorative Practices Starts with Empathy

“Kids do well if they can.” -Dr. Stuart Ablon

I recently watched the TED Talk “Rethinking Challenging Kids-Where There’s a Skill There’s a Way” by Dr. J. Stuart Albon. His phenomenal message helps us shift they way we approach behavior challenges, by empowering students with the skills to do well. We can teach these three skills: flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving.

It’s incredible to watch a student shift from being a tuned-out behavior challenge to one who turns in their work and asks questions! When I approach a student with empathy, work on skills, and set them up for small successes, it’s amazing what happens!

What is Restorative Practices?

Restorative Practices is an approach to discipline where there is a high level of control and a high level of support. Individuals are encouraged to uphold community expectations, and when they don’t, they are held accountable for their choices. We “restore” an individual to the community after a trust-breaking incident through forgiveness and making different choices.

I highly recommend these two of the books: Restorative Practices Handbook for Teachers, Disciplinarians, and Administrators and Restorative Circles in Schools: Building Community and Enhancing Learning. I’ve been using these ideas consistently, both dealing with minor incidents in the classroom and larger issues between students.

It is about our mindset, rather than rigid practices. We build a community of empathy, every single day–my kids know I’ve got their back, even when they make poor choices. Far more frequently after a 1:1 conversation with a student, it ends with a “would you like a hug?” rather than consequences.

Here are some of the strategies I use as I’ve implemented Restorative Practices in my classroom:

Daily Check-in Form

Every day I check in with my students through their daily check-in and warm-up questions (read more here). This gives me an excellent read on the class at the very beginning, and I can prioritize students’ needs.

When I notice a trend with a student, such as things are overall a “1” for more than a single day, I will find a ways to loop back to that student multiple times during class, making casual conversation, complimenting them, or asking general questions. If a student tells me something in the “anything else I need to know” question, I will speak with them privately about what they shared.

This has allowed me to make quick personal connections with each student in the first 5 minutes of class.

Student Behavior Log Reflection

When minor incidents happen in class, I use progressive consequences to address them: warning, behavior log, change seat, referral. Rarely do we get past a behavior log! Although, for larger or more serious issues where a student is interfering with our safety or productively, we will skip to a referral.

After a student receives a warning, the next step is a behavior log. Students fill out this Form (Make a copy) at one of the computers in our room, then sit back down. The majority of behavior log entries are for a forgotten or dead iPad (no warnings, automatic behavior log) or off-task behavior, especially chatting.

When students take responsibility for reflecting on how their choices impact our wider community, they usually make immediate changes. Occasionally I’ll have a quick follow-up conversation with the student, either during class or just after. This gives me an opportunity to listen to their thought process, and how they will take ownership of their actions.

Restorative Circles

Our favorite part of Restorative Practices is the use of circles! My students and I use community-building proactive circles for check-ins and to share the positives in their lives. At the beginning of the year, we do circles almost every Friday. As the school year progresses and we get busier, they seem to get pushed to the side and happen every couple weeks. Students have grown accustomed to our talking piece, a small stuffed penguin–it signals to all to listen and be respectful to the speaker (some do need a reminder, or two!).

We ask a variety of questions in circles, some I come up with and others are student suggestions. Here are some examples:

  • If you could have any superpower, what would you have and what would you do with it?
  • What qualities make a good friend?
  • What was the best part of your week?
  • What is one goal you have for next (week, semester, year, etc.)?

Many of my quietest students feel confident enough to contribute in the circle, especially towards the end of first semester. If a student wants to pass their turn, they are allowed to; although their neighbors usually encourage them to share something.

Other times, we need to use circles for restorative conversations. In these circles, something major has happened that we need to process together then figure out a plan for moving forward.

We go through the following restorative questions together:

  • What happened?
  • Who was affected by this?
  • What needs to happen to fix the harm caused?

This year, two of my classes made poor choices with subs, both in my class and in our other teamed classes. I took the majority of a block period to have students write their answers to the restorative circle questions, followed by a lengthy circle discussion. Many students talked about how some students’ behavior was disruptive or disrespectful, and they felt embarrassed that our subs had a difficult time keeping the class under control. The students who were responsible for more outright acts of defiance listened, contributed on a surface-level, but I could see the gears working as they heard their peers talking about behavior. That is powerful! Since this specific circle in early February, I’ve had fewer sub behavior incidents–they’re not perfect, but they’re more aware of their actions.

I love that my classroom is a community where all are welcome! How have you implemented Restorative Practices in your classroom?

3 thoughts on “Restorative Practices Starts with Empathy”

  1. Love the article and ideas. Thank you for sharing. What questions did you use in the circle when your students had behavior issues with the sub? I would like to try this tomorrow as I received bad reports from my sub for the first time!! I teach at the high school level. Thank you!

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    1. I used the following questions: what happened? how do you feel about what happened? what harm was caused? and what needs to be done to repair the harm? Had my kids do a quickwrite to answer all the questions, then we did 4 rounds of the circle, one for each question. I caution you against jumping straight into a restorative circle the first time you do a circle, unless you have a very strong classroom community established. We do a lot of fun/proactive circles at the beginning of the year, so this tool can be used when needed later on. Also, remember to set norms: talk only with the talking piece, listen with empathy, etc. Good luck to you!

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