Back when my co-founders and I first started The Community for Learning, we had already worked as teachers for several years in a variety of schools with differing philosophies. As part of that experience, we’d seen far too many discipline programs fail and knew we did not want to handle discipline through punishment. Instead, we decided early on to focus on reflection, repair, and change in behavior. You can read about how we did that here.
We weren’t familiar with “restorative practices“ at the time, but later on, once we learned more about it, we realized the term perfectly describes our philosophy. We don’t punish, we restore. We restore relationships, respect for others, and a feeling of self worth. Restorative discipline is not about punishment. It’s about community, relationships, and mutual respect. It focuses on reflecting on why a misdeed happened in the first place, taking responsibility for what happened, and repairing the harm done.
But, for most teachers this does not come naturally. Many of us were raised with punitive discipline and making this change feels counter-intuitive. When students misbehave we tend to blame them rather than looking at our own practice to see how we could improve the classroom environment. When working with student behavior, the first steps we should take are preventative measures that help avoid misbehavior.
- Teachers avoid discipline issues by making classes interesting and having clear classroom procedures in place.
- They build positive relationships with students by honoring and respecting them, understanding them, and connecting with them.
- Students discuss their emotions and create a feeling of community in listening circles.
- Teachers consistently let students know their expectations for behavior.
If in spite of these measures, students still misbehave or bully others, the teacher should work to help the student reflect and try to make changes.
First steps in dealing with misbehavior
- Use hand signals or gentle reminders. When students are having trouble sitting still and working, putting a gentle hand on their shoulder can help them focus. For students who struggle with touch, talk to them privately and decide on a hand signal you can give them to remind them to focus on their work again.
- Privately discuss issues. “I’ve noticed you’re talking a lot in class. What’s going on? Can we come up with some strategies that will help you concentrate on your work?”
- Meet with students to reflect on their behavior and think of how they could do things differently.
If students continue to have problems with behavior, a teacher may eventually send them to the school psychologist or principal to write a reflection letter, in which students are guided to consider why their behavior hurt others and how they can make amends. This letter then goes home to the student’s parents or guardians so that they are also included in the conversation. Through this process of conversation and reflection, students usually begin to take charge of their own behavior.
Restorative practices require support and training
In order to use restorative practices, most teachers need direct coaching and one-on-one teaching. Having been brought up with punitive discipline, they’ll often fall back on anger and punishment in times of stress. They may skip the preventative steps and the relationship-building conversations and simply send students for reflection letters. After all, taking the student out of the class is easier. It immediately solves the problem for the teacher, so they can carry on teaching without disruption.
But if we don’t use all of the other tools in our restorative toolbox (prevention and discussions), the reflection letter becomes a meaningless exercise. Even worse, it becomes a form of punishment rather than a way to reflect and change. Strong relationships are the basis of restorative practices. If those relationships haven’t been developed, the teacher seems like the enemy. The student doesn’t take responsibility for his or her actions, but instead focuses on blaming the teacher: “It’s not fair. S/he didn’t even warn me. S/he always picks on me.” And when a student doesn’t reflect and take responsibility for his or her actions, change doesn’t happen.
Teachers often ask for a “discipline protocol” enumerating the “steps” they should take before sending students for a discipline letter. But, when we just mechanically follow steps, we tend to lose sight of the underlying principles of good teaching. Every student is different, so we can’t use a cookie-cutter model of discipline if we want them to learn from their mistakes. And teaching students to reflect on their behavior and manage their emotions is just like teaching anything else: we need to use different strategies to differentiate our teaching in order to help each individual child.
Restorative discipline can’t be a protocol, it has to be a mindset founded on love and respect. Because most of us were brought up with punitive discipline, we have to consistently and mindfully apply restorative practices. Below are some switches we can make as we move from a punitive to a restorative mindset:
When we truly understand where a student is coming from, we can show love and empathy rather than reacting to misbehavior with anger. It’s important to remember that no student wants to “be bad.” Sometimes they misbehave because they want attention and even negative attention is better than no attention at all. Sometimes they feel inadequate and they’d rather be thought of as the class clown or the bully than the “stupid one” who doesn’t understand the lesson. Sometimes they’re facing an emotional issue like a divorce or the death of a loved one or a friend who has rejected them. Sometimes they struggle with learning disabilities that frustrate them. Building strong relationships helps us gain insight into our students’ emotions and a deeper understanding of their problems. When we show our students respect and open our hearts to them, we can help them become the best versions of themselves.
We have to constantly remind ourselves that restorative discipline is not a program with rigid steps to follow — it’s a relationship based on respect and love rather than anger and fear.
Because there are no clear rules to follow, as we dive into applying restorative practices, most of us struggle. We face difficult situations, we may lose our patience, and sometimes we fall back into old habits. It can feel scary to make these changes, so we need a supportive community to help us face our challenges and improve. I’d love to hear your concerns and comments so we can learn and grow together.