Schools are not, never were and never will be a utopia.
Schools are places where young people (and those who care for them) come from all corners of the community - from different faiths, cultures and economic circumstances and of course, dispositions for learning. Learners are squeezed into confined work areas, they cannot move freely, cannot eat, drink and toilet as they please (nor can their teachers)! Despite all of this, these young people, with developing social skills and brains that are a long way from being able to think before acting and are expected to work at peak efficiency on difficult learning tasks. If stuff doesn't go wrong from time to time, then something is wrong!
Despite the rhetoric from policy makers about safe schools, when you consider the truly weird places that schools are, it's a miracle there isn't more conflict in schools.
Principal and Author John Marsden puts it beautifully when he writes about his school:
"Let’s get down and dirty now. Face it, it’s really the negatives that are the most interesting. Our problems include parents who think the school is utopian and are shocked if their child is insulted or hit. I’m about to draft a letter for parents who are contemplating sending their children here, which will include a statement to the effect that “whilst your child is at school there is every likelihood that he or she will be bitten, kicked, hit, sworn at, abused and insulted (and that’s just by the teachers – no, on second thoughts, I might leave that joke out). This will happen because we are a community of normal people, and normal life includes moments of friction, anger, tension, jealousy. It’s likely that your child will bite someone, kick someone, hit someone (etc.) at some stage too. We do not provide a magical oasis of beauty and peace. We do provide an environment where people can learn to cope with the vicissitudes of life. Every relationship has some ugly moments and some difficult aspects. It’s never too early to develop an understanding of that and acquire strategies to help us to keep moving forwards". (School News, December 2018)
Now, I don't know what John Marsden thinks of Restorative Practices, but his very candid account of what can happen in schools is spot on. We need to teach young people ways to recover from ugly moments - whether they are the cause or the victim. We need to develop ways to keep schools moving forwards in the wake of conflict, upset and downright awful behaviour. For me, this is what Restorative Practices are about.
Restorative Practices derive from Restorative Justice
It is easy to become lost in the quest to define what restorative practices are. At very least, restorative practices encompass a set of values that point us in a clear direction about best ways to meet people’s needs, particularly when wrongdoing or conflict has caused (or has the potential to cause) harm to people and relationships. Restorative Practices, based on the principles of Restorative Justice tell us that:
■The people who are most affected by a problem are best placed to find solutions to that problem
■Wrongdoing is primarily an offence against people and relationships, and secondarily as an offence against the law or the established rules of an institution (which are only ever established in the first place to protect people and relationships)
■When wrongdoing or conflict causes harm to people, meeting the needs of those affected becomes central in any process that follows. Those affected must have a voice
■ The aim of any intervention should be to restore a situation to a state of balance and safety, and to repair harm caused, rather than to inflict further harm through punishment
■Those whose behaviour has caused harm (wrongdoers) need to be given opportunities to put things right (make amends) with those harmed, through genuine attempts to repair the harm their behaviour has caused. This develops empathy and allows wrongdoers to take full and active responsibility for their behaviour
In Schools, Restorative Practices often involve:
■Ways to strengthen those affected by wrongdoing to stand against harmful behaviour.
■Approaches to behaviour management that ask students and teachers to take care of one another.
■A form of discipline that has the potential to strengthen social bonds between those involved in incidents of harm or conflict, instead of weakening these bonds (which punitive processes do).
■Adults in schools enlisting the help of students to support peers who may be struggling to make better choices about how they act. Teachers and students no longer sit on different sides of the school discipline fence – they work together.
■Approaches that hold students accountable to each other (or to the group) when their behaviour causes harm. Traditional disciplinary to discipline only holds students to the teachers, rules or school leadership
■The building of more unified student groups through a shared commitment to values and agreements about how we treat one another. This creates a healthy sense of shared responsibility and required helpfulness among students.
■Processes that get people talking in ways that create a sense of group solidarity against wrongdoing and abuses of power like bullying.
■A view of people as fundamentally good, but capable of harmful behaviour (either intentional or unintentional) in their search to meet their needs.
■A view of all behaviour through the lens of relationships. Antisocial or harmful behaviour often is symptomatic of weakened or non-existent social connections and the pain this causes in the form of shame. Hurt people hurt people.
■A desire of those in authority to when possible share decisions with students about issues that directly affect them
- a benevolent dictatorship.
Recapturing the importance of community in schools
In a world that is experiencing social disconnection; enlightened educators are quickly recognising that for many students and their families, the school is one of the few remaining places where any sense of community can exist.
Schools are also the first place where children experience a formal system of justice. Schools that employ Restorative Practices are by default, going to work on building community, as people are constantly reminded that we are all interdependent, needing processes that bring people together instead of pushing them apart when conflict or wrongdoing harms the connections between them.
Restorative Practices provide a constant reminder to all that there is nothing we do that doesn’t have an impact on another person in some way or another.
Restorative Practices supporting social learning curriculum
Schools delivering social and developmental curriculum through programs or frameworks such as Circle Time, What's The Buzz, Program Achieve, Play is the Way, Program Achieve, Stop-Think-Do, Rock and Water, The Virtues Project, or Choice Theory (among others), soon realise how Restorative Practices work powerfully to support these programs and students’ understanding of the concepts within.
Definitions of Restorative Practices / Restorative Justice from other places
Restorative people are overwhelmingly optimistic about the nature of people and, because of this, operate from a place of love rather than fear. Through their bold work, restorative people see the worst of human behaviour and its awful consequences, yet continue to have a steadfast belief that people are innately good. Restorative people want to help others put things back together when they break.
Hansberry (2017: 19)
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