Working with tricky kids and tricky classes using Restorative Approaches
A restorative, peer-support approach to unlocking different behaviours
Bill works with students who find the social aspects of school overwhelming. When classroom and playground life becomes too much for these kids, their teachers and classmates live it with them, as seemingly 'little' problems blow up into full-bore meltdowns. In these moments, these kids struggle to 'see straight', 'think straight' and simply cannot make the kinds of decisions their parents and teachers try to seed in their less explosive moments.
Whether or not these kids have attracted a formal diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, PD-NOS, Conduct Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder etc...these kids often have some things in common - a set of interconnected difficulties:
Extreme difficulty making well thought-out choices in the heat of the moment (hot-cognition) - otherwise known as point of performance difficulties.
An inability put the lessons of the past into practice in the present to make different choices, they cannot use past knowledge to make better choices in the current situation - this is why we become exasperated that these kids make the same mistakes over and over.
A highly strung sensory system that seems to go into overdrive in anxious moments, throwing their perceptions of what others say and do wildly out of kilter - these kids' senses literally go into hyper drive - a light touch may feel like a heavy blow, a whisper can sound like someone yelling in their ear.
An anxious need to take control of situations; to 'be the boss' or 'be the centre of attention' when they feel that life is moving too fast for them. Others find these behaviours irritating at best and downright threatening at worst.
A sense that their relationships with teachers and peers is deteriorating to the point of no-return and that there's nothing they can do about it - research tells us that this feeling further diminishes their ability to regulate their own emotions.
A mortifying sense of humiliation following an incident: "I can't believe I did it again". We mustn't be fooled, this is often well disguised by bravado or apparent unwillingness to take responsibility for their behaviour. This often their best defense against the awful thoughts and feelings that tricky kids experience about themselves, day in, day out.
These kids quickly become indifferent to the consequences and sanctions that schools impose and regardless of the skill of counsellors and/or therapists, long-term behaviour change can seem illusive.
Exasperated parents may start blaming the school for the problems as these kids can become socially excluded and even targets for harassment. Likewise, the school, feeling unsupported by parents and out of their depth, may join in on the blame game, feeling increasing pressure from other parents: "this kid is dangerous - get them out of the school" or "This kid goes, or we go". Everyone in this kid's life struggles with what to do!
At the end of the day, these tricky kids find themselves back in the same classrooms and the same playgrounds, with the same peers who unwittingly (or intentionally) press buttons that ensure more of the same reactions when circumstances overwhelm them.
So what else can be done for these tricky kids and those who live with their highly reactive natures? In desperation to help these kids to help themselves, we often overlook the most powerful resource we have - their peers...other students.
When we engage restorative processes to empower young people to help other young people, we tap into a rich vein of understanding, compassion and willingness to help that can make a powerful difference. These processes are staggeringly simple, yet can be school's last thought, when faced with loud, aggressive and out-of-control student behaviour.
The best processes promote healthy and respectful conversations with peers of these tricky kids about the challenges faced by tricky kids, possible reasons for these behaviours and most importantly, how we can pull together as a team to make the difference for a person who is doing it tough. When asked the right questions, and asked how they think they can help, kids put their best foot forward, creating support networks and becoming a key change agent in the lives of classmates who are struggling socially.
People only change their behaviour, depending on how they feel they are treated by others. Bill's goal is to have tricky kids feel more understood and more liked by peers. Only when this happens do we unlock their capacity to better regulate their emotions and behaviour.
Bill works with tricky kids, their caregivers, teachers and most importantly, their peers to promote an understanding of tricky behaviours. How does this happen? It happens in circles! Bill teaches groups of students and their teachers the skills required to use circle processes to transform the ways in which they communicate with one another. Over time, relationships transform as students get to know each other better, rediscovering what makes them the same. The class work toward an agreed vision of how they want classroom life to be and how they can support one another to achieve this outcome.
Building relationships, improving classroom climate
When classrooms become difficult to teach and difficult to learn in, the core of the problem often boils down to a mixture of tricky kids (like described above) and resulting damaged relationships. When conflict thrives in class groups, trust becomes a casualty and young people can lose all sense of behavioural boundaries as they start to only look out for themselves and forget about the needs of others. Punishment becomes completely ineffective and learning becomes a casualty.
In out of kilter classrooms, powerful groups and cliques of the more popular (socially-survival-savvy-students ) can thrive. Bullying behaviours soon follow and the silent majority within the class bunker down and go quiet, or simply surrender to the mayhem.
The astonishing thing is that when we ask students from these classes the right questions, (How is our class going? Are we learning our best? How well are we treating one another and teachers? Is this the class we imagined at the start of the year? Is this the class we want to be?) it quickly emerges that everybody feels vulnerable and even downright fearful in the situation, particularly the students that seem to be most responsibly for the unruly conduct and discord! Everyone has fallen victim to the behaviours that have thrown the class off of its relational axis.
Bill works with these classes in circles, using a range of powerful restorative processes to re-open lines of communication and bring the classes emotional blueprint back into balance.
By exploring and healing past hurts and helping classes to forge an agreed vision for the kind of class they want to be, students again become emotionally flexible in their thinking and more compassionate and understanding of each other.
Bill works with teachers and students to put strategies in place to help them get there. Community building is at the centre of these processes. The very nature of working in circles brings groups of people into emotional sync with one another, promoting understanding, tolerance and shifting power dynamics to a healthier place where group voice is no longer stifled by a powerful few.
Improved learning is the outcome.