Our students do circles once a week on our special Friday schedule. I haven't run any of them because I am teaching at that time. I've seen them done very well, but in some circles students simply cannot be managed. We also have "responsibility time," when we can request to speak with a child after school and follow up with behavior. We have a set of questions that we’ve been told to use with students to reflect on their behavior. This works with some, not so much with others. Do you have any suggestions?
– Reynaldo Punzalan, Jr., 7th grade math teacher
Many of the teachers who write us are implementing restorative circles to build and deepen community connections in advisory or in their homerooms. In some cases, they use circles to explicitly teach and practice social and emotional skills and mindful awareness. But there are also those who use circles in their content area. Regardless of the kind of circles used, all require participants to practice some of the social and emotional skills needed to be successful in school and life – the kind of skills we also draw upon when attempting to resolve conflict, repair harm and/or deal with disciplinary issues.
What we know is that restorative practices are more successful in schools when they are not simply in response to harmful behavior or as disciplinary interventions, but when restorative principles and practices are in place throughout the school day.
Having said that, I think it's important for educators to understand that there is no one tool necessarily that works for everyone, in all situations. It's for this reason that we prefer to talk about a toolkit of restorative interventions. I outline these below.
If the harm is fairly minor, people may try to work things out themselves by having a restorative conversation or by using their negotiation skills. The goal is to give the student a chance to explain what happened, what they might have been thinking and why. We also want to give them an opportunity to reflect on their behavior, the impact of their actions, and make amends if needed. Finally, encouraging students to consider different choices for next time can help set them up for success going forward.
I always find that asking students to think about what might get in the way of making better choices is a useful exercise as well. This can help students focus on overcoming obstacles, and possibly seek out support.
Having a relationship with the student beyond addressing challenging behavior is important, as is coming at the issue with a restorative mindset. It’s useful to remind ourselves to remain calm and respectful in talking with a student who has been acting out. It might help to remember the mantra "the problem is the problem, the person is not the problem” – especially if a student’s behaviors frustrate us. Understanding the root causes of a student’s acting out, being off task or disruptive, can be helpful. So can a set of guiding questions to ask when an incident occurs. Ultimately though, we need to work with the particular student, the context, and the issue at hand. So it helps to be open and flexible when having a restorative conversation.
We’re all human and ultimately we all make mistakes that may end up harming others, whether we intend to or not. Sometimes the level of harm done elevates emotions to the point of requiring a third-party intervention.
This is where restorative circles to address harm come into play, along with other restorative interventions, including restorative conferences, mediation, fairness committees, etc. Of these approaches, only restorative circles and restorative conferences have people sitting in a circle.
Although a “restorative conference” is sometimes (confusingly) referred to as a “circle,” it uses a very different process than a restorative circle. This chart provides an overview of how restorative circles and restorative conferences differ. For comparison's sake, we've also included mediation.
This “medicine wheel” is another way of showing how restorative circles differ from restorative conferences and other approaches for addressing harm.
The restorative circle calls for a balanced process. The quadrants on the right are considered as important as those on the left, and deserve equal time in the process of restoration. It’s why in circles we start the process with getting acquainted and building relationships. In this way we build a foundation for addressing issues and developing action plans.
Restorative conferences (and mediation for that matter) focus only the left part of the medicine wheel. After the facilitator sets the stage for the conference, the main focus is on addressing issues and developing action plans.
Do you have questions about using circles or restorative practices in your school? Send them to the Keeper!