A Different Type of Classroom Management: Restorative Practices

It’s January 1st, the day of new starts, fresh starts and second chances. I’d like to talk about a book that I just finished reading called Better than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management. The authors are Dominique Smith, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. It’s a little book, just barely 150 pages with lots of white spaces and pictures and graphs, but the ideas it contains are enormous! It’s a book that makes me regret even more that I’m no longer in my lycée confronted with challenging students that I could try these ideas out on. In some ways, I was already travelling along this road when I was teaching, but blindly, not really understanding why some things worked and some didn’t.

I discovered the book through a quote on Facebook that intrigued me, which led to looking up the source. I ordered the book to find out what restorative practices are. As soon as I had read the forward I realized that they are the answer to the conundrum set by Alfie Kohn. I love everything that Kohn has written and agree with his logical explanations of why rewards and punishment don’t work, but had difficulty imagining alternatives in the real world of real classrooms with real students. Here, in just a few pages and with multiple case studies is the answer.

I’m not sure how to go about convincing you that this is a must read. There is nothing fancy about the packaging and I can’t even say that it’s particularly well-written. But there is so much wisdom packed into this little book, that I thought of posting and discussing a single quote every day for a month (or longer). But I didn’t want to drag things out or make people think that they didn’t need to read the book themselves.

Perhaps I should begin by defining restorative practices. When I googled the term I found that Restorative Practices are being used in Nepal to heal the wounds of a civil war. Basically, the focus is on relationships rather than rules.

Whereas traditional discipline focuses on the violation of rules, restorative practices focus on the violation of people and relationships. In every classroom, relationships among individuals are either facilitating students’ learning or preventing it. Restorative practices are built on the positive relationships that adults foster with students and with each other in schools. When students care about the relationships they have with others, they work to keep those relationships healthy and to repair any damage to them.

(p.24)

What does that mean? When a student misbehaves, we consider that he has made a mistake, and we give him a chance to correct his error. Instead of asking which rule has been broken and what are the expected consequences, we ask who has been harmed. If no one has been harmed, there is no problem. If someone has been harmed, we have an offender and a victim. The victim must be allowed to express himself, explaining to the offender what he felt, and the offender must be given a chance to show remorse and make amends.

The principle idea behind restorative practices is that everyone makes mistakes, but mistakes are opportunities to learn. If students learn to understand and control their emotions, to relate to others and to communicate their needs while empathizing with the needs of others, they will become productive members of society. (I have often thought that learning the fundamental principles of human psychology was far more important than learning algebra.) Restorative practices give teachers a practical way to teach their students to get along together, ensuring that they will be more successful as students and later as adults. The necessary tools and strategies are clearly explained in the book with numerous examples from the authors’ experience.

Confession: As I was reading the book I wobbled from enthusiastic agreement (Yes! Of course!) to wincing at procedures that seemed too pat and cut and dry. Lists of questions to ask students who were behavior problems? Instinctively I knew that the first thing such students crave is to be treated as individuals and not as problems that can be cured with a formulaic questionnaire. There are a lot of sentence frames and checklists in the book which I found off-putting.

Yet without the almost mathematical formulas and checklists, the ideas of the book might seem too vague to stressed and harried teachers who don’t want to be told once again that deep inside every bad kid there’s a good kid who is misunderstood. The sentence frames and precise procedures are a way to help almost any teacher to find a way to communicate with difficult students. We can rephrase the sentences and questions in our own words, but the examples will point us in the right direction.

The checklists, questionnaires and sentence frames of the book are a rather mechanical means of helping teachers to be more effective. A growth mindset can be difficult to acquire. Teachers who read the book as another Classroom Management System and work their way through the routines that are described will reap benefits. Those that realize that restorative practices are much more than a system, that they are a philosophy, a life changing philosophy, will be the true winners. The book is packed with case studies that sound very familiar to me. I’ve met these kids before, in my classes, and so have you. I only wish I had read this book before, that in my dealings with them I had had more than my gut instinct to go by.

Schools that have applied these practices have been able to drastically reduce the number of expulsions and increase graduation rates. The authors are practicing teachers and administrators. I encourage all teachers to read the book and adopt restorative practices with their students. All young people make mistakes as they grow into adults. These techniques and strategies can help them grow into valuable members of the community.

Better than Carrots or Sticks can be purchased at http://www.ascd.org/Publications/Books/Overview/Better-Than-Carrots-or-Sticks.aspx or from Amazon.

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