This is technically my fifth year as a building principal. I feel grateful every day for the experiences that continue to teach me the effective practices of a learning leader. By far the most important understandings I am beginning to develop and implement are the restorative practices needed for students to truly be stewards of their own behavior.
Dominque Smith, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey have outlined a clear positive approach to creating a respectful learning environment in their book Better Than Carrots and Sticks, Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management. They outline two critical components of an effective learning environment, interpersonal skills to maintain healthy relationships, and high quality instruction for each student (p. 2).
Focusing how the student has violated school rules and is now answerable for punishment has often been the traditional approach to discipline. A restorative approach focuses on the people and relationships that have been violated. Students are accountable for their actions in a more reflective way. Trained staff now approaches the offender with strategic questioning strategies to support their understanding the effects their actions had on others and how they can begin to repair any harm that has been done to their victims. Opportunities are given to the offenders to express their remorse and begin to make amends. "We believe that students should have a chance to learn from their mistakes and to restore any damaged relationships with others" (p. 3).
The big ah-ha for me was learning how does this Restorative Justice approach (RJ) work with our already successful School-Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS) system. What I learned is RJ practices and SWPBIS protocols are not "mutually exclusive initiatives" but complimentary. Our PBIS team collects data and analyzes student behaviors to identify the stuck points that trigger problematic actions. This data provides discussion topics for the whole class to problem solve in weekly community justice circles. Students and their teachers examine these problematic behaviors. Together they problem solve on how they can build a classroom culture of care and accountability where they can keep things right without harming others.
The RJ approach supports the SWPBIS practices through ownership. Students are brought into the conversation and given a voice in the problem solving process. "Restorative practices represent a positive step forward in helping all students learn to resolve disagreements, take ownership of their behavior, and engage in acts of empathy and forgiveness" (p. 19). We have merged the SWPBIS and RJ and established SWPRD School Wide Positive Restorative Discipline practices to work towards a positive learning outcome for each of our students.
Bottom line—we are working WITH our students to create and build a positive school climate by problem solving together behavioral issues that bring and cause harm to others. Each staff member carries with them a list of questions we ask students as conflicts occur. The purpose of these questions is to support student ownerships of the choices they make that can negatively impact others. Not to problem solve FOR them, but WITH them.
It is without a doubt the most impactful practice for me to date on how to create a positive learning environment WITH our students. They become responsible for the actions that have hurt or harmed others. “Rather than focus on punishment and isolation from the community, restorative justices focuses on meaningful accountability, which includes actively engaging in understanding what harms have been done, how to repair those harms, and identifying supports needed to make things right” (Sprague, J., 2012).