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Restorative Justice with 4th Graders – Part 1

Restorative Justice with 4th Graders – Part 1

Really powerful change can come from the ground up in education. The emergence of restorative justice programs in schools across Illinois is, in part, a story of excellent grassroots organizing. New laws (specifically SB 100) have started to force schools to take restorative practices seriously and incorporate restorative justice into the fabric of our discipline.

The change is welcome and necessary. Restorative justice practices are an excellent way to help students, teachers and staff frame their thinking regarding student behavior and discipline.

If you have not yet heard a quality explanation of restorative justice, please watch this video of a Chicago Public School teacher. She explains beautifully the transformation that occurs when schools and their students experience restorative justice for the first time.

Traditional (or “punitive”) forms of discipline are what many of us first think of when we consider possible punishments in schools. Suspensions, expulsions and detentions are examples of quick-fix solutions we often use in punitive justice. We find the wrong-doer and attempt to make them feel sorry for what they have done. Using punitive justice means students don’t get to discuss what’s bothering them or hear out the student they harmed. In fact, punitive justice rarely involves the student who was harmed at all. Many students become “frequent fliers,” consistently acting out the same behaviors because any underlying issues go unaddressed. Thus, punitive discipline is often a band-aid method of resolving an issue.

Restorative Justice, on the other hand, seeks to “make things right” between the wrong-doer and the harmed parties. The goal is to restore the relationship between two (or more) harmed students, rather than simply punishing the wrong-doer. It gives students a chance to empathize, communicate and heal with each other and with their teachers. Restorative justice draws students in, rather than pushing them out of the classroom or school. And isn’t that really what we want?

Two principals, Steve Scarfe and Jeffery Prickett, gave a seminar on restorative justice to my district on our first day of inservice this year. They are currently touring suburban Illinois, giving districts the tools they need to implement restorative justice practices. They provided excellent data regarding the impact of restorative justice on discipline and school climate. The presentation also really hit home the varied ways we can start implementing right away. In fact, it’s where I got the idea for behavior agreements. If you’re in need of restorative justice training, look them up.

The seminar inspired my colleagues and I to act. I took a curriculum from that seminar for implementing “peace circles,” and adapted it to meet the needs of our fourth grade team.  Peace circles (we call them Social Circles here) are a way for students to address and solve issues they are seeing in the classroom. The students and teacher sit in a circle and have guided conversations to resolve conflicts.

The work of circles begins with establishing a culture of trust. Students start by talking through how they will behave in that setting and practicing the act of being in their circle. Expectations must be set and clear before proceeding. Students then begin modeling how they will resolve conflict with hypothetical examples. Then, after several discussions and practice sessions, students may begin using the circle as a means of conflict resolution.

My first step here has been to help students (and teachers) with a lot of verbiage. Circles require teachers and leaders to be very intentional with our students. Providing them with the language of restorative justice can empower them to start on the path towards ownership of the circles themselves.

The first week, we discussed guidelines. Guidelines, in this model, are rules for all social circles. They are fairly simple and straight forward:

  1. Listen from the heart –  Students must listen with an open mind and try to hear the actual words being said, not just how they make them feel.
  2. Speak from the heart – Students should use “I” statements, talk about their own experience and say how they really feel, while bearing in mind their classmates’ feelings.
  3. No need to rehearse – We encourage students to be active listeners, which means not “rehearsing” internally. This helps students to be present for whatever is shared.
  4. Without rushing, say just enough – Circles are meant to give all students a voice. This guideline reminds students that while we want them to share, they must remain conscious of their peers’ needs, too.

I think it is crucial to take this part seriously and really dive in with our students about the meaning of each guideline. What does it mean to listen from the heart? How can we tell if we are rehearsing or if we are saying what is truly on our minds? Starting in this place has set an appropriate tone to our social circles.

I will update regularly with my attempts to explain restorative justice to fourth graders, to engage their teachers in the process, and try to bring my school on board with restorative justice practices on the whole.  Stay tuned!

Restorative Justice with 4th Graders – Part 2

About The Author

Ruth Orme-Johnson

Ruth Orme-Johnson is a school social worker at James Giles Elementary School in Norridge, Illinois. She earned her MSW from Boston University in 2012 and a Bachelors of Education in Social Policy from Northwestern University in 2009. Prior to school social work, Ruth was in non-profit fundraising for five years.

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