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Restorative Justice with 4th Graders – part 2

Restorative Justice with 4th Graders – part 2

So I’ve already talked about restorative justice and how it’s changing behavior management and discipline in schools. Now I will give an update on what I am working on with the fourth grade in the classroom. Let’s talk peace circles or, as we refer to them here, social circles.

Social circles have started off with the fourth grade, and so far so good! It is amazing what students are willing and able to absorb if given the chance. Looking back just eight short weeks, we were still learning new skills and building some trust. It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come.

The general aim of social circles is to provide students with a space to mediate conflict, while the rest of their class looks on and helps to hold them accountable. Social circles also make it clear that the harmed person (“victim”) and the perpetrator are equally important to solving conflict. Too often, we provide the students who make bad choices (our “frequent fliers”) with more attention than the students their behavior harms. Social circles support and empower harmed students, while helping perpetrators make it right.

But let’s start way back in October. I worked for three weeks to establish trust and positive culture in social circles with my fourth graders. I was worried, however, about the upcoming lesson, which explained the difference between punitive and restorative justice. This part of Tier 1 interventions always make me nervous because I’m not nearly as familiar with the academic skills of my students as a classroom teacher. I often find myself thinking (read:worrying) things like: is this a good word choice? Will the students know what I mean if I use this phrase? Is this too much time on this concept? Not enough? Eeeeep!

I took a deep breath and decided to stick to my plan. The curriculum I use breaks down terms and concepts well, and even provides the kids with a handy table:

We used a story to explain the difference between Punitive and Restorative. The story featured a student who  damaged his school and chose a peace circle to resolve the conflict over expulsion. After the story, we reviewed the table above. I held my breath asking the kids if they thought peace circles were punitive or restorative.

But they got it. And they even started making connections with the larger systems of justice they observe. The students asked if kids can get arrested, and why adults would ever use punitive justice with kids. It was wonderful to get the chance to see this stuff start to sink in.

Other concepts that kids have been learning are all useful for building skills in conflict resolution: speak using “I” messages, listen closely while trying to empathize, upholding confidentiality outside of the circle and so on. I have been rolling out these ideas week by week. Each time we meet I re-enforce the expectations of our social circle in hopes that the students will start to own it. By about week five, the students were itching to start talking out some of their concerns.

Perhaps it was just the students’ impatience, but the next few weeks felt very slow going. We had just started to get to the real meat of our social circles. In early November, I started to give the kids a chance to mediate conflicts in real time. I will update with more on that soon!

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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