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Restorative Justice with 4th Graders – Part 3

Restorative Justice with 4th Graders – Part 3

I have discussed restorative justice here before. In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I described why we are using social circles (the term we use to refer to peace circles) and provided a brief glimpse into the curricula I use. Now that we are ending the year, I will tell you about watching these 4th graders grow and take ownership of their social circles and restorative justice.

I have been so thrilled to see them make social circles process their own. Each Wednesday afternoon, students know that they will have the chance to bring up issues that bother them and resolve them in a constructive, positive manner.

All social circles begin the same way. Students sit in a literal circle to start each session, allowing all of them to see each other equally. Then they get a chance to share how they are feeling, and finally there is a chance to address issues with peers. The method for conflict resolution in the social circle is fairly simple. We call it a “fishbowl.”

The fishbowl required a lot of practice at first, but now each fourth grade classroom has developed a solid routine. A student asks to bring a peer into the center of the circle, and the teacher joins them. The curriculum calls for the teacher to ask the students restorative questions in order for the students to fully describe the harm done, while also guiding students toward a solution. These questions include things like “From your perspective, what happened?” and “Who was harmed in this situation?” and “What would you like to happen next?”

Restorative questions are helpful for a few reasons. The same questions are asked of both students involved in the conflict, which makes the process feel fair and even. They are a reliable way to make sure that students are reflecting on their experience, while also putting the focus on the harmed party. They also end with focusing on finding a clear solution. 

I have also seen some classes successfully use “I feel” statements in order to get the same message across and resolve conflicts. An example might be: “I feel upset when you blurt out during math class. Would you please try to raise your hand if you would like to speak?” The result ends up being very similar to using restorative questions, but it takes less time.

Since October, when we very first started discussing social circles, I have seen fourth graders learn to use the fishbowl process independently. They bring in their peers and have honest talks about issues great and small, and teachers at this point barely need to guide them. Initially, I led the process entirely, and then was able to turn the reigns over to our teachers. Now they have handed over social circles to our students in a way I wasn’t sure was possible. It’s very exciting to watch students so young dive into conflict resolution so honestly.

Of course, not everything about social circles is perfect. I have a student on my caseload who is a “frequent flier” in social circles. Her peers regularly pull her into the fishbowl and want to express frustration or anger with something she has done. This experience can be very demoralizing for my student. During one Wednesday afternoon social circle, I was concerned that she would shut down if she was brought into the circle again. When another student raised her hand to bring this student into the fishbowl, she quickly added “don’t worry – it’s a good thing.”

The teacher in this classroom had very cleverly added celebrations to the mix of the social circle. Students can bring in their peers to tell them the positive, funny or exciting things they feel as well as the difficult things. My student’s peer said to her, “I felt happy when you worked with me during math because it was fun. Would you please work with me again?” This allowed my student (and many others) to breath a sigh of relief. Social circles can be stressful and difficult. Adding some positivity to the experience can remind students and teachers alike that there a good things happening the classroom community. It can also provide a much needed pick-me-up to students, like mine, who are frequent fliers.

I have learned a lot over the year about both restorative justice and how to get it to stick with children and adults alike. My major takeaways from the experience of implementing social circles are as follows:

  • Teacher buy-in is where you need to start. I didn’t have to worry about this because my 4th grade team approached me with this idea. Other grade levels and teachers are  wary and dismissive of some restorative justice ideas and tools. They seem very invested in keeping punitive justice practices. If you can’t get the teachers to accept restorative justice, then you will never be able to use it with the students. As usual, start with teachers.
  • If it works, social circles and restorative justice can be contagious. Despite some detractors, social circles caught on in other grade levels and classes once we saw some real success in the 4th grade. Teachers talk, share ideas and will let each other know if they believe what you implement makes a difference.
  • Students of any age can use a variety of restorative justice tools. Social circles are now in use in my building starting as young as second grade. Even some of my first grade teacher colleagues have used this format to have serious discussions with their classes. As long as the material is tailored to their comprehension level, students can really use this stuff.
  • There are no hard and fast rules about how to do this. Restorative justice in schools is an emerging practice, and there are as many models as there are practitioners. Look far and wide to find what you can, and just do what feels right and works.

In the end, being restorative is about providing our students with the tools we wish all the adults in our lives had: self-awareness, emotional literacy, empathy and well-developed communication skills. Who wouldn’t want our kids to grow up into those kind of adults? When we teach our students to think restoratively, we build a more peaceful tomorrow.

Any questions, comments, or thoughts? Please feel free to sound off below, or give me a shout.

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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