How to Stop Students from Committing Severe Incidents Before They Happen – Restorative Justice

In this Mini-Series, we’ll take you through three different studies about social and emotional learning. Each case will provide valuable insight into the importance of assessing and bolstering social and emotional skills in children of all ages. In the second of our 3-part series, we invited a colleague and expert in restorative practices to provide some insight on how restorative justice can serve as a powerful social and emotional learning tool. Restorative justice involves three Tiers of implementation: Tier 1, Community and Relationship Building; Tier 2, Intervention and Restorative Processes; and Tier 3, Supported Individualized Re-Entry. Tier 1 is an area that focuses heavily on building up the community and creating a feeling of “togetherness” – the most important step a program can take in beginning their social and emotional learning implementation.  Let’s learn more about the rest of the steps of Restorative Practice from Yaniyah Pearson, Director of Youth and Community Development at Ramapo for Children.

Serious incidents in schools don’t happen out of nowhere. Often these incidents occur when a situation has escalated and behavioral cues have been missed by the adults in the school community. For example, a student enters the class with an obvious angry expression on her face—perhaps because of a conflict at lunch or an issue at home. The teacher fails to greet the student, fails to take a moment to check in with the student and inquire without judgment if the student is upset and therefore, the student’s feelings go unaddressed. Later in class, the student engages in a side conversation and the teacher confronts her publicly.  The student reacts, cursing at the teacher and insisting that the teacher is picking on her. The teacher reacts in turn, and tells the student she is being disrespectful and needs to leave the class. The student angrily kicks a chair, which hits another student, who jumps up and threatens the angry student.  Suddenly, the situation escalates into a potential physical altercation. Could restorative practices have prevented this serious incident? Yes, absolutely. Restorative practices are intentional responses to youth and adult behaviors that seek to identify impact and repair the relationships harmed by such behaviors.  Restorative practices in schools involve a whole-school approach based on three tiers: 1) community and relationship building, 2) responding to harm and resolving conflict and 3) successful re-entry or reintegration. Tier One—community  building—is devoted to establishing strong relationships between staff and students and among students.  Schools support and enable this community building through a variety of methods such as creating advisory groups or conducting respect campaigns.  Advisory groups use a “circle” process, in which students and adults use a “talking object” to focus on the speaker, practice active listening, establish group values or norms and discuss issues most relevant to their lives.  Respect campaigns involve all of the school community’s stakeholders in identifying specific “respectful” behaviors. School communities convene town halls and agree on all guidelines to be followed by all members of the community. When the guidelines are broken,  if a harmful behavior has occurred or if conflict emerges, Tier Two processes are employed. Tier Two— responding to harm and resolving conflict —is devoted to helping all community members view infractions as mistakes and provides opportunities to restore relationships when conflicts occur.  In support of Tier Two, students and teachers participate in restorative conferences and/or mediations where they share perspectives, reflect on mistakes and identify next steps.  Tier Two interventions also recognize that infractions don’t occur in a vacuum—the community is impacted by offenses to any of its members. By contrast, when infractions are “punished,” the “victim” is often further neglected, the harm never fully addressed or repaired, and the “offender” often fails to be held accountable for the direct or indirect impact of the offense.  When students who commit serious infractions are removed from their community, they often return without making restitution or amends to the injured parties. This is a huge missed opportunity for students to reflect, to learn from their mistakes and to mature. The offensive behavior can be repeated. In restorative communities, a returning member is welcomed back by a Tier Three “reentry circle” in which concerned community members help the returning member recognize their strengths and develop a social-emotional plan for future success. These types of circles have been successful in decreasing repeated offenses. However, it is important to mention that serious infractions are often very hurtful, so every measure to support those hurt by the infraction must be taken.  By focusing on harm and relationships rather than rules and infractions, restorative approaches provide additional supports for all community members. Each of the three Tiers is essential to implementing restorative practices in schools. Too often, restorative practice initiatives fail because they are employed as an alternative to punitive disciplinary responses without the establishment of a strong school community. This approach takes time and overall buy-in on the part of the staff, students, and parents. Ramapo for Children, provides capacity building by working with school partners to devise a strategic plan that identifies core values and community expectations, and incorporates structures that align with the goals of each Tier. Specifically, the Ramapo coach conducts workshops, models restorative conferences and mediations, and helps to design school-wide community building events.

Many of the competencies measured by the DESSA can be directly tied to Tier 1, which is why we have dedicated an entire Foundational Practices area within the DESSA System. We encourage you to download “The Key Jar”, one of our Relationship Building activities, to use with your students to help create warm, supportive and authentically caring relationships. For more information on restorative justice training and capacity building, visit the Ramapo for Children website.

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