A Middle School Teacher's 'Restorative Approach' To Student Discipline
The recent incident in South Carolina, in which a resource officer grabbed and flung a student out of her chair after she refused to handover her cellphone, sent shock waves throughout the country and also sparked conversations about how best to discipline students.
A growing number of schools are getting rid of zero-tolerance policies, moving away from suspensions and implementing programs of community building and “ restorative” practices for classroom management.
Karen Junker is a sixth grade math teacher at Davidson Middle School in San Rafael, California. She talks with Here & Now’s Robin Young about how her school cut the suspension rate and how she might approach difficult behavioral situations using a restorative approach and conflict deescalation techniques.
What is restorative discipline?
“I would like us to take a look at developmental stages. Students will react, especially when they’re scared or afraid, and especially when they come from backgrounds where they already come to school with trauma or shame or emotional injuries, it makes perfect sense to me that a student would occasionally fight, flee or freeze in the presence of demanding authority. We train teachers to recognize shame responses, and to recognize trauma responses, and rather than use traditional discipline measures with those instances to actually do some investigation or exploration as to what’s going on for the child. I guess what we do is really just recognize that kids react, and that as authority figures we should be trained to respond, rather than reacting to those reactions.”
On the flaws of shame-based discipline for children and teens
“What we’re finding is one of the least productive things we do when kids are upset is that we use force or exclusionary discipline – suspend them, send them away from the school, or even just out into the hall or an in-school suspension. There are two kinds of shame. There’s stigmatizing shame where we teach kids they’re bad and wrong, and some kids internalize that. And there’s re-integrative shame, where we use the power of the community, the power of peer pressure, the power of the fact that people are wired to care what people think about them. So we use re-integrative shame here at Davidson Middle School, to reduce suspensions, reduce disciplinary actions, and to deescalate conflicts.”
What is re-integrative shame?
“It’s when the student learns that the community cares about them, and when the child cares the community cares, they will often do the right thing. When we build community with students, we just don’t have as many discipline problems, and then when things do go wrong there’s already a relationship that can be repaired. At our school, every Thursday for 20 minutes all students and all staff are in community building circles together, talking about things that matter to them and are important to them. So when things go wrong and kids break their relationships or they don’t follow the rules or they are defiant, then there are already relationships built that can be restored.
“We have a fabulously productive suspension diversion program where we use student panels, so instead of the offending student having a conversation with all the grownups about it only, the student has a conversation with their classmates about what’s going on also. They tell the truth about the impact on the disruptive behavior – often students don’t even understand how their actions affect other people, it’s not because they’re bad it’s just because developmentally they actually don’t understand. So when they have an opportunity to hear how their actions affect other people they will often change their behavior.”
What about the instance of the student who wouldn’t give up her phone?
“For that, I probably wouldn’t have called the front office, I probably would have had the student go next door to one of my colleagues rooms and write a reflection. We have these restorative reflection forms. It’s a form that has the restorative questions on it: what happened, what are you thinking about, if you had a second chance what would you do differently, what do we need to know about your day that might make a difference in this instance?”
Is calling in a resource officer ever appropriate?
“When there’s a threat to anyone’s safety or security, then there is time for that. There’s time for detention, there’s time for suspension. All of that has its place, the problem is it’s so overused, and it doesn’t recognize the developmental stage that our students are in – and the fact that some of them come from very traumatizing families and life situations where they are on edge, their cortisol levels are up all the time and it’s not frankly surprising that they fight.”
- Karen Junker, math teacher at Davidson Middle School in San Rafael, California. She’s also a restorative practices consultant and trainer certified by the International Institute for Restorative Practices.
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