Blog Writer: Cavell Smith-Mason
Blog Editor: Mark Barry
Educating children is a magnificent challenge that is tremendously rewarding, gratifying and profitable. Our society is aware of the challenges in our schools: student misconduct, bullying and absenteeism. These challenges are met with behavior policies that emphasize a one size fits all approach to discipline. As Evans and Lester (2013) explain, behavior policies focus on violation of the institution, rather than “violation against people and relationships” (p.57). This results in a lack of emphasis on the importance of the social and emotional well-being of our students, the future of our society, which may explain why these approaches have limited success. Restorative justice in education may very well be a lifeline for our education system; an opportunity to repair harm created by policies that emphasize misbehavior and punishment.
Reflecting on these issues brought back an analogy I heard recently that resonated with me; imagine a beautiful flower being planted in a garden with the expectation that it would grow and flourish and share its beauty by spreading its seeds. The flower does not grow, but instead wilts and turns brown. Should we blame the flower? Or should we examine the quality of the soil the flower was planted in, and the amount of water and sunlight it has been receiving? Our students are depending on us, as educators and as a community, to step up and help them flourish and reach their potential. We cannot ignore the needs of our students and expect them to learn.
This idea is supported by Evans and Lester (2013) in their statement “One of the underlying assumptions of RJ is that behaviors are precipitated by unmet needs”...”When these needs are not met, students may go to great extremes to meet those needs” (p.58). Students speak to us every day, whether it is through unexpected behavior, or through the absence of behavior. In fact, The Office of the Child and Youth Advocate (2019) in Newfoundland and Labrador state that “NLESD officials are concerned about the level of absenteeism occurring throughout the province and are especially aware of the age creep of absenteeism” (p.18).
In their recent Chronic Absenteeism report
government researchers studied student perspectives on why they feel they miss so much school. The Office of the Child and Youth Advocate (2019) cited factors such as poor peer relationships, lack of connection to people at school, poor school climate, bullying and a failure to help students feel they belong (p.8). This is a clear message that we need to be allowing our students to have a voice. The problem may be that we are not listening to what they are telling us. Evans and Lester (2013) inform us that “RJ emphasizes mutual respect, the use of dialogue to ensure fair processes, a balance between structure and support, and a commitment to building relationships rather than strictly focusing on misbehavior (p.57).
There is no doubt that student misconduct needs to be addressed, but we are so busy trying to enforce control over student’s behavior, that we are not taking the time to hear the students, and to listen to what they are telling us. In fact, Evans and Lester (2013) have identified one of the seven principles of restorative justice as addressing power imbalances.
They say that “many dominant models of school discipline focus primarily on the behaviors of the students, failing to consider the possible harm caused by the institutional practices imposed on students” (p.60). Behind student actions, are stories that need to be shared in a safe, mutually respectful environment. Perhaps it is time to change how we view misbehavior and consider a different approach. In contrast to our traditional response to misbehavior “Restorative justice seeks an understanding of what has occurred, the needs of those affected - including students, teachers, parents and anyone else involved in the conflict - and ways to address the harm that was done” (Morrison & Vaandering, 2012).
In our schools, harm has resulted from an attempt to impose control over our students, manage their behavior through behavior management plans and employ punitive behavior policies. Perhaps it is time to teach with our students, rather than to them. A need for restorative practices in our school to address this harm has not yet been widely acknowledged. In fact, in their report on Chronic Absenteeism, The Office of the Child and Youth Advocate (2019) stated in their executive summary that “Chronic absenteeism is a quiet problem and it makes children disappear from school” (p.v). Chronic absenteeism does not “make” children disappear; the school as an institution is a factor in chronic absenteeism, and is one of the contributors to the causes of student absenteeism. That is not to undermine the significance of other factors of absenteeism identified by The office of the Child and Youth Advocate (2019) including educational neglect, child neglect, poverty and mental illness, to name a few. As an educational institution, we cannot expect to address all factors of student absenteeism, but we can certainly address student’s need for community, compassion, respect, support, fair process and a sense of belonging. We can educate teachers about restorative practices and create school policies and principles around these practices. We can create a school community that students want to be a part of. If we can provide a safe, respectful space during their time at school, that is a gift that should not be undervalued.
Unfortunately, despite the clear message made by students in the Absenteeism Report prepared by The Office of the Child and Youth Advocate (2019) - that students want to feel connected to people at their school, they want to build relationships with their peers and teachers, they want teachers who are supportive, caring and will accommodate their needs, and they want to feel a sense of belonging - this message has not been reflected in the recommendations made by this report. In fact, each of the four recommendations made in this report focus on a collaborative effort between multiple agencies including the Department of Education, Early Childhood Development, Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development, and the Department of Health and Community Services (The office of the Child and Youth Advocate, 2019).
In education, there is no doubt that collaboration is such an important practice, and this practice is needed to address the challenges in our schools. It is also clear that we need policies developed by these stakeholders that address the challenges that have been identified. However, none of the recommendations made in the Chronic Absenteeism report prepared by The Office of the Child and Youth Advocate (2019) address a change towards the issue of punitive behavior policies in schools. Such large scale collaboration among various community and education departments will likely have little impact on the nature of school communities and relationship building within the school.
As educators, it is no wonder we feel such defeat when bounded by policies that do not support current needs in our schools. In fact, we ourselves feel controlled by greater powers, those with higher pay grades and a mandate that does not address what we as teachers experience during our instructional day. As Noguera (1997) has pointed out “Acting under mandates issued by authorities who were almost always far removed from the direct management of schools, superintendents and principals employed a variety of strategies to control the students and teachers under their charge” (p.5). As professionals in our school communities, we need to come together and make changes to how we teach, interact with, and address misconduct in our students.
Educating children is a privilege and an honor, but we must not forget that education involves more than literacy, numeracy, and other various academic areas. There is a vast need for social and emotional education, as well as a learning environment that recognizes the need for an approach to discipline that values respect for people and relationships, as well as open communication and fair process. It is unfair to say that none of us are practicing any restorative principles in our schools. Evans and Lester point out that “It is important to build on what is already occurring in a school rather than assuming that nothing restorative already exists” (p.62). It is clear that a collaborative approach between the school and home is important. If we all begin where we are and educate each other through practice, perhaps together we can shift the paradigm towards a more restorative education environment.
Evans, K.R., Lester, J.N. (2013) Restorative justice in education: What we know so far. Middle School Journal, May 2013, 57-63.
Morrison, B. E., & Vaandering, D. (2012). Restorative justice: Pedagogy, praxis, and discipline. Journal of School Violence, 11, 138-155.
Noguera, P. (Jan. 12, 1997). Preventing Violence in Schools Through the Production of Docile Bodies. Retrieved from http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/pedro31.html
The Office of the Child and Youth Advocate (Jan. 2019). Chronic Absenteeism: When Children Disappear. Retrieved from https://www.childandyouthadvocate.nf.ca/pdfs/ChronicAbsenteeismJan2019.pdf