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4 steps Maine schools can take to rethink school discipline

We know that suspensions and expulsions don’t work. But given the massive pressures placed on schools today, it’s not surprising that many districts are wary of efforts to overhaul student discipline systems in favor of less punitive approaches.

Restorative practices, a method that focuses on repairing harm done to relationships, is one of the main alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. While research is still in its infancy, studies have found that restorative practices can help reduce suspensions, raise graduation rates and improve a school’s climate. That’s because unlike traditional punitive responses that often exacerbate the underlying issues, restorative approaches actually change student behavior.

Schools often imagine that restorative practices are cumbersome, requiring a great deal of time, logistical oversight and professional development. But in truth the approach can be implemented on any scale — one teacher, one classroom, one team or grade level at a time — and can work within existing structures and schedules.

The most important component is a change in mindset.

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When we begin to think in terms of educational rather than punitive responses to problematic behaviors and when we recognize that chronic misbehavior is a symptom of an underlying issue that can be addressed and remediated, positive change happens. I saw amazing success stories in my 12 years as principal of The Real School in Falmouth, where restorative approaches have been in place since 2003.

My former colleagues at the Real School and I identified four phases of the restorative process that any educator, regardless of context or support, can begin to adopt:

1. Accountability. This phase helps students recognizes and take responsibility for their behavior. It can take the form of a conversation or written reflection and can take place in the classroom or after school. This step encourages students to avoid blaming their behavior on circumstances or other people.

2. Acknowledgement of impact. After taking personal responsibility for words and actions, students examine how their action has damaged other people or their learning environment. Through a one-on-one conversation, a written reflection, a mediation between two students or a larger group session, when the behavior impacts the whole community, educators ask the misbehaving student to view the situation from the perspective of those affected.

3. Restoration. Unlike traditional, punitive discipline, restorative activities repair the harm that was done. They can be quite creative. Recently, for example, a student who had an angry outburst in class researched the neuroscience of emotional regulation and taught his peers self-calming strategies. This restoration step is where the learning happens. It gives students a chance to practice problem solving and better understand their individual capacities to fix rather than run from their mistakes.

4. Preventative Plan. In this phase, students identify the underlying cause of their problematic behavior. This can happen in a lot of different ways: through a daily check-in with a trusted adult, a communication plan between the home and school or a commitment to regular substance abuse counselling, for example. Whatever form it takes, in this phase students identify internal strategies and external supports that can help them avoid causing similar harm in the future.

Challenging behavior is almost always a form of communication that, if we’re attuned to it, helps us recognize and address underlying problems and unmet needs. A “restorative mindset” that views behavior as a natural developmental phenomenon rather than a character flaw may be the most effective and least cumbersome way to change harmful behavior and improve school culture.

Pender Makin is the assistant superintendent of the Brunswick School Department.


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