Ask most children what will happen if they break the rules, and you’re likely to get an answer along the lines of, “I’ll get in trouble.” But for educators like Pete Mody, the question is, “Will that really help?”
Mody, who is assistant principal at South Glens Falls High School, is one of many educators throughout the region who has been involved in bringing restorative justice programs to local schools.
Restorative justice is a process by which participants are asked to consider their actions and take steps to resolve issues.
“The idea is, if you make a mess, you clean it up,” Mody explained.
Rather than just punishing the offender, restorative justice focuses on righting wrongs — which can take a lot of different forms.
At South Glens Falls, Mody says, two students who get into a scuffle in the hallway might be encouraged to talk it over, resulting in an apology. For more serious transgressions, the process might involve family members, coaches, teachers or others who were affected by the student’s actions.
At its core, the process aims to repair relationships and get to the core of why a problem happened in the first place.
“Often what I’ve said is, if punishment really worked for every kid, we wouldn’t see the same kids doing the same thing over and over again,” pointed out Timothy Dawkins, assistant superintendent for curriculum & instruction at South Glens Falls.
Both Dawkins and Mody can attest to the power of restorative justice in the classroom.
“It gives an opportunity for a student to see the whole scope of their actions, and repair all that damage,” Mody said. “Almost always, when it’s done, that student has stronger relationships with almost everyone who was involved.”
But the tactics of restorative justice can be just as powerful outside of school. Here are a few strategies parents can use to introduce some of the concepts of restorative justice at home:
Hold regular family meetings
In schools, restorative justice can’t begin until teachers and administrators get to know their students and begin to earn their trust. At home, Dawkins suggests having regular family “meetings” so that parents and children can check in with each other and be proactive about identifying problems or issues before they get out of control.
“If you do that work ahead of time to understand each other, it’s easier to tackle these things when they come along,” Dawkins pointed out.
Tell a different story
Particularly at a young age, children often struggle to understand their own actions. A child who knows he shouldn’t have hit his sister may conclude that he is a bad person — or, he may rationalize his actions by concluding that his sister deserved to be hit.
Restorative justice, Mody said, gives children (and parents) a third option: recognizing that one single choice or behavior doesn’t have to define who a child truly is.
“Sometimes you’re just devastated that a child would make that choice, and you’re focused on the negative,” Mody said. “Restorative justice gives that child a mechanism to do something positive with it — to fix it and look back and say to themselves, ‘I was willing to put in the time to make that right, and that’s who I really am.’”
Hit the pause button
Restorative justice is a thoughtful process, not a snap judgment or a decision made in the heat of the moment — and to make that possible, Dawkins said, both parents and children may need a cooling-off period.
“Parents might need to say, ‘I’m going to send you to your room and then we’re going to talk this over,’” Dawkins explained. “You can take stock and be more measured in your response, instead of just reacting emotionally to your child’s behavior.”
Ask the right questions
When both parent and child are ready to talk, each person should have the chance to say their piece. Mody suggests the following five questions as a good starting point for the restorative process:
- What happened?
- What were you thinking/feeling at the time?
- What have you thought about since it happened?
- Who has been affected?
- What do you think needs to be done to make it right?
It might not be necessary to ask all of these questions every time. “The essence of it is finding out what it was like for each person, and finding out what they need,” Mody said.
If there’s a conflict between two children, for example, one child might want an apology or a hug; another might want to make an agreement about what they will do going forward.
“You’re creating a social contract,” Mody said. “The complexity of the language might change, depending on the child’s age, but the core idea is going to be the same.”
For Dawkins, Mody and others who have embraced restorative justice, the benefits are palpable and long-lasting — not just for the individual students who participate, but, Dawkins hopes, for society as a whole.
“We want to think about creating socially aware, socially responsible human beings,” Dawkins said. “And a big part of that is how we deal with conflict.”
The lessons of restorative justice, Mody argues, can help young people take responsibility for their own actions.
“If I suspend a student, that student can shrug it off and say, ‘The school’s being a jerk,’” Mody said. “He doesn’t have to confront what he’s done. Conversation, discussion and repair are a more permanent, lasting and effective solution to whatever problem that young person may be having.”
To learn more about restorative justice, visit restorativejustice.org.
Emily Popek is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Otsego County with her husband and their daughter.