Behaviour: Is there another way?

Written by: Ian Curry | Published:
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Increasingly seen as a more constructive and effective alternative to traditional behaviour management, restorative justice is gaining traction in education. Ian Curry explains how and why his school has embraced the approach

Employing restorative practice as a means to resolving conflict in schools is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative approach to behaviour management.

Research shows that used in isolation it isn’t very effective. However, where embedded as a whole-school approach supporting a school culture of strong community values, both research and our own experience confirms that it has a significant impact on behaviour, pupil and staff confidence, attendance and exclusion rates.

For several years now, I have been in charge of whole-school behaviour and a couple of years ago I was asked to be involved in a restorative conference. This was a result of a child breaking into my changing room causing some damage as well as going through my personal belongings.

Understanding criminal justice processes to follow a predictable route, I was somewhat surprised to be asked to participate in this process known as restorative justice – an approach which enables victims to meet their offender to explore and explain the real impact of the crime. Although more than willing to undertake this brand-new approach to managing negative behaviour, I was uncertain as to what the outcome of this experience would be.

Rather than an immediate culture of blame, restorative practice afforded an open discussion with the child and an opportunity to try to understand the reasons behind the crime.

When the story came out as to why the break-in occurred and what had led to it, it gave me an insight as to the reasons for it as well as allowing me to see the remorse on the child’s face.

Going into the whole process I admit that my expectations weren’t high and I really was not prepared for the feeling of relief and the release of my emotions that I experienced that day. The experience enabled me to have my say and explain the impact that the incident had on me as well as enabling me to move on and build a relationship with this child and the family.

As a result of my experience I began to research the history and background of restorative practice and discovered that this process of enabling people to communicate in a positive and effective way, in order to help prevent conflict and repair harm, was being increasingly used in a number of other settings (such as schools and hospitals) as well as the criminal justice system.
In my capacity as lead for behaviour management at Holmfirth High School, I was intrigued to see how this could be applied to our own school and I was convinced that this alternative way of thinking about discipline and behaviour would only strengthen our school community.

After undertaking a five-day intensive training course, I was able to train other members of staff, start to plan our strategy for whole-school implementation and, with the help of two colleagues, embark on Phase 1, with the implementation and use of “chats” and conferences to resolve issues. My two colleagues and I met on a weekly basis to discuss how conferences had gone and how we could establish restorative practices in the school community.

We had some significant challenges last term in terms of some staff seeing it as a “soft option”, but we persisted with the use of restorative practice with all year groups and in particular the year 7s, who had been used to this approach in their junior schools and were familiar with “circles” and the language used.

We saw a significant impact on behaviour during this time. Friendship issues were being resolved, friendships were repaired and, crucially, sustained over a period of time. It became obvious that this approach was working. Feedback from staff was that “it promotes better relationships within the classroom and creates a calmer and more positive classroom environment”.

In the September I followed up on the incidents I’d dealt with prior to the summer break and was delighted to hear that there were no further problems during the six-week holiday. Furthermore, I received feedback from two particular families thanking me for the work that we had done – it had helped the pupils and their families to move forward. This was really powerful and it cemented our belief that restorative practice really works.

At Holmfirth, our approach is seen very much as a whole-school, all-inclusive approach – from lunchtime supervisors, teaching assistants to senior leadership. Every department has a member of staff that has been trained as a “facilitator”, and all staff have been trained in the use of the restorative language and the various approaches, including checking in/out (see below), the informal chats and conferences and the more formal conferences.

Although we still have some way to go, our own staff feedback is really strong and with comments such as “convinced that restorative approaches have the power to completely change the culture of the school”, we firmly believe that this ethos of strong, respectful relationships and cohesive community has an impact on our children not only in school but also out in the wider community.

What are restorative approaches?

Restorative approaches, which can be dated back to Maori tribes, are used in the criminal justice system, particularly in America. Restorative approaches have started to be used in this country too, as a result of which schools are now adopting restorative practice to help deal with behavioural issues.

Restorative approaches focus on the harm caused rather than assigning blame and give both parties the opportunity to speak in a calm, safe environment about what has happened. It is about team-building and building pro-active, informal communities, and ultimately building strong relationships.

A process of checking in and out, dedicated time to allow questions to be posed, allows every child to have a voice, which then helps you to find out about the children and what they are feeling and thinking.

The language used is very important, with the focus being on dealing with children’s emotions – empathy being one of the key areas where a child acknowledges harm or what they have done wrong.

Restorative approaches in school are effective for behaviour management as they provide a consistent approach for dealing with issues, with all staff using the same language throughout school to deal with any issues that arise (this is known as an informal chat).

The more formal conferencing is a reactive measure to a behaviour issue and is used rather than a punitive approach so the child can recognise what they’ve done wrong and, more importantly, what they need to do to put it right, and what they need to do in the future should they find themselves in that situation again.

As well as the team-building and other skills, ultimately restorative approaches help improve attendance and reduce exclusions.

At Holmfirth, our exclusions reduced from 55 to seven. The number of removals from class also improved, as did attendance and after-school detentions decreased.

In comparison to previous years since becoming a restorative school, one senior leader remarked that he is no longer being called out for behaviour incidents.

The next step is the introduction of “peer facilitators”. This is where children start to take ownership and responsibility for their behaviour. There are peer facilitators in each year group and they have been trained in the use of restorative approaches to help them resolve conflict.

Conclusion

They say good news travels fast! In our case our success story has travelled fast and far. Last year I supported a primary school and a secondary school in Kirklees as well as entertaining a visitor from Guernsey, who will be implementing restorative practice in their school this term.

I’ll leave the final word to those who have receive the restorative justice training:

  • “I think it’s a very powerful tool that can be incredibly flexible.”
  • “Restorative practice helps manage behaviour and learning on a daily basis and its impact is immediate and long lasting.”
  • “Life-changing for the school.”
  • “It makes for a happier, calmer and safer school.”
  • “The skills and training feed out throughout the school and community and it is a really calmer place to be.”
  • Ian Curry is assistant headteacher at Holmfirth High School and a specialist leader of education within the West Yorkshire Teaching Alliance.


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