Using restorative practices to help students make better choices

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Catholic school students hold hands in prayer in this file photo. This fall, the Academy of St. Benedict the African will start using restorative practices in all grades, beginning in preschool. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

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Elementary-age students at the Academy of St. Benedict the African, 6020 S. Laflin St., will see some changes in the way the school encourages good choices and the way it handles bad choices this year.

The school plans to start using restorative practices in all grades, starting in preschool. It has used restorative practices in the junior high grades for the past two years, said assistant principal Jennifer Farrand.

“We’ve seen a great change in the junior high,” Farrand said. “We’ve especially cut down on the number of suspensions.”

The idea is to build a culture of community within each classroom and within the school as a whole. Students who see themselves as valued members of the community generally want to contribute in positive ways, Farrand said.

That starts with “proactive circles,” in which students and teachers come together each morning. Students don’t have to talk in the morning circles, but they have an opportunity to share with their classes if they want to.

Often, it takes time for students to feel comfortable, but after a while, they start to open up with their classmates, Farrand said, forging solid connections within the school community.

When students do misbehave, instead of having a punishment handed down by a teacher or administrator, they will participate in a restorative justice circle with the person or people their behavior hurt as well as other adults and possibly students. The student who caused the harm will have a chance to talk about what happened and why, and the person who was harmed can share how the incident affected them.

Then, the whole circle comes up with consequences aimed at repairing the harm that was done.

“It’s a way to give the students dignity,” Farrand said.

For example, Farrand said, in a situation where some students were being intentionally messy in the lunchroom, the circle included those students and the staff who cleaned the lunchroom. After talking about what happened, the students were asked to help clean up after lunch every day for a week.

“That was a consequence that was directly related to the behavior, and it didn’t take them out of class,” she said. “We want students to be in class and learning.”

While circles with young students might involve fewer people and simpler language, Farrand said even preschoolers understand the ideas involved.

“With them, we can talk about who did you hurt? How can you help them feel better?” Farrand said. “Our goal is not to manage the kids. Our goal is to teach the kids to manage themselves.”

To get ready, all school staff are reading and discussing “Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create a Culture of Empathy and Responsibility Using Restorative Justice” by Nathan Maynard and Brad Weinstein. The school also is working with Umoja Student Development and the Big Shoulders Fund, which is piloting a social and emotional learning curriculum at St. Benedict the African School and Visitation School, 900 W. Garfield Blvd.

The organization also has worked on restorative practices in partnership with the Catholic Lawyers Guild at Visitation and Leo High School, 7901 S. Sangamon St.

Helping children learn strategies to manage their emotions and relationships is part of the tradition of Catholic schools educating the whole child, said Rebecca Ryan, senior director for academic programs and external affairs at Big Shoulders.

“Now we have better tools to use,” Ryan said, noting that social media and the pace of change have increased the challenges for children. At the same time, many of the students at St. Benedict the African live in communities that have been affected by violence, and some may be victims of violence or have witnessed it.

The pilot includes a published curriculum for students to use, pre- and post-curriculum assessments and a database of behavior issues, so staff can figure out if there is a pattern of when and under what circumstances problems occur.

“A lot of our students are dealing with very emotional issues, which gets in the way of learning,” Ryan said. “We want to teach them how to manage those emotions so they can learn what they need to, and at the same time, we can reduce adverse behaviors. It really is a preventative measure, and very much in the tradition of Catholic education.”


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