Juvenile Justice and Restorative Conferencing

On The Law Matters with Municipal Judge David Bazar and Deb Morais, Julia discusses YRP’s Restorative Conferencing program in Rhode Island schools, and how this approach could bring new resources to the State’s juvenile justice system. We all agree that the focus of the justice system should be on “rehabilitation”, especially for young offenders. But that means digging into the family and community context of anti-social behavior – something our current system isn’t equipped to do.

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Chronically Misbehaving Kids Suffer Mental and Social Disease

Published by EducationNews.org — Sometimes these students get a chance to  shake off the ‘bad kid’ self-image.  Too often not.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Naturally, Faina Davis, a lawyer and head of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), would have a happy-ish story about what happens when troubled kids connect with adults who practice Restorative Justice.  Far more often, kids misbehave, get punished, misbehave, get punished, in an endlessly destructive cycle.  But Restoration works to interrupt this cycle by solving whatever was driving the misbehavior in the first place.

An 11th grader, whom Davis calls Cameron, transferred into a Restorative Oakland high school.  He’d already become, as she put it, one of those “scary-dude kids” with saggy pants, a black hoodie and a horrible attitude.  Such charmers come to her through the Oakland’s schools, which have become demonstration sites for restorative justice.

On his first day at the new school, Cameron met with the school’s Director.  Cameron probably expected, per usual, to get yelled at, berated, and threatened with dire consequences for any more misdeeds.  Instead, this Restorative Director put aside the thick folder of records of Cameron’s academic failures, suspensions and arrests.  Start fresh.  Cameron couldn’t suddenly become an angel.  But together he and the Director would deal with the obstacles in the way of building a brighter, healthier path for this angry adolescent.

Happy ending: a kid who never cut a break finally got one.  Someone intervened in Cameron’s history of failure to pull him off the school-to-prison assembly line.  Cue sunset.

But Cameron was already a hot mess. 

It would be so simple, so straightforward if we knew that “scary-dude” kids were just born that way and not cultivated by circumstances to become a defensive, aggressive pre-prisoner.  Davis only gives us a taste of Cameron’s circumstances.

He was first suspended at the ripe old age of four.  To retrieve his own confiscated candy, he’d snuck out of the pre-school building and crawled back in through a window.  You might think a four-day suspension was serious overkill given his age and crime.  But more importantly, the suspension wasn’t going to get to any root of a problem.  Nor did it.

By 11th grade Cameron had racked up 150 school suspensions and lots of arrests.  His first arrest was for causing a middle-school milk fight in the cafeteria.  Yes, a milk fight in a large public school can escalate to such mayhem as to be dangerous.  Still.  Chronic misbehavior is the equivalent of a kid waving his arms and screaming:  “Help me!  I’m in trouble.  My family’s in trouble.” But no, he’s just punished.  Research would argue that Cameron’s suspension record strongly predicted his arrest record.  He was on a hamster wheel of recidivism.  Not until that Oakland Director did it slow down.

But what took so long?  Clearly his family had little capacity to support him.  Does he have PTSD from surviving as a kid in harsh, poverty-steeped background?  What’s been the price so far?  Can his “bad kid” self-image be repaired?  Whatever the answers, the kid has already paid a steep price.

Public systems allow kids’ troubles to fester way, way too long.

Since pre-school Cameron was a neon sign of trouble.  But schools, justice, and social services only wake up when such a kid has crossed a legal line, stolen a car, robbed a Quickie Mart or dealt drugs.  Schools only take notice when the kid is so disruptive as to be sent to “an alternative program,” segregated with the other bad kids “whose needs are better served elsewhere.”  Having crossed the line, the bad kid’s fate is sealed — end of story.  We blame the kid.

Increasingly other countries are using Family Group Conferencing to help kids like Cameron.  A facilitator brings all relevant parties to the table to figure out how to solve any and all issues that will reduce or eliminate recidivism.  Over time, countries like Australia, New Zealand, among many others, get once-siloed agencies — housing, mental health, police — to act as a team.  Currently a kid and her family will touch many agencies without any of them knowing what the other is doing — very ineffective and wasteful.  Also, Americans are more squirrely than most about breaching the family’s privacy.  The presenting issue is the kid, but she’s not growing up in isolation.  We can’t solve poverty, but we can help all families become healthier and more resilient in the face of poverty or other adversity.  Allowing family dysfunction to fester is a crime itself.  Breaching the sanctity of the home for less than criminal reasons may be an American sacrilege, but not doing so is no favor to the kids.

Suspensions and juvenile arrests are symptoms.  Chronic recidivism is a full-blown social disease.  Recidivism of any negative behavior is a huge, waving red flag.  Davis and RJOY work on the Oakland schools so they aren’t making things worse.  It’s not schools’ fault that things have already gotten as bad as they are.  But right now there isn’t a social-service system the public can hold responsible for letting kids languish.  There should be.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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College Campus Discipline That Works

Published by EducationNews.org — Revenge may be satisfying, but it rarely leads to positive change.

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

Here’s a clear, real-life illustration of the use of Restorative Justice (RJ).  Skidmore professor David Karp tells the story of how the college handled two virtually identical incidents before and after the implementation of a RJ campus discipline system.  Karp literally wrote the book on College Campus Restorative Justice initiatives.  He’s a frequent speaker at national and international conferences, where I heard this story.

Both incidents involved young men who were very drunk.  In their stupor, each had lost the key to their dorms.  Each had the genius idea of getting back into the dorm by climbing through a first-floor window.  Each had the ill luck to choose the single room of a female student.  Each scared the bejeezus out of that young woman.

CASE #1:  The young woman complained, rightly, to the campus Disciplinary Board.  When she met with the Board, she gave her testimony and left.  Separately, the young man also met with them.  The Board imposed a set of sanctions on him as a condition of staying on campus.  Key was that he was to have no contact with the girl.

Separating a wrong-doer from the victim seems to make good sense.  Don’t subject the victim to further exposure with the guy who hurt, or in this case, scared her.  But the girl remained fearful.  Could it happen again?  Had he targeted her?  Was he still a threat to her or anyone else?  Surely you’ve had the experience of letting your mind go wild with negative possibilities when you don’t know anything about the random person who did you wrong.  I was once robbed and remained frightened for months afterwards, not knowing exactly what threat to us was lurking out there.  The unknown can be terrifying.

So, though sanctions had been imposed, they didn’t stop the feelings involved.  In this case, the offender became resentful of the girl for getting him into such trouble.  Yes, he made a bad mistake, but he felt more harshly punished than he deserved.  And as happens on gossipy college campuses, she found out that he was angry, provoking yet more feelings — more fear, defensiveness, anger.  Then he heard that she knew he was angry, which just made him madder.  As Karp says, “worst case scenario.”  The tensions grew with no mechanism for resolution.  Full-on kicking him out would have been too severe, so they were stuck.  Ultimately the Board’s decisions didn’t do anyone much good.

CASE #2:  The basic facts are the same, though a bit more serious because the female student was just getting out of the shower.  She screams.  He screams.  They’re both terrified.  He pushes past her, so there was some physical contact.

When she filed her complaint, she was offered the Restorative option, which was new to Skidmore at the time.  She could either take him before the Discipline Board per usual, or both of them would go to “conference,” which is to say a supervised, facilitated conversation.  RJ options are always voluntary.  First and foremost, the victim chooses.  And if the offender refuses to participate, the matter goes the traditional route.  A trained facilitator talks to each party separately about what to expect and what they would want out of the face-to-face meeting.

The young woman came with three specifics she wanted to discuss:

1.  She wanted him to understand her fear.  Her terror was not an abreaction.  A naked woman, alone and confronted by a male intruder, fears many things, not the least of which is rape.  So they talked about rape.   And that led to the two of them considering how they could work together to help others understand the ugliness of rape itself and the fear of it.

2.  Why was he so drunk?  What is it about college that excessive drinking is the entree into most social circles?  Was it even possible to organize an alcohol-free social event that would actually be attractive to Skidmore students?  He agreed to work on arranging one as part of his reparations to her.

3.  Why is it so easy to climb in a first-floor window?  This good question was not for the boy, but for the college itself.  As a result of this particular conference, Skidmore literally changed the first-floor windows.

In other words, the RJ process opened up important conversations, all of which had ramifications beyond the two students.  They were no longer strangers.  And they weren’t potential enemies either.  The icing on the cake was that the incident generated ideas and actions aimed at preventing similar incidents in the future.

The traditional kick-out system focuses on the establishment of guilt or innocence and punishing the guilty.  Restoration examines the context in which the offense took place and works to heal both the parties involved — and to change that context, when needed.

Revenge can be very satisfying.  But it rarely teaches anything positive.  Vengeance against the many drunk college men who’ve behaved very badly over the years hasn’t done a thing to prevent more drunken young men from doing the same.

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Rhode Island’s New Law Mandates Recess for Kids

Published by EducationNews.org — Apparently we need the states to step in to prevent the disappearance of playtime in school.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Ask adults what their favorite subject in grade school was and often you’ll get “recess.”  Yes of course, they also liked the science of erupting volcanoes, reading intriguing stories, and hopefully much more.  But young bodies needs to run, play, and shriek.  Many adults remember the palpable relief of being liberated from their desks.  I am one of them.

You might think that recess is a given for little kids even into middle school.  Actually, not so much.  Elementary schools always claim to give recess, but researchers found that on a randomly-selected school day, only 79% had recess.  Of those, 61% of African-American kids and 75% of other minority students had recess compared with 85% of white children. Merely 56% of kids in poverty were playing.  Even at school, kids in poverty can’t cut a break.

An overview of the states show that few require recess.  Individual districts can set their own policies.  But the internet has pages and pages of complaints about not giving kids some time to themselves.  We’re often compared with other countries who give their kids plenty of time off (and have longer, less pressured school days).

So it was with mild fanfare that Rhode Island’s Legislature managed to pass a bill that requires elementary schools to give kids at least 20 minutes of daily recess.  Lest you think this new law would affect a mere handful of buildings, only 18% were already doing this, according to data collected by Recess for Rhode Island, an advocacy group.  The data also shows that school play spaces are often inadequate and lacking equipment.  Few schools have good indoor options.  Recess has indeed withered.

How on earth did kids lose their right to a break?

Usually the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), 2001, is blamed for the incredible shrinking recess.  Across the nation, school staff alleged that testing required endless test-prep that took time away from everything else.  NCLB demanded that all students be proficient in English and math as of 2014 — a stupid, impossible goal.

Still, threatened with sanctions, schools shaved time off wherever they could.  Any mom could have told you that tedious, mind-numbing test-prep wouldn’t produce sparkling results.  And it didn’t.  So maybe beleaguered schools were taking their frustration out on the kids.  Everyone was having less fun; cutting recess just made it official.

But another factor at work might have been to use NCLB as an opportunity to limit kids’ freedom to be naughty at school.  Many parents and teachers believe that free play leads directly to bullying, for example.  But the Alliance for Childhood, among many others, have evidence that free play is precisely where and when kids learn social skills, including the need to curb aggression.  If recess erupts with unwanted behavior, bad on the adults who aren’t monitoring the inevitable disputes that erupt among kids.  Socially-savvy adults on the playground can distinguish between kids’ natural process of learning to sort out their differences and aggression that needs adult intervention.  No one can learn how to handle their social world until they experience conflict and learn to respond to it both responsibly and effectively.

Punishing kids by benching them at recess is super controlling.

The original version of Rhode Island’s legislation, written by the recess advocates, prohibited withholding recess as punishment.  Sadly, punishment is still the go-to technique for curbing misbehavior, even though a preponderance of evidence argues that punishment doesn’t work.  Bad kids just get badder.  But the original mandate was rendered toothless to accommodate those who complained that withholding recess was a valuable tool for managing behavior.

The bill now asks school staff to try other options first.  Recess for RI’s data showed that fully 70% of the schools say they withhold recess for disciplinary reasons.  So, specifically those kids who most need to run and shriek are parked along some fence, usually for all to see, as if that would motivate anyone to behave in the classroom.

C’mon, who doesn’t need a break in their day?  Walking down the hall and having a chat with a co-worker is good for your mental health.  Everyone needs a mental pause to perform at their best.  Everyone needs to interact with others socially.  Everyone needs some physical activity if only stretching.  And children’s bodies especially are little dynamos.

Who have we become as a culture that the kids need the full force of state law to get 20 minutes off?  Still, some recess-deprived kids will finally get a break.  Thank God.

 (Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Little Kids Need Cool Places to Explore, Not Classroom Time

Published by EducationNews.org — Doesn’t anyone worry that pre-school can teach kids to hate school earlier?

kids playing outdoors

Early childhood education has become this year’s education-fix obsession.  From the President of the United States to the President of the Rhode Island Senate, we’re now pinning our hopes for improved academic achievement on more for schooling low-income, urban kids.  Specifically little kids.

The data on pre-school is far from clear.  Head Start, a signature program from the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, promised to improve reading readiness among low-income pre-schoolers.  But evidence shows the academic gains disappearing by grade 3.

Families are the kids’ first teachers and strongest connections, so the bang for the buck likely lies in working directly with them.  And I would argue the places where kids play and learn about the world is actually little kids’ second teacher.  More on that in a moment.

The dangers of doing nothing for kids from struggling families are all too real.  Research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, immortalized in their work The 30 million word gap by age 3, demonstrates how low-income urban children’s vocabularies put them at a huge academic disadvantage compared with their middle-class peers.  Later researchers such as Ruby Payne and Eric Jensen confirmed not only the scale of the gap itself, but also significant differences in the kinds of words low-income kids hear — fewer words of praise, more direct orders, and fewer open-ended questions soliciting their thoughts and efforts to formulate answers.

Sadly, pundits and pols still believe that the solution is early-childhood “education.”  Read: classrooms.  This gives me the willies.  Picture 3 and 4-year olds with more “seat time.”  Doesn’t anyone worry that pre-school can teach kids to hate school earlier?

Vocabulary is intelligence, says the wise E.D. Hirsch.

The size of a kid’s vocabulary is the size of her intellectual world.  Vocabulary and experience are the foundation for more information, skills and intelligence.  Children have different natural gifts, to be sure, but any of those innate abilities are enhanced by rich experiences and opportunities to talk about them.

Here’s what’s missing from the conversation, though.  For a gajillian years evolution has wired children to absorb and process information at an incredible rate.  They explore, put stuff in their mouths, pull up grass, make mud pies, splash water, stalk the cat.  Sometimes the cat retaliates, or an obstacle causes a fall, or the stick house keeps collapsing even after much effort.  That’s little-kid learning.  I call it downloading the software of reality.  Learning about the nature of physical reality depends on a place.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, just rich with possibilities.  The place teaches them — be it raw nature, a farm, an inventive playground, park or even a kid-friendly city apartment.  Anywhere but school, which is not a place they can make their own.

School-based instruction is not a memorable way to acquire words.  Better to have a wealth of experience to which vocabulary can attach.  Especially with electronic distractions, kids suffer mainly from a poverty of positive experiences that ignite and feed their own hard-wired, voracious appetites for learning.  Low-income kids don’t need school, but more access to cool places — whether as part of paid daycare or as public services to families.

Impressive experiences will find verbal expression.

At this year’s Child-Friendly Cities conference, keynote Jens Troelsen gushed about growing up in a veritable heaven, his family’s farm.  Adults were within earshot, but his real teachers were the stream, the animals, the bales of hay to make structures.  Yes, this was in Denmark, where Stranger Danger and safety obsession had yet to paralyze parenting.  But his point was that he and his friends learned a ton, chatting up a storm as they negotiated games and projects.  They shared vocabulary.

At public forest kindergartens in Europe and elsewhere (including New Hampshire) kids hang outside all year round.  A movie about one shows children managing fierce cold with sledding, huddling around kid-made fires, building with hammers and nails, and scurrying around like little animals.  Adults oversee proper use of tools and read to them daily. Otherwise the children amuse themselves, capitalizing on the enormous capacity to learn that has evolved since the dawn of humans.  As such, they are brilliantly prepared for school later on.

Home-visiting programs could help parents turn their apartment into a Waldorf-inspired “learning environment.”  Any kitchen can be arranged to have a play kitchen in it with access to the non-breakable muffin pans and pie tins.  Kids like to play at being adults.  Cast off clothing and shoes are a blast.  Blankets make club houses.  Parents would have to ease up on Disney characters and passive entertainment, but they should anyway.

This is a case of school getting in the way of learning.

Rather than subsidize yet another institution, provide Mom with information, support groups or even classes on how to provide spaces where kids learn on their own.  Put minimalist shelters and trained play leaders in the parks for a lot less money than supporting another institution.  But let the kids explore — something, somewhere.  Spend resources helping the parents any way we can, but especially help them foster rich and brain-building experience.  Forget premature school.

(Image: EdenProject)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Always Model Kindness, Especially to Children

Published by EducationNews.org — The kindest response to unwanted behavior is to ask good questions.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

The trim, tall elementary teacher, whom we’ll call Ms. Larch, paused before answering the question that had been posed to everyone in the circle.  Larch was among a group of teachers from all levels in a Restorative Practices (RP) training.  RP, in super brief, are interpersonal techniques that promote healing and connecting instead of disciplining by hurtful punishment.  The question at hand was: Since our work together last week, what have you been thinking about Restorative Practices?  Just a thought, a take-away, something you’ve noticed.

The mood of the group was bubbly.  Taking turns, answers came quickly – and then the pace came to a halt with Larch.  After a deep breath, she said,  “I noticed the hallways.”  The group fell silent, waiting to find out what on earth she meant.

A 14-year veteran, Larch has mainly taught 4th grade.  After working in a suburban school, she chose to take a position in a diverse, more challenged school.  She’d been there nine years now and was no stranger to their bustling hallways.  But in the prior week, for the first time, she found herself standing still and listening.  Through the new RP lens, the hallway noise had a harsh, barky quality, driven by edgy adult voices.  The kids paid little attention to the adults, which only increased the volume of the bark.  Suddenly the hallways seemed hard on the kids.  How does one person change such a thing?

During my many years of writing about education, I’ve observed hundreds of schools, though not hers.  I’ve been in many such hallways, flowing with negative, military-style commands:  “Don’t run.”  “Be quiet.”  “Stop it!”  I get that teachers juggle many pressures and get frazzled.  And harsh hallways are by no means exclusive to low-income public schools.  Communities, of every stripe, might insist on zero-tolerance orderliness.  In the name of order, all sorts of kids get steeped in adult anger, frustration and impatience.

But does command-and-control discipline teach social skills?

A recent Atlantic Magazine piece, Teaching Traumatized Kids, focused on Lincoln High in Washington state, an alternative school designed to help kids whose troubled behavior was known to be driven by trauma.  But why need a diagnosis?  Every school should just assume the presence of trauma, among kids and adults alike, and be prepared to prevent and respond well to misbehavior triggered by trauma.  Interestingly, every single one of Lincoln’s techniques were what we’d call Restorative Practices.  They call them “kindness,” which is fine by me.  A rose by any other name smells just as sweet.  I’m totally down with kindness.

Restorative Practices promote good relationships and strong, supportive communities.  They prevent and de-escalate conflict.  Lincoln’s “teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special ‘quiet room.’ Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.”

Yes, ask questions.  Lately I’ve been thinking that the kindest response to unwanted behavior is to ask a whole bunch of good questions.  Not “Whadya do that for?”  But something like:  “You seem off.  What’s up today?”  And even that’s not completely kind unless delivered in a low register of your voice, calmly and with good eye contact.  Be careful not to sound like you already know the answer.  No, kind questions don’t defuse tension every time.  But they give everyone, adult or kid, traumatized or merely upset, the chance to recover by thinking through what’s going on with them and whatever upset them.  Good questions can provide gentleness.

Years ago I visited an urban elementary school that used music for their hallway transitions.  When the public address system played soothing, upbeat classical music — instead of those maddening bells — kids finished up and moved on to lunch, art class or wherever.  The music set a tone.  The teachers, while watchful, trusted the kids to be self-regulated.  The hallway bustled, but sweetly.

Kids take their cue from the adults. 

Children of all ages learn far more from adult modeling than they do from formal instruction.  Too often we forget that children are organic, living beings.  They need human forms of sunlight, shade, nourishing soil and proper amounts of water.  A harsh hallway is not a good medium to grow thriving, self-regulating kids.

We could actually sooth our fearful, angry culture if each of us were more mindful of being kind.  Kindness is not easy.  It takes thought and a commitment to watching how we treat each other.  Kids who have a positive experience in school hallways, not to mention school itself, will grow and learn differently than those who do not.

 (Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Winning the Discipline Wars Takes Restoration

Published by EducationNews.org — Kicking the kid out doesn’t really hold the kid accountable or teach him how to behave.

(Photo: Youtube, Creative Commons)

In Fordham Institute’s weekly Flypaper blog, David Griffith offers a tantalizing hope in a piece called “How to end the discipline wars.”  He asks, “Is there a more annoying manifestation of our political and cultural divisions than the debate over school discipline?”  Good question.

He outlines what he and I both find to be a weirdly polarized, even adversarial, set of attitudes towards discipline.  And he says he has a sensible resolution.  I read on with relish.

To understand the “war,” understand its combatants.  On one hand are the schools whose priority is the sanctity of student learning.  Not unreasonable.  Students who are on task deserve to be free of disruptions by miscreants who are not.  So, these “no excuses” schools are unrepentant about responding to misbehavior with strong negative reinforcement, including suspension, expulsion and a variety of punishments.  Their techniques include shaming, such as posting students’ names in yellow for those on disciplinary warning and red for those who will be punished.  Many parents appreciate the strict orderliness of schools.

On the other hand, Griffith points out, is the growing restorative practices/justice movement, which works to get to the root of the misbehavior.  Is the kid signaling that she’s got issues at home or mental-health problems that need addressing?  Is his incessant swearing learned in a home that swears constantly?  Or is it willful rottenness?  The consequences needs to respond to the reason for the misbehavior.  The if/then legalism of traditional discipline systems have prescribed punishment for each infraction – but it fails to teach, heal or solve problems.  How can the misbehavior be prevented from happening again unless we know what triggered it?

Because of its focus on healing, teaching, and cooperation, restoration is more work on the front end.  But the if/then approach wins only short-term compliance, at best.  At worst, it can cause resentment and disengagement.

Griffith’s solution to punishment is to create “alternative learning settings.”

Oy.  So, the solution is to sequester the “bad kids” where they won’t disrupt the so-called “good kids.”  Griffith admits that this is not a radically new idea.  True.  Education as an industry often gets rid of the unwanted kids by creating separate “programs targeted to their needs.”

Spin it all you want, but ostracism is punishment, plain and simple.  And the programs I’ve seen look for all the world like prison prep.  Still, Griffith says, “I think it’s time for a broader and more honest conversation about alternatives to suspension that honor the majority’s right to an education.”

Ah, but herewith lies the rub:

Define the line between the good and the bad kids.

On a given day, school staff can point out those kids who are doing what they should and those who aren’t.  The distinction is clear.  But it’s a snapshot in a kid’s life.  Years ago one of my kids’ friends was a goody-two-shoes girl — who soured overnight.  When her parents told her they were getting divorced, she acted out.  Her behavior became atrocious; her manner rude; her grades slipped; she ran from class and she ran from home.  She was a serious pain to get back on track.

But Griffith’s solution for her schooling would have been to give her an “alternative learning setting.”  She would have been with the other disruptive kids to protect students whose rights to an education she was, in fact, violating sometimes.  This would have made her situation far worse.

Now imagine seriously traumatized kids whose emotional wounds are far deeper than hers were.  “Alternative placements” block any chance of them learning community-appropriate behavior from the kids who can model cooperating with others.  And forgive me, but “sequestering” is another word for “segregation.”  The violent kid living with a violent father does not need to be segregated with other kids who might also be super angry.  It’s convenient for the adults, but it’s not good for the kid.

Don’t kick them out, lean in with them.

Setting up programs to manage kids outside of their regular classrooms is expensive.  And ineffective.  And who wants to be such a group’s teacher?  An actually new idea would be to spend those same big bucks, but effectively, on specialists — specifically, restorative specialists.  These trained workers would accompany the disruptive kid to class for as long as necessary.  They would teach, model and support desirable behavior, but also prevent her from disrupting teaching and learning.

Kicking the kid out doesn’t really hold the kid accountable or teach him anything.  Most kids who have the mental capacity would work on acquiring better social skills, if only to shake what feels like a babysitter.  Those seriously challenged with meeting expectations will have a tutor.  In both cases, the help should be as temporary as possible.

By all means, make sure all kids have the fullest possible opportunity to learn and thrive — including “bad” kids.  Teaching them to manage their own behavior is the biggest favor we can do for them and us.

 (Photo: Youtube, Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

 

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Online Interactions Are Cultivating Anti-Social Boys

Published by EducationNews.org — How do we help a kid whose social life is mainly with his screens?

The boy shrugs off a question for maybe the 10th time that afternoon.  He seems incapable of simple human interaction.  Mom tries to talk for him as he wriggles and writhes at the table in her impeccable kitchen.  No, she’s told, he needs to be accountable for himself.  This is his problem.  We’ll call him Alex.

Some days back he did a totally stupid thing that scared his entire school community, so he’s being conferenced by a facilitator working in Rhode Island’s newish Restorative Justice initiative.  The adults close to him know his act was mindless.  Alex insists “it was just a joke.”  The police have no sense of humor about such things.  But they are working with the school and conference facilitator to see if a safe, effective alternative can divert this 15-year-old boy of color from the traditional Court route.

Alex absolutely must make amends.  He needs to rebuild the trust he’s destroyed.  He seems almost desperate to do so.  Okay, but how?  Shrug.  Silence.

The facilitator holds a finger up to stop Mom from speaking.  With begging eyes, the boy looks at the facilitator, then at Mom, hoping for help.  He starts to speak, starts again, despairs, and shrugs.  Just to break the ice, the facilitator smiles and asks what he’d like to be doing at this moment?  Alex just wants to be left alone to play his video games and “relax.”  Right.

Learning social skills in cyberspace

The facilitators and schools see an emerging pattern: Some boys feel most at home inside electronic worlds.  Mom, Grandma or whomever can no longer supervise the kids’ addiction to electronic distractions.  Weirdly, some of their male siblings also play the games, but don’t get so hooked.

The pattern includes parents saying that the problem started innocently enough.  The home has an xBox or some way of getting on the internet, just like everyone else.  But at some point it became compulsive.  Even dinner could not compete.

These boys are disengaged from school and are often in trouble, frequently for misuse of electronics.  They lack “sandbox” skills — listening, taking turns, joking in a way that is not infuriating.  Their lame efforts at interacting backfire, so they retreat into telling themselves that everyone dislikes them for no reason.

Another boy, at another school, in a totally unrelated conference, considers his peers to be “horrible.”  His mom explains emphatically that the internet is where his friends are, so there is no question about taking that away from him.  This cheers the gloomy kid up enough to explain that on the internet, when someone is “horrible you can just block them.”  The facilitator wonders if he is ever horrible back.  “Well sure, when they deserve it.”  The facilitator asks if he’s ever horrible to real people, face-to-face?  “I have to be because they are so horrible to me.”

Both he and the mom in this case are sure the problem lies beyond the child and his behavior.  She, like the other moms in these cases, explains the child’s diagnosis.  They are all diagnosed.  They are ADD, oppositional defiant or on the autism spectrum.  They take drugs or get accommodations so they can tolerate being in school.  They shouldn’t be expected to control their behavior because of their condition.  It’s up to those around them to learn to deal with their use of flagrantly ugly language or their scary behavior.

In a convenience society, nothing is quite so inconvenient as a kid

Yes, some kids really do fit the diagnoses.  But I’ve started to think that parents and the media cultivated this behavior pattern.  It starts with the commercial world selling video games that happen to act like heroin with some kids.  Then parents use the games as electronic babysitters, which erodes the parents’ own social skills and supervisory authority.  When the kids get tough to manage, the behavior-control industry steps in with a drug and a diagnosis or an excuse.

Alex, the shrugger, has no interests outside of games and no one he’d like to be with.  With Mom’s help, the facilitator makes an inventory of adults in Alex’s life who could spend time with him.  Over speaker phone, Mom introduces a young uncle to the facilitator, who explains that the boy needs to hang out with people, but no screens of any kind.  The uncle is playful and fun.  Sure, he says, his nephew can tag along on both his standing dates with friends; he plays a physical game with friends one day and hangs out at the mall on another.  The boy seems pleased and agrees to the plan.

Will this pull him into the real world?  It’s a start.  He has to be able to see and understand his behavior’s effect on other people in order to have a successful conference.  Right now that seems a ways off and a lot of work.  But juvenile detention would merely crush him.

Boys who stay locked in cyberspace likely won’t develop into adults that you or I want as neighbors, colleagues or even relatives.  I think cyberspace is getting to be a social-skills killer – at least in certain kids.

(Photo: Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Only America Refuses to Sign the Children’s Rights Treaty

Published by EducationNews.org — Seriously?  Are we so divided that we can’t even agree on taking care of the kids?

(Photo: Ilyas Ahmed, UN Photo)

I can’t imagine a clearer set of ideals for the modern world than those set forth in the United Nations’ 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The document’s 41 Articles are the conditions of a treaty among nations aiming to focus governments on creating healthy conditions for children.  It’s a monument to idealism.  And it’s particularly relevant now because it spawned a Child-Friendly Cities movement that is very active in some places.

It’s also relevant because only one nation is not part of the treaty, and that would be us, the United States. More on that in a moment.

High school history classes make us think of treaties as documents that carve up post-war territories or establish the details of trade alliances.  This one is aspirational.  It addresses the question: What would the conditions of young people’s lives be like if all nations had it right?

For over a decade, the United Nations coordinated the work of international committees negotiating the Convention’s specifics.  Portions were lifted directly from the U.S. Constitution, a document admired internationally.  In drafting it, the world community came together for the sake of kids.

A passage from its Preamble says:  “The child should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society and be brought up in the spirit of the ideals proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity.”

Today, the Convention remains the most widely accepted international treaty in history.

One by one, 194 countries signed on. 

And last year the treaty celebrated its 25th anniversary as Somalia, one of the last two hold-outs, came aboard.

God knows Somalia is not a model of being kind to its children.  Among other provisions that Somalia disregards is Article 36, which states “Parties shall protect the child against all other forms of exploitation prejudicial to any aspects of the child’s welfare.”  Somalia, while by no means unique, exploits children sexually and for their labor, and conscripts them into deadly wars.  The UN has been working there to ease children’s plight.  But the point is that signing on only commits the nation to an ideal, however distant.  The Convention is not a contract and has no legal authority.  Its authority is moral.

So what makes the U.S. balk? 

Here’s the Article that was the deal-breaker for both Somalia and the U.S.:

“Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.”

Opposing this provision seems particularly sad as the U.S. is finally making some effort to curb its famously huge prison population.  The 1990 faith in the efficacy of punishment is only just now starting to unravel.  For the record, no evidence supports punishment, either as a way of teaching community-appropriate behavior or as a deterrent.

To be sure, some dangerous people, including youth, need to be kept out of the mainstream until we can trust them.  But even here, in our famously punitive country, courts are beginning to agree that it’s just too early to write off and kill kids 17 and younger.  In recent years the Supreme Court, as well as state courts, have been chipping away at the penalties for serious juvenile crime.  Harsh mandatory minimal sentencing is becoming less mandatory and left more to the discretion of judges.  States have fallen out of love with burgeoning prison budgets and so are willing to re-think their practices.

Like Somalia, the U.S. has flaws.  But right now would be an excellent time to embrace kids’ well-being and sign on to a set of healthy ideals.

Granted, the process for the U.S. to sign a treaty is cumbersome, and in today’s political insanity it’s probably impossible.  But our refusal to join speaks volumes about our national apathy towards children.  Only good lives in that treaty.  America’s signature now could help reestablish our nation’s optimism, idealism and inclusiveness.  We could use the morale boost.

Even in our divisions, kids seem like they could unify us.  Heck, if Somalia can stand up for ideals, so can we.

(Photo: Ilyas Ahmed, UN Photo)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Without Strong Communities, Schools Will Fail

Published by EducationNews.org — Chaotic families can wreck their kids’ lives despite a school’s best efforts.  So what can rescue the family?

(Photo: In the Hive 2012)

In the world of school reform, there are two ways of thinking about kids’ families and backgrounds.  A 2013 movie called In The Hive shows why we need a third.

Approach #1: Focus all possible energy and resources on the kid herself.  Working with families can seem like a black hole, with seriously low return on investment.  Better to concentrate on equipping kids to transcend their backgrounds with a strong academic foundation and disciplined habits.  The KIPP schools and Success Academies are education examples of the save-the-kid strategy.  These strict, so-called “no excuses” schools have long days, demerit systems, and practices that resemble military-school environments.  The students who can stick with it do better than their peers on tests and college enrollment.

Approach #2: Acknowledge that kids can’t really thrive without bringing the family along. Dedicating resources to help families overcome obstacles to their children’s learning not only promotes academics but also builds the kid’s support system.  Unfortunately, programs like home-based visiting serve only “at risk” little kids, sending trained support people into homes to help families develop healthy routines.  Without similar social services help for older kids, schools are left with taking over family support.  Save-the-family schools have a delicious, welcoming school climate and rich family engagement.  The students in these often home-grown and stand-alone charter schools perform better than average, but not as well as “no excuses” schools.

But both these approaches have pitfalls, because they operate in a vacuum. 

Approach #3: Back up and look at the bigger picture.  The community is the field in which these kids and families are growing.  Its modeling, nurture and gifts are the conditions for all its people thriving.  Invest in the community that supports the family that supports the kid.  This approach seems to be creeping back into fashion, as Approaches #1 and #2 are increasingly showing their limitations.

Separating kids from their loved ones is an obnoxious idea no matter how messy the family. But given schools’ limited resources, chaotic families can wreck their kids despite schools’ best efforts.  Social conditions are deteriorating. In 2000, 16% of children under 18 lived in poverty.  Today it’s 22%, with 45% considered “low income.”  And income is only one form of social poverty.

In The Hive shows both the kid and the family isolated from a community context.

The movie’s protagonist is a 16-year-old black youth named Xtra Keys who’s committed a dumb but serious crime. He’s been given a choice between juvie prison or an alternative school for delinquents, called The Hive — a loving portrait of Approach #1. Xtra is so street hard that he might have taken the prison route if he didn’t want a better life for his infant son so badly.

The Hive pulls no punches. In a powerful moment, an administrator, Mr. Hollis, completely loses his cool trying to get the boys to face their plight. He crams all but a few boys into one corner of the room to emphasize how most will fail — drop out, go to prison or die on the streets. He adds more boys to the crowd until just Xtra is left. Hollis hasn’t singled him out for salvation, but constructed a living graph of the odds young boys of color face when already in the judicial system. The Hive can only help to a point.

Xtra’s home is a superb example of why Approach #2 seems futile. His scary dad is in prison. The substance-addled mom can’t hold a job and is mostly useless to her kids. Xtra’s live-in girlfriend feels that he’s growing superior to her with his fancy schooling. Eventually she leaves, taking his precious baby.

At the end, no Hollywood triumph nor tragedy.  It’s just a quagmire.

Whatever Xtra’s learned from the school, his family will drag him back down. He’s seen a better path, but so what? In a final shot, his face shows only a bad feeling about what comes next. The school can’t bring back his son, or deal with his mother, or raise his brothers and sisters.

So where’s his community — the neighbors, church, other functional social network? How’s he supposed to manage, never mind thrive? Public social services could remove all the kids from the dreadful mom, but that would only traumatize them more without denting the source of Xtra’s various problems. Rotting in prison, or even rotting in the Hive, doesn’t help him give back to his community the repair he owes, having committed a crime. He needs to rebuild his place, his neighborhood, while it rebuilds him. A new report makes the same point, but notes that so little thought has gone into bringing whole communities back to health that there are few examples.

What we have here is a failure of imagination. A numbed public can picture a kid or a family. But the public has a far harder time seeing the many children who are growing up in nutrient-free communities that yield a scant harvest of successful adults.

America’s sad performance on international tests is far more an indictment of the quality of our communities than it is of the schools themselves. The Hive, like other schools, doesn’t exist in a vacuum any more than a kid or a family does.

(Photo: In the Hive, 2012)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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