Posts Tagged conflict management

Always Model Kindness, Especially to Children

Published by — 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 or contact her at The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.


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A Statewide Teachers Contract Will Not Achieve Peace

Published by — Whether one or many, minimalist contracts have a better shot at turning the attention to the kids.


‘Tis the season to celebrate peace on earth.  Since the world is what it is, we celebrate peace as an essential ideal, however much honored in the breach.  So how do we consider, very seriously, ways to reduce obstacles in the way of peace?  Humans fighting with each other always has fall-out, from irresponsibly angry behavior to full-on world wars.  We’ll never eliminate conflict, nor should we try.  But we can work hard to create the conditions that allow conflicts, even heated ones, to be resolved with little to no collateral damage.

Currently, the state of Rhode Island is toying with the idea of a statewide teacher contract.  Besides the fantasy that it will save money — RI has a horrible record negotiating contracts of most kinds — the hope is to reduce the skirmishes in the districts.  Little RI has 36 school districts, which means 36 of most everything, including labor contracts for each of various bargaining units — secretaries, janitors, teacher assistants, teachers.  Contract negotiations, their maintenance, breaches, grievances, and other manner of labor/management beefs are a misery for all concerned.  At its worst, public education can get so consumed with fighting among adults that the kids hardly matter.  Quality, schmality.

So the statewide contract needs to be commended, at least as a sincere effort to reduce fighting.  The issues argued between labor and management are often substantial.  The tensions could generate a truly healthy, evolving conversation.  But alas, they usually don’t.  So the idea of one frontline battle instead of 36 is laudable.

Right impulse; wrong solution.

No evidence shows any magic to the oneness of a teachers contract, though.   The one state that has a statewide contract, Hawaii, has a middling education system.  Ambitious educators are certainly not studying the virtues of its contract.  The students’ performance on the NAEP exams is nothing to write home about.  And while state law prohibits strikes per se, teachers in that very high-cost state feel forced to the streets anyway.  The single contract isn’t helping.

Conversely, RI’s enviably high-performing neighbor, Massachusetts, has roughly 400 school districts and only 6 times RI’s population.  Many of that state’s strategies are studied like crazy because of their excellent results on the NAEP and elsewhere.  Rarely do you hear much about their labor/management skirmishes.  Both city and rural districts have disagreements of course, but that news is usually overwhelmed by news of the state’s success as a whole.  The silly number of districts isn’t disturbing their peace, or at least not much.

Getting to a Peaceful, Child-Friendly Contract

One contract versus 400 doesn’t seem to matter.  What matters are the results.  Do the kids thrive?  By any standard?  Do they learn what will make them successful, including the social and emotional skills that the workplace depends on?  Do they graduate, find work, contribute to their communities?  How does a contract identify school goals towards which the adults agree to cooperate, and as such keeps the peace?

To my mind, the problem with contracts is that they often devolve into straight-up head-butting — over money, of course, but also spaces in the parking lot, grievance procedures and endless minutia.  Here I’m channeling Common Cause’s Phillip Howard, whose best-titled book is the Death of Common Sense, but whose most recent is the Rule of Nobody.  His point is that we’re drowning in laws that make human judgment impossible.  Collective ideals might give us a lifeline out.  What does it look like when we’ve got it right?  Can we agree and sign?  Often in the name of settling fights, contract provisions work to nail down endless details, which then provoke wrangling and resentment once the thing is settled.  The very specificity assumes a lack of willing cooperation and as such can create the conditions for endless fighting.

A contract should at least begin with a few over-arching principles.  School mission statements often proclaim lofty goals about nurturing children’s minds, bodies and curiosity.  And charter-schools contracts, for example, try to capture the spirit of the school community’s ideals, and then follow with a simple salary schedule and benefits.  By putting as little as possible into a contract, school adults must figure out day-to-day agreements cooperatively.  Even the best tended culture of cooperation doesn’t always work, of course; people still disagree, get mad, even raise their voices.  But only as a last resort do they turn to lawyers, courts, or passive-aggressive bullying, all of which makes the school climate worse.  Instead, disputants must hear one another out, modeling and practicing the very aspects of cooperation that schools teach to kids, or should.

A minimalist contract has a better shot at turning the attention to kids and their outcomes.  If a proposed decision doesn’t pass the child-friendly test, don’t do it.  I’m betting that the local contract culture contributes to RI having highest teacher absenteeism in the country.  I could be wrong, but it’s not a stretch to say that teacher consistency is not a collective ideal.  Inconsistency is legal, perhaps, but not ideal.

It’s our job as adults to avoid adding to the strife in these contentious, frightened times.  Labor and management’s adoption of child-friendly ideals might contribute measurably to peace on earth.


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 or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Juvenile Justice Is Not Only Blind, But Deaf

Published by — Increasingly, the formal legal system has taken responsibility for conflict management out of the hands of ordinary people.

Sometimes achieving Justice is as simple as listening until the victim feels heard.

Increasingly, the formal legal system has taken responsibility for conflict management out of the hands of ordinary people.  The restorative justice movement is particularly critical of how the traditional justice system sidelines crime victims almost entirely.  As we all know from TV courtrooms, the crime is expressed as the State versus Julia.  But where are the victims?  They’re the occasion of the crime, to be sure, but at most they might write an impact statement to be read at sentencing or get some sort of Court-determined restitution.  Only the police are much interested in what victims have to say, and even their interest does not extend to what victims might want or need.  So lawyers and judges are by no means accustomed to asking how on earth such behavior – from obnoxious to heinous – came to pass, never mind how healing from this rift or crime might come about.

A professor of law, a former State’s Attorney and now the Governor’s liaison to the criminal justice program, Robert Sand has law-and-order cred.  Speaking at a recent Restorative Justice conference, he says as communities lose their tightly-knit character, they also lose their ability to handle their own conflicts.  So conflicts of all kinds are either ignored, which can lead to festering, or are handed over to the formal justice system, where victims are non-entities.  As a result, Sand says, fewer people get what they really want, which is to be heard.  Among his other stories, all far more grisly, he tells this trivial one to illustrate the efficiency and satisfaction of meeting a victim’s needs.

In one of Vermont’s many rural counties, an enterprising woman decided to set up a roadside farm stand to sell the excess of summer vegetables she’d been producing.  The display had an umbrella to shield the vegetables from the summer sun, a price list and a cigar box to collect the money on the honor system.

After some time she realized that a woman and her son were routinely stealing zucchini.  Infuriated, she installed a video camera to catch them in the act, and did.  With hard evidence in hand, she took her complaint to the local police station.  By all accounts it was theft, which is a crime.

Sand reminds his audience that at the end of the growing season, zucchini is so plentiful that you can’t give it away.  But rather than be dismissive and unresponsive, a Vermont Court Advocate took on the case.  Very civilized.

Just by having a conversation, the Court Advocate quickly found that the woman didn’t particularly want the thief to be punished or even to make restitution.  She certainly didn’t want that boy’s mother to go to jail.  What she did want was to tell that woman how sad and disappointed she was for her and her son.

The Advocate identified the perpetrator from the video, explained the situation and set up a meeting.  Together the vic, perp and Advocate had a structured and supervised conversation in a room at the Courthouse.  It didn’t take long.  The regional court system had no more dealings with the offending mom or her son, and for all we know hearing how much they’d betrayed the trust of that vegetable-vendor put them both on the straight and narrow.

But whatever the effect on the offenders, the conversation made the victim happy.  She was, after all, in the right – however trivially.  And she was only asking to be heard.

Now you may think that spending Court resources on such a crime is a waste of taxpayers’ money.  But I’m entirely with the vegetable lady wanting to hold that mom accountable for disrespecting a local honor system.  More importantly, modeling theft to the young is always a bad idea, no matter how petty.  I don’t think I could have confronted that mom without some authority standing by me.  Where else could she have turned?

Sand’s point is that we can no longer let Courts act as official non-listeners.  Very often, hearing the victims’ stories shows the case in a surprisingly different light.  And many times, as in this one, listening can just make a case go away, with a little learning and healing under the parties’ belts.

But what we’ve got right now is a judicial system that is not only blind, but stone deaf.  Where’s the justice in that?

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 analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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