Posts Tagged power of questions

What If South Carolina’s Body-Slammed Teen Had Been Treated Restoratively?

Published by — There may be no good excuse for disrupting class, but a punitive response can just exacerbate the problem.


Restorative practices are simple tools for handling conflict in ways that maximize the possibility of a happy ending.  The practices are habits of the mind and heart.  So let’s revisit last October’s nasty incident at Spring Valley High with an eye on how things might have gone differently if the school had been Restorative.

Likely you remember the cellphone videos that went viral, showing a math class where a teenage girl’s non-compliance triggered a violent assault by a School Resource Officer (SRO).  The attack on her would have been appalling under any circumstances, but to boot, the uniformed police officer was white and the girl was black.

The girl’s classmates reported that she had pulled out her cellphone, a bane of many schools’ existence these days.  Adolescents are by nature easily distracted, but this generation has been raised in part by electronic baby sitters, so their phones are not just interesting, but comforting.  Was the girl unprepared or feeling stupid in this algebra class?  We don’t know.  We know she was distracted and distracting.

The 16-year veteran teacher asked her to put it away.  She refused.  He asked her to go to the “discipline office.”  She refused again, so he got the SRO.  The videos show her clinging to the chair in defiance of the officer.  But he totally lost his stuff.  After slamming her to the ground, he threw her out the door.  He was fired soon after.  The reports mostly focus on him.

Restorative schools are trauma-informed.

Among the few facts revealed about the girl was that she was in foster care.  A state’s Child Protective Services remove kids from their homes when the parents are abusive, seriously neglectful, substance abusers, radically incompetent, or dead.  So foster-care kids have been traumatized, if only by being removed.  They have precious little control over their lives.  The girl asserted what power she had.  Neither the cop nor the teacher necessarily knew the girl’s circumstances, nor do most school staff need to know kids’ personal business.  But “trauma-informed” means that adults are fully aware that such circumstances are always possible – with any kid.

In other words, when confronting nasty behavior, the safe assumption is that it could be signaling the presence of trauma.  If so, the trauma can be ignited by yelling, humiliating, or generally getting into a head-butt with someone unwilling to comply with orders.  When trauma overwhelms a person, their brain shuts off its language center and executive function, leaving the body and primitive parts of the brain to defend itself with primitive methods.  They can not use their words appropriately.  So getting into a power struggle with a traumatized kid risks triggering out-of-control behavior.  Better to tread lightly and assume that the kid may not be capable of responding appropriately.

Ask three caring, de-escalating questions first.

Mind you, nothing excuses a student for disrupting a class.  The rest of the class deserves to learn.  But punitive techniques like kicking the kid out often exacerbate the problem.

Restorative 101 would recommend speaking to a misbehaving kid, like the girl with the phone, in a calm, lowered voice — always a good de-escalating tactic.  And instead of making commands or statements, ask a couple of questions in a caring, sincere, non-sarcastic tone.  Questions such as:

“Are you expecting an important call?”  This calls the kid out for her behavior.  Some people object that such call-outs are themselves embarrassing.  But the kid clearly needs help seeing that what she’s doing has a negative effect on the classroom community.  She’s made her behavior their business.  No reason to be mean, but does she understand what the big picture looks like?  A tiny prick of shame is okay, especially if it helps her put her phone in her pocket.

“Is there something going on with you today that’s distracting you?  If so, I’ve got a minute after class to talk.”  Most kids are going to say no whatever the circumstances.  But if the teacher is available after class, perhaps with one more kind question, at least the kid might feel cared about.  Maybe she’ll say something pertinent.

Or:  “Can the phone wait?  This is algebra and we all need to concentrate.”

The SRO might have been entirely unnecessary.

Granted, teachers don’t feel they have time to ask such questions.  Some feel a disruptive kid doesn’t deserve helpful attention.  But a moment of caring might have made a huge difference to our foster-care teen.  And an argument that leads to a kick-out disrupts the class hugely.  A few quick questions can make it clear whether the kid can settle into class or truly needs to be elsewhere.

The point is that a gentle, trauma-informed approach can de-escalate and prevent conflicts.  Restorative practices can’t guarantee redeemed behavior.  But they do create the conditions that ease trouble instead of throwing gas on what might well be a smoldering ember.  The girl was apparently quiet, if breaking the rules.  She deserved to be treated restoratively.  As do they all.


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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Questions, Not Answers, Help University Park Kids Think Deeply

Published by — Part 2 — University Park Campus School fosters — and teaches — a desire to learn in its students, 95% of whom go to college.

This is the second in a series on the University Park Campus School, following Part 1: University Park School Models Urban Education.

Small groups of students are standing in front of five big sheets of newsprint, each placed at a distance around this big, old classroom at the University Park Campus School (UPCS).  Last week Jody Bird’s 9th-grade biology students brainstormed questions they might have about chromosomes, prior to studying the subject, and wrote them on these sheets.

Bird says “I use questions to spark their curiosity and to find out where their learning is going.  They usually start with pretty basic ones – the who, what, where, why, how questions.  But even in this early group we got one compare-and-contrast, about the chromosomes of different kingdoms – plants, fungi, bacteria.”

If Bird can get them wondering, a little hungry for answers, they’ll dig into the topic themselves.  She and her colleagues must teach these kids to take on the work of learning themselves.

The school has a 95 percent college-acceptance rate.

“Being curious is part of how we’re human.  And my students know that taking risks and being curious is part of the culture of my classroom.  Biology is hard, really hard.  But if you’re curious about it, it gets a lot less intimidating.”

Some students knew what chromosomes were, and that they divided.  She prodded them, “From what you already know, develop a series of questions.  Talk with each other about the rigor of those questions.”  The newsprint questions ranged from “Why do cells divide?” to “Who last got a haircut?”

Well, that last one is Bird’s own.  She pulls the abstractions of academics into the lives of the kids, who all come from the immediate neighborhood of distilled poverty in Worcester, MA.  On average, UPCS students enter 7th and 8th grades two grade levels behind.  Eight-two percent receive subsidized lunch, a poverty indicator.  What do they care about mitosis?

After brainstorming the questions, the students read some assignments, and Bird gave a “mini-lecture.”  The kids take notes on what they learn in a journal which functions like a personal textbook, in their own words.  They struggle with textbook language, so formal textbooks become resource materials.

The kids read over the sheets and dive into their notebooks to see if any of the questions have been answered.  If so, students note in their journals that question #4 on sheet “C” was answered by something they’d learned from the reading or lecture.  After working on their own group’s questions, they take a “gallery walk,” moving from sheet to sheet, seeing what the other kids’ questions were, and if they’d been answered.

They’ll go back to these same questions a total of three times while they study this subject.  Next they’ll do a lab, and another gallery walk to see if it answers more questions.  More importantly, Bird enthuses, “Maybe you thought you answered that question in the first round.  But that might be the merely proficient answer.  With what you know now, what’s an answer that’s better than proficient?”  Deepen their understanding.  Guide them to dig deeper on their own.  There is no better intellectual tool than a good question powered by some curiosity.

UPCS’s whole strategy is to produce deep thinkers.  Constant questioning is only one of UPCS’s “six strategies to build college readiness.”  Other strategies include “collaborative group work” and “writing to learn,” as with the kids’ science notebooks.  But as their hand-out says, questioning fosters “purposeful conversations and stimulates intellectual inquiry.”

Deep thinkers can handle any test because they have experience and confidence with considering things thoroughly.

Fully 99 percent of the UPCS students routinely pass the MCAS.

But first UPCS often has to overcome the kids’ learned aversion to learning.

Bird muses, “When I was first teaching, I used to grade everything.  But what’s the message about taking risks and being curious?  I no longer focus on right and wrong.  Now I tell them that if they don’t know the information, they need to find it out.  That’s all.  This is tough stuff, but see how much you can get down in writing, and at least for today that’ll be enough.  I don’t get much push-back about the writing.  When you make a relationship with them, they’re willing to do things for you.”

She assures me that even her lectures involve lots of questioning back and forth.  If you full-on talk at these kids, who’ve been lectured to death in their authoritarian culture, they tend to wonder what’s on TV.  If they have to come up with questions – working with peers, not on their own – they have to shine some attention on the subject.  They’re not just absorbing information; they’re constructing their own primitive tools to go get information.

By the end of the 11th grade, UPCS students must be prepared to take at least one college course at their partner school, Clark University.  That’s a requirement.  So they’d better be adept at higher-order thinking skills and really confident about using questions to help them master difficult material.  They need to blend in with the smarty-pants college kids.

Despite the success with pushing kids to think deeply, this strategy hasn’t been replicated in any other Worcester schools.  Remarkable.

Of course, finding teachers who can do such work is no small thing.  Next week we’ll see how Clark works with UPCS to prepare new teachers of deep thinkers, and to support the existing ones.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and GoLocalWorcester. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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