Can Schools Teach What Kids Don’t Learn At Home?

Published by — Kids are often switching between two different value systems — the middle-class values of school and whatever their culture is at home.


Back in the early 1990s, Margaret Thorsborne was among the original group of Australians exploring restorative justice and its applications.  Eminent criminologist John Braithwaite was among them.  At this point, her international experience in workplaces, communities and schools has made her something of a rock star in the field, so she gave the keynote at the recent Skidmore College Restorative Practices Symposium.

She started as a high school biology teacher in a school on the east coast of Australia.  Then, as she put it in her charming Aussie way, she “went sideways” into school counseling.  It was there, in the course of honing counseling skills, that she discovered “the Restoration stuff.  It grabbed me by the throat.”

She began her address with an adaptation of a John Herner quote:

If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we… punish?

It is completely weird when you think about it.

Both parents and teachers teach their children how to do things by having kids repeat and practice what they’re trying to learn.  Thorsborne says that somehow it has gotten into our DNA that that when it comes to behavior, having a child suffer will be the deterrent to future misdeeds.  “I’ve discovered that schools are the same all over the world.  There’s always the worry that if kids don’t experience consequences, the sky will fall.”

Rules are “dreadfully important,” of course. 

But breaking a rule is not like getting a math problem wrong, because broken social rules have an adverse effect on the people around the child, on the classroom, friends or family.  But social rules aren’t universal.  Each neighborhood, faith-based community and family develops a culture with values from which rules emerge.

And that’s the rub for schools, according to Thorsborne: those cultures vary enormously.  In fact, more often than not, modern kids are switching between two radically different value systems — the distinctly middle-class values of school and whatever the culture is at home.  “Kids aren’t lining up for anything at home.”  Similarly, they aren’t sitting still for longer than 20 minutes.  Adolescents who swear a blue streak likely live in a home or among friends where such language is normal.  A kid’s non-school world has a wealth of norms, which they learn by imitation.  The chasm between the expectations of home and school can be huge.

Schools, on the other hand, are very articulate about their rules and consequences, setting them forth in lengthy handbooks, as if that settles the matter.  Posters that adorn hallways and classrooms trumpet values that are usually about “respect, responsibility and achievement.”  But, Thorsborne says, “a value is of no value to anyone unless you can see its value in others’ behavior.  They need to see the value in the adult behavior.  You can’t expect to see a behavior you haven’t taught.”

“This business is really about relationship management.”

Relationships shape kids’ values.  “Kids can’t do things right because we said it once or they read our minds.  They need focused repetition,” guided by caring adults, “to understand how to behave appropriately according to their social context.”

Thorsborne suggests that an effective way of shaping school-appropriate behavior is to bring the parents in and brainstorm with them about responding to behavior issues.  If their child has been bullied, teased or pushed, what would they like to happen?  Often those answers are harsh.  Okay, but what if their child is the person doing the harm, as the thief, instigator or aggressor?  Suddenly the adults want understanding, empathy, and a stronger emphasis on getting to the motivation for unwanted behavior.  No one wants their own child humiliated, ostracized, or hurt.  They want compassionate responses — unless the offender is someone else’s kid.

What matters most to kids is that they have a sense of belonging and that people care about them.  Thornsborne says, “A wee chat with the kid will probably nudge the child back on the path of righteousness.  But not if the kid doesn’t care about you.”  Probably the biggest problem with punishment is how deeply it alienates and shuts children down at home as well as at school.

As such — and I thought this was brilliant — she urges that we quit thinking about “behavior systems,” and think instead about “relationship systems.”  A narrow focus on an individual kid’s behavior essentially blames the kid and leaves out all other factors and people.  Unless problematic relationships are restored, among peers and teachers alike, teaching and learning will surely be undermined.  Too often we have student behavior systems which leave the adults’ behavior entirely out of the equation.  So the kid never feels invited into the fold.  That just won’t work among modern kids.

So, as Thorsborne says, “This business is really about relationship management.”


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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Students Curb Classroom Misbehavior with ‘Shirt of Shame’

Published by — What can happen when a group makes up its own rules and consequences.


At the beginning of this school year, chemistry teacher Brandon Haggerty facilitated a negotiation among his “Crew” students to agree on group norms for themselves.  Haggerty’s school, the Greene Charter School in rural, leafy Exeter, RI, is an Expeditionary Learning school where what would otherwise be an advisory program group are “Crews.”  Crews are like advisories, but they also have responsibilities they must accomplish as a team, like tending the vegetable garden.  Of course, creating group norms is a good idea for any work team, youth or adult.  People collaborate best if they have clear expectations of one another.  And it’s good experience for successful careers.

So these 12th-grade Crew members developed a solid set of mutual rules that govern issues like confidentiality, consensus decision-making, and my favorite: “keep it light and positive, avoid drama and vindictiveness.”  Articulating their own rules gives kids a say in the matter and an understanding of why they need rules.

But this year was a little different.  The year before, Greene had begun the work of implementing Restorative Practices, which build strong communities that include everyone, including the “bad” kids.  So this fall, Haggerty’s group went a step beyond setting mutual expectations and also mapped out a set of consequences for not adhering to their own rules.  The group — Haggerty himself represents only one of the voices — will decide which of the consequences fit the norm violation.  They brainstormed and settled on four “fallouts,” as they called them.  Which are:

*  Give two compliments — in the event of a thoughtless criticism, for example;

*  Put a nickel in a money jar — for things like a mindless swear;

*  Give up their phone to Mr. Haggerty for Crew period — and surely you know what a sacrifice this is;

*  Wear the shirt of shame for as long as the group decides — for serious offenses.

This kind of accountability is about being responsible. 

As of this writing, the specific shirt had not been chosen.  They have several contenders.  It’s clearly fun to think about.  Furthermore, the kids proudly announced that the shirt would not be washed, although you could see a startled Dean of Students, Alex Edelmann, considering pushing back on this feature.  Not that she did.  Yet.  Let the kids figure it out.

Student Jessica says, “This kind of accountability is about being responsible.  You own up to your actions to yourself and whoever you offended or hurt.  I’m thinking that this will probably keep certain people who disrupt from doing that.  I know it wouldn’t be worth it to me to have to wear the dirty shirt just to interrupt and be disruptive.”

And there you have it.  This Crew is creating their own social control system.  We all resist other people’s rules and regulations when we don’t see what’s in it for us.  When these teens get drivers’ licenses, for example, hopefully they’ll have a deeper understanding that traffic laws are there to keep them safer on the roads.

Teens are naturally narcissistic, invincible, and not fully mindful of the consequences of their own actions.  By creating consequences along with norms, they teach each other that order in their own classroom is up to them to maintain, not someone else’s work.

Granted, a shirt of shame sounds like born-again Puritanism.

It’s a little like putting people in stocks.  But this is not a sentence imposed by an adult or anyone but themselves.  Youth would naturally devise “fallouts” that are more real to them and more socially expensive than anything they can just dismiss as “the teacher doesn’t like me.”  Suspensions don’t work well as deterrents.  Instead, as Jessica points out, that shirt would seriously discourage the kinds of behavior the kids themselves dislike most.

A restorative culture helps kids and adults own their community’s health and happiness.  Everyone, adults and kids, can expect to be called on to account for their actions, and therefore learn to verbalize what they were thinking, feeling, or hoping to get from their behavior.  (Sometimes the behavior makes a lot more sense than you would have guessed.)  Restorative justice/practices often get a bad rap for being “soft,” but many students would far rather be suspended than have to stand there and explain their thinking, or lack of it – never mind wear that shirt.

Another Greene teacher, Meg Dutton, had also gotten her Crew to agree to their own restorative consequences.  And in fact, one of her students misbehaved.  But he took responsibility for his actions, and per their class consequences, he dutifully sang a song for 30 seconds.  Since that incident, the class has endured zero misbehavior.

Nope, it’s just not worth it.


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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Teachers Must Be Mindful of Traumatized Children

Published by — Misbehavior may seem like a choice, like willful defiance.  But sometimes it’s a cry for help.


Today we’re in the brightly painted library of an urban elementary school.  It’s the last day of professional development before the summer officially ends.  The faculty are still in shorts and sandals.  While they sigh over how quickly the season passed, the vibe among them is jolly and warm.

Up next to help prepare this group for the new school year is a presentation called “Helping to Reach and Teach the Traumatized Child.”  Amy Simpson, Clinical Director from Family Services of RI, starts us off by having teachers build a list of the sorts of things considered traumatic — death of a loved one, divorce, loss of employment, medical procedures, natural disasters and sexual, verbal and physical abuse, among many others.  The list was long.  “Unfortunately long,” Simpson called it.  But in truth, it was just a list.  Perhaps we mused a bit on the tough experiences identified by the list that we’ve actually had.

But without a palpable taste of what trauma feels like, it’s just an abstraction.

Then, with sincere apologies, Simpson introduces her audience to a YouTube recording.  Listen to “Lisa 911 Call” only if you’re ready for three memorably upsetting minutes.  Or take my word for it:

A girl, presumably Lisa, sounding 7 or 8ish, has called 911 because her stepfather is beating her mother.  She’s crying so hysterically it takes a while to get the basics of the situation.  Subtitles help you understand that the man goes drinking at “the club” and this happens, according to her, “forever and ever.”  You can hear the fight in the background.  Terrified, the child barely holds it together to work with the 911 operator.

The operator is super calm and all business.  Her tone implies she’s taking a serious problem seriously, but not emotionally.  She assures Lisa that the police are on their way and that she will stay on the phone with the girl until help arrives.  Lisa is only nominally calmed by the promise of help.  The operator asks if the front door is unlocked.  “Oh, no,” cries the girl, because she doesn’t think it is.  So she just puts the phone down and runs to give the police access.  Her end of the line now has only the sounds of the fight, so for an agonizing 10 seconds my mind raced to all manner of horror, including Lisa getting caught by the her stepfather.

But she comes back, and says she unlocked the door.  But her hysteria crescendos again, because the man “knocked out” her little sister.  Finally, Lisa’s cries rise to a piercing crest because “he’s got the baby.”  She’s frantic to see what happened and puts the phone down.  The operator calls after her — “Lisa!”  The line goes dead.  The operator swears.

Oy.  We’re all shaken.  The point is, as Simpson says gently:

“It is conceivable that this child will be in your classroom the next day.”

Okay.  Point taken.  But now a whole room of adults are fairly upset.  They let Simpson know they did not appreciate that experience.  Empathetically, she honors their experience.  Without a hint of dismissing their feelings, she explains that “As adult professionals, we can re-regulate.  Kids have a far harder time.  And when they are traumatized or an old trauma is triggered, their brains go into survival mode and they stop learning.”

So the big take-away is that brain research has shown definitively that trauma shuts down the brain’s ability to learn.  The traumatized brain becomes consumed with fight-or-flight and shuts down learning.  Multiplication tables?  The life cycle of rivers?  Greek myths?  Forget it.  The kid can’t think.

So educators themselves need to become, as the presenters call it, “trauma-informed.”  They need to know it’s ubiquitous and to begin collecting techniques to avoid triggering it at a minimum.  Trauma might be as fresh as Lisa’s if she goes to school the next day.  Or it might have happened in the past, perhaps on a prolonged basis.  Either way, it can be triggered in the present time by a seemingly innocuous story, a certain gesture, a harsh tone of voice, or who knows?

Adults have their own feelings and can react in ways that escalate.

Teachers naturally expect cooperation from their students and work to discipline unruly kids.  Misbehavior may seem like a choice, and sometimes it is.  But it could well be a reaction to unmet needs resulting from trauma.  Still, a flare-up of unwanted behavior can feel defiant, insulting and disrespectful to a college-educated adult who’s trying to manage 30 kids and a lesson plan.  Still, anyone can trigger a traumatic flashback quite accidentally, and angry responses are known to make matters worse.

The school’s principal summed up the palpably painful lesson, “Getting in a student’s face is never appropriate.  But it’s especially inappropriate with traumatized kids.  You might feel attacked or the child is defiant, but in truth the child is reaching out.  It’s not about you.”

That’s hard to remember when a kid is lashing out at you.  And while trauma is better understood, classroom responses to it require time and training, both of which are in seriously short supply, especially in urban schools.  Still, knowing how to avoid triggering is a great start.


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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Punishment is Not Accountability

Published by — Being forced to think twice is how we change behavior and develop a conscience.


Webster’s Dictionary defines accountability as “The state of being liable to answer for one’s conduct.”  Everyone needs to be able to give an account for their actions at times.  In fact, they should expect to do so when they misbehave or just make mistakes.  We owe it to each other to dig into our thinking and feelings to articulate our side of the story.  The details are critical to understanding what happened and what will make things right.

Listening to someone unpack their mistakes takes patience.  But unless they do, how on earth can they learn not to do it again?  Who knows what relevant information gets missed when we rush to judgment?

A terrific high-school principal makes a serious mistake.

A principal well-versed in Restorative Practices, whom we’ll call Mr. Draco, tells this story about himself.  A student complained that her cell phone was stolen from her backpack.  Insult to injury, she’d earned the money to buy the phone herself.

Her teacher had taken the class outside on a lovely day, so the girl described the spot where students had parked their backpacks when the theft occurred.

Draco and a Restorative Dean (of Discipline) went through the security tapes.  The video was grainy, but they identified the thief as a girl who was constantly in trouble.  School meant nothing to her.  Teachers were good and sick of her, and everyone’s kinder, gentler efforts had failed to date.  Frankly, Draco was relieved she’d finally done something they could kick up to the police, who might be able to scare her into more cooperative behavior.

But before calling the cops, Draco called the mom.  He assured both her and the girl that if the phone were returned, the consequences would not include police.  The girl denied the allegation.  Mom flew into a giant rage, hollering about how the school always targets her daughter, trumping up all sorts of nonsense.  Draco assured them this was not trumped up and that they could come the next day to see the tape for themselves.  If the girl brought the phone, they’d figure out an appropriate restitution.

Discipline conversations were held in the Dean’s office, which happened to have new video equipment with crisper images.  Just to be sure, they looked again and lo, they’d been dead wrong.  The real culprit was someone else, a “good” girl.  In effect, they’d profiled the accused.  She’s a bad kid; it looked like her; done deal.

Draco was so freaked he called the Restorative Coordinator for advice.

OMG.  He’d jumped to conclusions.  No two ways about it.  He took great pride in his close-but-honest relationships with the kids.  And here he was guilty of the same knee-jerk behavior he tries to curb among the kids.  The day had been fast-moving, distracting, busy.  Could there be legal repercussions against him or the school?  His reputation would be shot among the parents.  This was catastrophic.

The Coordinator let him vent and then suggested taking a deep breath.  What restorative practice is needed here?  When a kid has done something wrong, what should happen?  Ah!!  Yes!!  Draco would own up to what he’d done and be accountable.  Mom and daughter might still be hideous to him; they had a right to be mad.  But at least he could be big enough to confess his poor judgment.

“I was wrong” was the first thing he said when the daughter opened the door.  Luckily they didn’t slam it in his face.  Instead, they heard him out.  All but cringing, he gave an honest account of what happened and why he’d jumped to conclusions.  He and the girl had had many run-ins.  If Mom and the girl saw the image in the grainy video, they’d see it did look a lot like her.  So it wasn’t nuts, just wrong.

He worried that if that’s how he’s thinking about her, maybe others are, too.  Mom and girl were pleased and grateful for his explanation and for letting her off the hook.  This apology was deeply satisfying.  Most importantly, his confessional point of view helped the girl see her behavior in a new light.  For once, they could talk about how to get her on a better track.  All of them felt better.  His relationship with the girl, still no angel, improved a lot.

Accountability does not mean punishment.  It’s not about paying for the crime.  In fact, punishing requires little or nothing of the culprit.  And compared with typical punishments, giving a full account of your behavior can feel like full-on torture.  You’re seeing yourself through the eyes of others.  Sometimes it’s not pretty.  But being forced to think twice is how we change behavior and develop a conscience.  Punishment is a useless distraction from the real work.


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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Punishment is Not Discipline

Published by — The end result of bad discipline strategy is prisons stuffed with high school drop-outs.


Recently Eva Moskowitz took to the Wall Street Journal to blast New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for promoting what she calls “lax discipline” in City schools.  Her op-ed outright sneers at his efforts to expand disciplinary strategies beyond suspension.  As the founder of the Success Academies, famous for their high test scores and strict, traditional discipline, Moskowitz clearly feels she has the cred to malign discipline alternatives.

The problem is that she, along with so many others, confuse discipline with punishment and kicking kids out.  Discipline means to teach.  Yes, as a culture we’ve lost our compassion for children and developed zero tolerance for truly bad or even misguided behavior.  Suspensions teach intolerance of the behavior.  But where’s the lesson on how to behave cooperatively?  The practice sessions?  Is mere compliance good enough?

Moskowitz writes, “Suspensions convey the critical message to students and parents that certain behavior is inconsistent with being a member of the school community. Pretend suspensions, in which a student is allowed to remain in the school community, do not convey that message.”  The message is: you, Kid, are not welcome in our community.

Punitive methods ignore problems at the root of the behavior.

Punishing kids — yelling, berating, suspending — can teach some kids fear-driven compliance.  Certain kids become cowed into submission, which is convenient to authority figures, but disheartening.  Others temporarily stuff their desire to rebel and explode later on.  Still others get a whole lot worse right away.  Misbehavior often flags that the kid’s in trouble, so yelling at her misses an opportunity.  If Mom’s getting hit, or there’s no food in the house, Success Academies leave it to the kid to figure things out while hanging by the TV during a suspension.

Moskowitz writes: “Proponents of lax discipline claim it would benefit minority students, who are suspended at higher rates than their white peers. But minority students are also the most likely to suffer the adverse consequences of lax discipline—that is, their education is disrupted by a chaotic school environment or by violence.”

Agreed, disruptive behavior is a scourge on the schools.  It’s bad, getting worse and should not be tolerated.  But so much of it is learned and comes from home.  In order to avoid conflict, many parents don’t enforce bedtimes, homework, or chores.  Putting limits on violent video games?  As one parent told me, “I don’t roll that way.  He’d be so mad.”  So some kids come to school this side of feral, used to getting their way.  No question: something bold must be done.

Sometimes the only functional adults in a kid’s life are at school.

As research has argued for years, all kids, but especially “bad” kids, need to develop terrific relationships with caring adults.  Suspensions are fast and easy while creating relationships is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and therefore expensive.  Enforcing rules doesn’t require relationships; cooperation does.  Only the tugboat of a caring relationship can turn the Titanic of bad behavior.  Learning how to work well with others in a community setting is a critical skill for the low-income, minority children whom Moskowitz claims to hold dear to her heart.

In spite of the harsh stories about “no excuses” discipline, flocks of parents try to get their kids into such schools.  Last year Success Academies saw 20,000 applications for 2,688 seats in its 22 schools.  The test scores are attractive, but likely many parents are also hoping someone else will figure out how to teach their kids the discipline that they didn’t learn at home.   Success suspended 11% of their students last year, whereas the New York City public schools, where most Academies are located, suspended 4%.  Kick ‘em out; teach ‘em a lesson in intolerance.

Among the “lax discipline” techniques recommended by the Mayor are restorative practices.  Moskowitz says, “[Traditional] discipline also helps prepare students for the real world. In that world, when you assault your co-worker or curse out your boss, you don’t get a ‘restorative circle,’ you get fired.”  This is true.  But in the working world you’re an adult, not a kid.

What’s really lax is the ease of beating on a kid to get his compliance.  I marvel that few have a problem with “no excuses” schools being so proud of teaching compliance to children of color.  I see a this as a moral issue, given that middle class kids are more often coaxed into cooperation.  All kids need to learn to do the right thing because they see how it benefits them, and not just because it avoids emotional pain.

Sadly, building restorative relationships takes time.  And time costs money no one feels the taxpayer can afford.  Interestingly, the end result of bad discipline strategies — from harsh to neglectful — are prisons stuffed with high school drop outs.  Somehow we have no problem with finding tons of money for prisons.


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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Student Advocates for Better Discipline, Restorative Practices

Published by — When adults and students don’t take time to listen to each other, they can’t possibly develop empathy.


Xilian Sansoucy was hungry for leadership opportunities when she began her freshman year at Classical High School, an exam school in Providence.  “I think it’s exhilarating to present” in public, she said.  A friend pulled her into an organization called Young Voices (YV) which specializes in just that, nurturing student leadership. In collaboration with other student organizations, leaders from YV increasingly make themselves known and heard around the state, advocating for issues they’ve agreed are important. Sansoucy took to YV like the proverbial duck to water.

Young Voices’ training begins with gathering their new recruits into student-led workshops where they research a question and share their discoveries.  In one of these exercises, Sansoucy’s research on school discipline strategies revealed stark, even startling, differences between discipline at her old school, a private independent, and her new one, very much a public school.  She explains that as an Asian-American, she chose Classical for its student diversity and “to get opened up to the real world.”  Part of that real world is Classical’s traditional discipline system that relies primarily on suspensions and detention to control behavior.

She says, “But suspensions just postpone getting to a solution.  Then the student gets suspended again, and the problem still doesn’t get solved.  Some students like suspensions because they don’t like school.  So how are suspensions helping?”

The one time she remember a fellow private school student being suspended, he was completely out of control with rage.  She didn’t know why he was so mad, but he was calm when he came back.  His time away was more about cooling off than getting kicked out.

In the workshop on school discipline strategies, Sansoucy was able to put the words to her private school discipline: “restorative justice” and “restorative practices.”  If she misbehaved in her old school, she’d have to sit down with adults and discuss the issue until it was resolved or the circumstances restored.  Problems got solved and kids were less inclined to misbehavior.  So the disparities in approaches to discipline became an equity issue for her: her experience of private school discipline is that it works on teaching behavior with restorative conversations; public school kids get kicked out.

You and I might suggest that public school kids generally have more and tougher issues. Teachers have larger classes of these harder students.  Sansoucy would reject these circumstances as reasons not to give the students the attention they clearly need.  She feels that while public schools have many terrific teachers, they also tolerate teachers who just don’t care and who let their students know that.  When adults and students aren’t listening to one another, or don’t take the time to, they can’t possibly develop empathy for one another.  She believes that this lack of caring is feeds the punitive mentality.

Conversely, she feels that her private school teachers were so much more connected to the students that they noticed interpersonal tensions long before they festered into problems.  When a girl-fight did blow up into open argument, teachers sat down with them after school for as many days as it took to get to the bottom of the issue.  One girl was popular and the other resentful about getting left out of everything.  “We started to see them getting along again and hanging out.  I definitely believed that they (the private school) had the solution.  If they’d ignored the fight, it would have gotten worse.  The one girl was not wanting to come to school.”

Sansoucy says, “The downside is that restorative practices take more time and dedication from the teachers.  But it doesn’t have to be too fancy.  Being able to sit down in a circle with whoever has misbehaved, after school or in a classroom, doesn’t cost extra.  It’s just about getting people on board.  Once teachers and adults realize it’s more efficient, kids will stop misbehaving so much, and there will be more learning time.  It’s just a matter of helping them visualize how this will play out.  I’ve started spreading awareness of restorative practices.”

Already as a sophomore, this plucky young woman now goes out and speaks in intimidating circumstances.  She reports that her conversation with the Governor “was really nerve-wracking.”  Most recently she represented student voice in a speech to the annual Kids Count breakfast, easily the biggest political event of the year for those concerned with children and youth in Rhode Island.  Among her other remarks to them, she said:

“Currently at Classical, our discipline system has been very old fashioned.  But we can replace these punitive practices with restorative justice.  No student should be suspended for being tardy…  No student should have to get detention or suspension for something that easily could have been prevented by a simple talk with an adult, [allowing them to explain] why they had misbehaved, instead of expecting them to figure out for themselves what they’d done wrong.  If high school students are expected to behave like adults, we need to be treated like adults.”

She got a well-deserved standing ovation.  If she is the picture of future leadership, we might do very well.


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.

[Image: Peter Goldberg Photo]

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Ask Kids Good Questions, Then Let Them Answer

Published by — In conference, we understand why many parents want to speak for their kids.  But it’s very enabling.


Today we’re in a conference with school staff, Mom, and her middle-school son who we’ll call Ryan.  Kids and their families come to conference when the youth’s behavior negatively affects the school community.  Conferences are structured meetings designed to get to the root of the problem.

Ryan’s already missed 15 days of school.  Mom notes that her kids always skip the first week or so because “nothing happens anyway.”  (School staff cringe.)  Then every day he did come, he was tardy.  Rhode Island law deems that four tardies add up to an absence.  So he’s already way over the 18 days, or 10% of a 180-day school year, that defines “chronic absenteeism” and eligibility for Truancy or Family Court.

Tardiness is not a petty issue.  Once teachers have settled their classes down to work, each tardy kid disrupts the class; each needs settling themselves.

Employers and colleges get furious with K-12 education because K-12 seems to teach lax attendance by tolerating it.  Reliably showing up on time is a basic life skill.

Conferences put the focus and onus on the kid.

If Ryan can’t figure out how to change his own behavior, the adults will have to keep working on it for him.  So after a few preliminaries, the meeting begins by asking him questions to understand what’s making him late.  He wriggles, paying no attention to the proceedings, waiting for it to be over.  Mom answers all the questions.  When asked to let him speak, she says, “He doesn’t like to talk, so I do it.”

While she’s refreshingly blunt about it, conference facilitators see many parents who think nothing of speaking for their kids.  Very enabling.  No one likes the uncomfortable silence that falls while it dawns on the kid that the adults seriously expect an answer.  It’s sorely tempting to let him or her off the hook.

In fact, even some school staff find the silence too painful.  Yes, some are just impatient.  But many suffer the pervasive and misguided belief that a kid shouldn’t feel bad, ever.  So like the parents, they too rush in to spare the kid the work of formulating an answer.

We all hate that prick of shame we all get when we’ve done something we’re not proud of.  But, as John Braithwaite points out, shame builds conscience.  Sometimes children or youth need to squirm on the other end of a good question to start taking ownership of their crummy choices.

What’s important is not to let them get stuck in shame.  Once they’re chagrinned by the poor choices they’ve made, adults can help them find specific strategies to avoid the mess again.  But first the grownups need to swallow hard and not enable.

Recently, Ryan’s mom has been driving Ryan and his siblings to school to make sure they’re on time.  So she’s clueless as to why he’s always late.  With kind questioning, Ryan finally starts explaining that he gets caught up in school social life and ignores the bell.  Oh, and his first-period teacher doesn’t like him.  School staff suggest that tensions with that teacher could be a result of disrupting the class every single day, which might go away when that stops.  Yeah, he can kinda see that.

Mom jumps in again, swearing she’ll make him obey.  Actually, Mom, you can’t.  His behavior is up to him.  In only a few years, after high school, he’ll legally be a man.  It’s easier to learn the habits of successful men while still young.  Later on Mom can’t help him if he’s in trouble.  He’d feel funny about bringing his mom to take care of problems if his boss or college professor is mad about his being late.

Ryan bursts out laughing.  In a little impromptu role-play he tells his imaginary boss that he’s going to tell his mom, ’cause she’s going to fix things.  He cracks himself up.  This is the moment conferences aim for.  He gets what a doofus he’s been.  Whether he changes his behavior is yet to be seen.  But he made it over the first hump and saw himself through the eyes of others in the context of his community.

Then he gets hugely creative with offering specifics for his Restoration Plan.  Many kids just shrug when facilitators probe for their solutions.  But Ryan knows there’s an alarm clock he can use.  He’ll lay out his clothes and shower the night before.  And more.  He’s on it.

Ryan signs the Restoration Plan.

Suddenly super serious, he’s like a national leader signing an act of war.  Mom’s a little taken aback, but she signs too.  They make a date for a follow-up meeting.  Ryan’s strangely gleeful.  Empowered, hopefully.  He gets a late pass and all but skips out of there.

Mom looks like she has a lot of questions she can’t quite formulate.  Her idea of good parenting had been to force her kids’ compliance and when that fails, to protect them from accountability.  It hadn’t been working.  She’s speechless.  Without smiling, she offers her hand and says a sincere thanks to the adults.

Kids are often lectured, yelled at or otherwise punished.  But few seem to have actually been held accountable and asked to explain, own and account for their actions.  Conferencing does them the favor of asking hard questions and expecting answers.


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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Teaching Kids To Manage Their Own Behavior

Published by —  Asking sincerely curious questions about their motives and choices puts the onus on the kids to do some actual thinking.


Being held after school for a little straightening out are ten 6th-graders who were involved in one of two incidents.  Three girls were so compulsively talking with each other, they had to be removed from class.  And during recess, the seven others caused a minor melee when a bee wandered into their midst.  They’d swung wildly trying kill the bee, shrieking and kicking up more chaos than the few adults on the sadly small playground could easily calm.

The consequence is to be held for After-school Restoration (ASR), a re-designed of detention according to restorative principles.  While sitting in a circle with a couple of adults, they pass a “talking piece” to indicate who should be doing the talking.  In turn, each kid gets a bit of kind, firm adult attention.  Adults don’t lecture or berate.  They mostly ask calm questions.  Why are you here?  What happened?  Who was affected?  What might have been a better choice?  How can you prevent this from happening again?  Like that.  Often kids get annoyed, but that’s okay.

Compulsive talkers are super-common in ASR.

School is where friends connect, and lots of adolescents can’t let go of fun conversation.  Two of the three girls in today’s group are notorious chatters.  But they’re basically cooperative, so they’re just here for an inconvenient reminder to get back onto their game.  They probably wouldn’t be here except for getting caught up with a third girl whose issues run deeper.  “I talk because I can’t stop talking,” she says. “I know it.  If you let me talk now, I’ll just keep talking.”  The other kids giggled at that, but she was grim as the Reaper.  We ask if she’d like to talk to a counselor or someone about the issue.  She nods a fierce yes.  Ah, she wants help.  ASR frequently unearths issues that need further attention.  Moving on.

The bee situation is trickier.  These low-income, urban kids have precious little first-hand experience of nature.  Interestingly, they know that the proper way to respond to a bee is to hold still and leave it alone.  But you can just picture how totally exciting it looked when one of them used the bee as an excuse to flail about.  Others joined in, screaming and carrying on.  As we go around the circle, getting fresh versions of the story, the bee threat gets increasingly dramatic and entertaining to tell.  By the end, the bee was the size of a grapefruit. “It was THIS big!,” enthused one girl, her hands indicating its Jurassic scale.

But causing a ruckus is not okay.

The problem is that while this group totally unnerved the few adults responsible for a large recess, many of them badly need to run around, scream and flail.  They shouldn’t be unsafe, to be sure.  But they sit more way than young bodies ought to sit — not just in school, but at home with their electronics.  Even I have to suppress the urge to run and scream, so I can only imagine how much frustrated, often-traumatized urban kids want to shriek and thrash about.  I ponder how these students might get opportunities to run off steam, but today, here in ASR, we really need them to figure out how to manage themselves when tempted to lose control.  In truth, they know they were inappropriate.  But it was such a blast, they’d probably do it again if given the chance.

The last child to speak is a studious girl who’d wrongly gotten caught in the sweep of the bee incident.  She saw the bee and backed away, but not far enough for the supervising adult to distinguish her from the flailing kids.  She was furious about being detained.  For good reason.  So we tried to help her see that at the time, calming the chaos was more urgent than getting her side of the story.  Adults make mistakes.  This was one.  The other kids backed her up, admitting she hadn’t joined them.  Really?  You knew she wasn’t involved, but you let her get accused of something she didn’t do?  They shrugged and said they were sorry.  The girl nodded, nominally vindicated.  We suggested she could be a non-bossy leader in future by saying, “This does not feel safe to me.”  She liked that.  So the bit of attention she got made up, somewhat, for the injustice of serving detention.

If kids are failing math, we don’t punish them.

We re-teach.  Kids need a lot of behavior teaching.  But when a kid gets lectured about what she did wrong, what does she hear?  Likely nothing.  But asking sincerely curious questions about her motives and choices puts the onus on the kid to do some actual thinking.  Adults’ calm patience nudges the little reprobate to take the questions seriously.  And if in the course of answering questions, they articulate what the lecture might have been, they got it.  You know they see the problem.

And that takes time and patience.  Just like all other teaching.

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Create More Disciplinary Options Than just Suspensions and Cops

Published by — “You’re outta here” gets the problem off the school’s plate — and postpones any real solution.

If you look into school-suspension data — state or local — you’ll find a bunch of numbers that tell you nothing about the severity of the offenses.  You’ll find high rates clustered in vague categories like “disorderly conduct” and “subordination/disrespect.”  Those could mean anything from mouthing off to a teacher to stealing a cell phone.  And what do suspensions for “assault” mean?  Assault is an arrestable offense, as are stealing, possession of illegal substances, sexual harassment and others.  Not everyone knows that often schools often tuck low-level arrestable offenses into suspension data.

But what should a school do with such offenses?  Many would insist the police be called.  Yes, if the kid has been outright violent or has already thumbed his nose at second chances, schools have little choice but to call the cops.  But generally, when kids do largely stupid things, the last thing most educators want is to involve police.

Involvement with the justice system can wreck any kid’s future.  Colleges ask about convictions, for example.  Even when kept quiet, arrests have a way of becoming fairly public.  Court proceedings are hard to hide.  Higher-income kids might get costly lawyers to help them, but a low-income kid entering the judicial system can seal an ugly fate.  The justice system puts poor kids on the assembly line for future prisoners known as “the school-to-prison pipeline.”  Most urban school adults resist — thank God! — adding more misery to the life of a kid who was born without a break in the first place.

Two bad options.  Neither of which holds the kid accountable.

So, schools can:  1.  Kick the kid to the cops.  Really harsh.  Potentially devastating.  Or 2.  Kick the kid out on suspension, which is basically a vacation on a couch in front of a TV.

There’s a ridiculous gap between the two.  But all forms of kick-out culture are super convenient.  “You’re outta here” gets the problem off the school’s immediate plate and onto someone else’s.  It also postpones getting a real solution.  As problems grow, solutions get harder — stupid experimentation with drugs can grow into a tough habit to break.  So in the long run, kicking out can become wildly expensive.  Look no further than America’s prison system with its worlds-record-breaking numbers of inmates.

Conferencing assembles a crisis-intervention team.

Schools in Baltimore, MD, Oakland, CA, and elsewhere are starting to introduce restorative-justice “conferencing” as another option.  If the offenders and their families take responsibility for their actions and come to conference, the school won’t call the cops, for now.  Victims, when there are such, also must agree.  If the parties want police involvement instead, that’s their choice.  But international experience shows that conferences are highly preferable and cost-effective.

Conferences stop the assembly line to gather a small group of family and allies, and perhaps a social-service support or two, to unpack the situation.  How did we get here?  What’s going on at home, in the community, among the offender’s friends that she would come to school high or boost a kid’s laptop?  Conference participants help each other understand how to change the circumstances so the offense won’t happen again.

Ideally, the offender collaborates with parents, victims, and other participants to develop restitution plans.  When and if the plan is completed, congratulations Kid!  You’ve got a clean slate.

Currently, schools don’t have the capacity to do this.

The problem is that conferencing takes time and labor — and sometimes tons of patience with parents who prove to be a bigger problem than the kid.  A facilitator has to make the calls, get the participants clear about the rules and consequences, and then monitor progress on the restitution plan.  Hardest of all is building partnerships with community members and businesses to create restitution options.  If the kid punches a hole in the wall, best she learn to drywall and fix the mess she made.  Sometimes kids need a fat reminder they live in a community that doesn’t appreciate cleaning up after their messes.

Most schools are already stretched to the max.  In some countries, conferencing is run by police departments, but America’s police are generally so punitive we wouldn’t want them doing the work.  The press, researchers, and advocacy groups make a lot of noise about the school-to-prison pipeline.  It wrecks kids, after all, along with the future workforce and public-services budgets.  But few states or municipalities want to put resources into alternatives.

This is changing.  Recently the Central Falls School Department received a National Institute of Justice grant to get a conferencing system up and running.  They’ll collaborate on this with 4 schools in other districts.  I am intimately involved in this initiative.   We’re trying to design a system that holds kids accountable, but in a way that helps them not just stay out of trouble, but get onto a good track.  We can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing.  It wrecks kids.

Please, wish us the best of luck.

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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Rebuilding Broken Trust in a College Community

Published by — Nothing is more convenient than the kick-out solution.  But avoiding unpacking the conflict weakens the community.

Professor David Karp runs a Restorative Justice initiative at Skidmore College and researches college-student discipline practices.  He tells this story:  Two students at a Colorado college got the brilliant idea that a prank could liven up a lecture class they found boring.  They would release a big bull snake during class.  These snakes have no venom, but look and rattle like rattlesnakes.  So, student #1 would leave a backpack containing the snake under a seat, unzip the pack and take off.  Student #2, looking to beef up his social life, would leap into the fray when the snake terrified his fellow students and become the people’s hero by bravely handling a harmless snake.

But as the drama played out, a biology major recognized the bull snake immediately and proceeded to handle it safely, grasping it just below the head.  Her educated response was ruining Student #2′s role as savior, so he grabbed the snake’s tail to get it away from her.  She lost her grip, and in the confusion, the snake bit her.  Instantly a sexy heroic act became a case of serious misconduct that was turned over to campus disciplinary officers.

Karp began his career as a researcher in law and criminal justice, but was surprised to discover that that colleges’ attitude to misconduct is not hugely different from the judicial system’s approach. Which is weird.  So his research shifted from prisons to colleges.

“As our trust in you diminishes, we’re going to work on getting rid of you.”

Karp explains that colleges have two responses to harmful behavior.  One is to impose harsh authoritarian punishment.  As he knew well from studying America’s over-flowing prison system, America is deeply committed to using punishment as a “solution” to anti-social behavior.  Historically, for colleges that’s meant 1960s scenes of protests and police beating students.  Think Kent State.

Or as a second option, Karp says, “Campus administrators search for alternatives that look like legalistic replications of ‘due process.’  There’s little talk about moral context or the consequences to the community — just discussions about whether procedures were followed.  Legal codes are content-free rules, deaf to circumstances.  Lawyers recommend that colleges create a ‘Model Student Conduct Code’ so if a student sues as a result of the college’s actions, the college will win the case.  There’s nothing about the reintegration of the student.”

These are colleges, mind you; supposedly teaching institutions.  And “discipline” means “to teach.”  Even so, depending on the offense, students might first lose social privileges or work-study jobs, then perhaps they’re barred from campus housing, and finally they’re expelled.  The message is:  “If you mess with us — whoever us is — we’ll try to change your behavior by hurting you with shunning or ostracism.”  Kick-out solutions to misbehavior are so accepted in our culture, we don’t question whether or not they work.  Actually, there’s no evidence they do.

“Trust is the gold standard of social capital.” 

Losing trust erodes any group’s willingness to cooperate and collaborate.  But how and where does anyone learn to repair broken trust when they’re thrown out of the community?  Putting the problem out of sight only gets rid of the person, not the problem.  The conflict remains unresolved.  So how do we build communities where each member has faith that however painful it’s going to be, the parties can work together to resolve conflict?  Healthy communities are made up of members who trust that talking an issue through, in a structured, facilitated way, will maximize a good outcome.  No guarantee, mind you, but maximize the possibility.

In cases like the snake prank, Restorative Justice programs like Karp’s offer students and families two choices.  They can do it old-school, lawyer up and refuse to accept responsibility.  Or they can go to “conference.”  That means that after considerable preparation, trained restorative practitioners bring the parties together. The face-to-face conference gives victims the opportunity to talk about their experience and to find out what on earth the offender thought he was doing.  Cooperative offenders learn a lesson they will never forget.  And restorative justice research shows that victim satisfaction is overwhelmingly positive.  Being heard is huge.

Restoration is hard, often painful work. 

When the student who’d grabbed the snake came to conference, he got an earful from the bio major and others he’d terrified in that class, which couldn’t have been easy on him.  In the end, he agreed to a restitution plan that would reinstate him at the college, in good standing.  He wrote a research paper on the trauma he probably caused the snake.  But most importantly, he studied up on restorative responses to stupid behavior, and later gave workshops in restorative practices using his own story as an illustrative example.  He continued giving these workshops well after his restitution was complete.

In the short run, nothing is more convenient than the kick-out solution.  But by avoiding the work of unpacking the conflict, the community itself is weakened.  And really, none of the parties learns a thing.  Which is a crime on a college campus.

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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