Restorative Practices: A Critical Component to Closing the Opportunity Gap

Last year at this time, Stuart (a sixth grader whose name I’ve changed to protect his privacy) had torn other students’ work to pieces, pulled large projects off the walls, thrown books and chairs, and yelled in frustration during challenging times. Despite this, I never asked Stuart to leave my classroom. All-too-often, educators like me are challenged to decide whether or not we’ll rely on disciplinary practices that can pull more students into the school-to-prison pipeline and thus widen the opportunity gap.

I knew that if I was going to succeed in coaching Stuart back into an enjoyable and life-long journey of learning, I needed to use restorative practices.

I knew that Stuart was dealing with a lot as he had experienced many different forms of trauma throughout this childhood and young adult life. When I told mom what I was observing in the classroom, she told me it mirrored what she was seeing at home. I promised her I wouldn’t give up on Stuart. I knew I would try my hardest to keep my word, but underneath, I was scared. Watching Stuart start to kick the child in front of him as he lined up outside my classroom or yell obscenities in Spanish, I tried to anticipate what might come next. I knew that he and I were going to spend the next ninety minutes solving whatever problems arose.

Recently, early childhood discipline practices have been gaining attention. Several states, including California, Maryland, and Tennessee, have passed bills to curtail the rising rate of suspension and expulsion in pre-k through second grade classrooms.  Now a group of stakeholders in Colorado is attempting to pass HB1210, a bill that would significantly limit a school district’s ability to suspend or expel pre-k through second grade students. This bill would be a great step forward for students like Stuart, who has surely felt the negative impact of exclusionary and punitive school discipline policies in the past.

Incorporating restorative justice practices into my teaching is challenging but the positive impact on students is worth it. When such practices are in place, schools becomes a place where students feel they belong, instead of one where hateful words and behaviors are fought with hateful responses. When restorative justice practices are in place, students know school as a community where their voices are heard and understood as important. They know it as a safe space for them to solve problems and resolve conflicts.

While Colorado legislators debate the current bill, we teachers can take immediate steps to bring restorative justice into our classrooms:

Take a moment to get to know them: Walk to Seven-Eleven and eat Hot Cheetos with a group of the extra challenging boys in your class after lunch. Talk Beyoncé with the seventh grade girls. It is the moments in between the lesson planning, the returning of tests, and the drilling of study habits, that move the relationship forward.

Be the adult in the room: Just as it is our responsibility to teach academic material, it is our responsibility to teach respect, kindness, and patience. We do that by modeling it at all times, no matter what the situation asks of us.

Assume the best: In many communities, students will often have the responsibilities and the problems that exceed the capacity of many adults. Remember that bad behavior is probably not motivated by a malicious spirit but is driven by something outside of the student’s control.

A year-and-a-half later, Stuart and I are still working together daily even though I am not his teacher anymore.  He comes to sit with me and tells me about his day’s frustrations.  Last year, Stuart wasn’t capable of talking about his feelings until the following day after any incident. With a day to reflect, Stuart would come to meet with me to talk about what had happened the day before and would often cry. I always told him, “I’ll never give up on you. I’ll always be right here.” Together, we learned to manage his anger and talk through his challenges. Stuart now has a planner in which he tracks his positive and negative days. When we started this behavior tracker, there were forty-nine days until the soccer season began and he had to have forty positive days to play his favorite sport. We’re more than half-way there and he’s only had four negative days. I know that together we’ll make it.

Kathleen (Anderson) Campbell teaches at STRIVE Prep – Kepner, a turnaround school in Southwest Denver.  She was a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year.  Kathleen is a Teach Plus Colorado Teaching Policy Fellow.

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