Restorative circles

This new approach to discipline may be coming to your school. Here's why you should be wary

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Have you heard about restorative circles yet? If not, you will because they’re one of the latest passions in education.

Restorative circles are a new approach to discipline that brings together offenders and victims, their parents and school staff in a carefully structured and guided meeting where everyone gets to have their say. The goal is to help wrongdoers understand the impact of their actions and repair the harm they’ve done. Restorative circles can be used, usually with children aged 12 and up, for various significant but not highly serious cases of vandalism, assault, theft or rule breaking. They’re one aspect of restorative practice, which is a broader approach to building community, communication skills and good behaviour in schools.

At first glance, it’s hard not to like this idea. Discipline should be about teaching, not punishment. And helping children understand how their actions affect others is absolutely fundamental to building moral people.

So why am I so uneasy about restorative circles? It’s mainly because I’ve seen so many good ideas go awry. For teaching literacy, whole language was a useful approach that got a bad name because it was never really carried out properly, and certain ideologues thought whole language meant suppressing phonics (wrong!). Self-esteem became all but a dirty word because many of its cheerleaders didn’t understand what self-esteem really is or how it develops. (Hint: It doesn’t come from telling kids everything they do is great!)

Educators have this way of falling in love with new ideas and using them before they really know what they’re doing. I fear we will see the same fools-rush-in phenomenon with restorative circles.

Mark Totten, an Ottawa-based social worker, consultant and expert on youth justice issues, shares my concerns. He believes in restorative practice — if it’s handled right. Among other things, he thinks it has the potential to re-engage difficult kids who tend to get kicked out of school and soon become regular “clients” of the criminal justice system.

Totten says effective use of restorative circles requires a lot of expertise. “Nobody has any business doing restorative circles unless they are fully trained and have a clear understanding of how to do a proper assessment,” he says.

Restorative circles won’t work unless the offender admits responsibility, and his parents are committed to helping him change his behaviour. “Everybody involved has to be fully on board with the process and willing to devote the time it takes to do it right. It can be very hard to engage the parents of kids who have caused significant harm,” Totten warns.

Totten does not recommend one-off restorative circles when there’s true bullying (not minor teasing or bugging). “In cases of ongoing victimization, it’s crucial that schools do a proper intake (assessment of the situation beforehand), and then provide follow-up support for both the bully and victim. Otherwise, there’s a very real risk of increased harm to the victim,” he says.

If restorative circles are coming to your school, ask questions before you jump on the bandwagon. How much training will teachers get? What tools will be used to assess when restorative circles are and are not appropriate? How will the safety of victims of bullying be ensured?

Concerns aside, I actually hope the restorative approach to school discipline proves successful. If it works, schools will be able to do a much better job of serving hard-to-serve kids. But spare me The Emperor’s New Clothes stories of instant transformative success. Making ideas like this really stick takes time and practice, not slogans and boosterism.

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