Perspective: Restorative Practices

Download audio (MP3) | KQED

Amy Merickel learns a better way for adults to help kids resolve disputes.
By Amy Merickel
When my daughter started Kindergarten, I volunteered as a recess monitor. In between the peals of laughter, I noticed something that bugged me. Students who cut in line, grabbed a ball out of turn or caused other trouble were getting benched. Some of them were being cast as "troublemakers."

As an education policy researcher I worried they were on a path to underachievement. As a mom I wondered if there might be a better way. I found it in something called Restorative Practices.

It's a framework for community building and conflict resolution, and is predicated on high expectations with high support to meet them. In education, Restorative Practices emphasizes building trusting relationships and learning from conflict. It helps put the kibosh on bullying.

Say a kid grabs someone's ball and a tussle ensues. A traditional approach would be to intervene, take the ball away, and give the perpetrator a time-out. The new approach turns that whole process on its ear.
When everyone has calmed down, you ask a simple question: "What just happened, and what were you thinking as it happened?" The answer could be "I wanted to shoot baskets but no one would give me their ball." There are a few more follow-up questions, concluding with, "What do you think needs to be done to make things right?"

Now, you may be thinking this is too time-consuming every time there's a squabble over a ball. But by just asking how their behavior affects others, the seed is planted for students to reflect on their actions and make things right.

San Francisco public schools adopted the Restorative Practices framework in 2009. As it spreads, suspensions and expulsions are decreasing.  In my view, it's no coincidence.

Recently I saw a kid grab a classmate's hat. I used this approach and the exchange went well enough. But afterward what he said blew me away: "You know, what's really bothering me is a problem I'm having with those other kids. Can we have the same talk with them?"

So we did. We simply got to the heart of the matter and worked it out.

With a Perspective, I'm Amy Merickel