Why Discipline Should Be Aligned With A School's Learning Philosophy

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After school one day, a middle school girl got physically aggressive with one of her peers while still on school property. At some schools she would have been suspended or expelled for assaulting another student, but High Tech Middle Chula Vista is experimenting with restorative practices. So, instead of taking that typical disciplinary step, school leaders called the two students and their families in for a meeting, where they discussed what had led up to the point where she boiled over and lashed out.

“It was incredibly deep and emotional,” said Rhea Brown, a recent graduate of the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, who was working in the school at the time. Not only were the students able to talk through the underlying issues of the fight, but the student who would have been suspended ended up feeling reconnected to the school community, not alienated. And, she became a big advocate for restorative practices, often pushing students in conflict to meet with the social and emotional coach to work out their problems.

“Our approach really kept her as part of the community and really valued the strengths she was bringing, and honored what she was going through as a person,” Brown said. She could easily have been labeled troublemaker, but instead the experience turned her into a peacemaker.

Chula Vista has been experimenting with restorative practice for the past few years in a grass-roots way. It’s not the official discipline policy of the school, and when the occasion merits it, school leaders will suspend students. But some teachers are interested in shifting the way adults and teachers handle discipline to better match the student-centered, collaborative ways students learn in Chula Vista classrooms.

Schools in the High Tech High network have become well-known for their project-based approach to school. Students work collaboratively most of the time, following a line of inquiry and producing artifacts of learning as varied as the students in any class. Often called “deeper learning,” teachers in this model are trying to make sure content feels relevant to students and that the work they create makes an authentic impact on the world.

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“With deeper learning you’re aiming to get your kids digging into things, getting them engaged, getting them to invest in their learning, taking it over and being in charge,” said Brown. “So when your idea of discipline doesn’t match that, it’s really tough for kids.”

The mismatch between the independent, student-driven pedagogy of the school and the message sent by traditional discipline is part of the reason Chula Vista has been trying to shift toward restorative practices.

“It’s awesome to watch kids make pretty big mistakes, but then instead of that defining them, it’s really about what’s going on with this kid and how can we support them in making better decisions,” Brown said. The school staff is trying to see interpersonal and behavior mistakes in the same way they’d frame academic mistakes -- opportunities to learn and grow. A behavior version of growth mindset, so to speak.

Sarah Fine, a doctoral candidate at Harvard’s School of Education and a visiting scholar at High Tech High Graduate School, wrote about the close parallels she has observed, between restorative practices where students lead the accountability process and environments where powerful learning is happening, in an Education Week blog post. Fine writes:

“It wasn't until I interviewed the vice principal who had taken the video that I realized just how deep these parallels run. In describing her journey toward becoming a restorative educator, she talked not only about needing to master new practices but also about needing to unlearn deeply-rooted habits of control. ‘One of the lessons I've learned in implementing restorative circles is that when I insert myself the focus is no longer on the relationships among the kids or the social-emotional learning,’ she said. ‘And it can be so hard to do...you've got to have an open agenda, not a closed one, and you've got to be patient. You've got to get it out of your mind what you want them to say.’

Listening to her speak, I had an intense sense of déja-vu. The vice principal's descriptions echoed countless interviews I have conducted in which teachers have described their transition from traditional to more student-centered, constructivist, and/or critical pedagogies. As I reflected further, I realized that the parallels between these pedagogies and alternative discipline models can be explained by a set of shared underlying assumptions: a desire to draw out students' experiences and perspectives, a belief in the capacity of students to take the reins when provided with the right tools and support, an attentiveness to the fact that learning is often social in nature, and an easing of the traditionally top-down relationships between educators and those in their charge.”

Fine argues that just as academic work is more powerful when it is organized around a shared vision with internal coherence, so too school culture requires coherence. Pedagogy builds culture, just as discipline practices can teach skills.

“Culture is being enacted at every moment in the classroom when you’re talking about academic content or when you’re talking about what Jose did when he threw a paper airplane,” Fine said.

While schools tend to treat academics and discipline as two siloed areas, with separate staff and credentials to handle them, in reality “the boundaries are more porous than lots of people think,” Fine said. Educators working hard to transform their instructional approaches might be simultaneously undermining the message that they believe kids can solve problems, learn from mistakes and be productive members of the community every time a behavior issues arises.

“The most powerful restorative conferences I’ve seen have a lot of learning going on,” Fine said. What’s more, the lessons are entirely developmentally appropriate and important to young people, especially adolescents. They are constantly thinking about how they interact with the world, how they confront power, how they wield it and who they want to become.

GETTING AT THE ROOT CAUSE

Many big school districts have been trying to implement restorative practices in response to inequitable suspension numbers. While those inequities are important to document and imperative to reduce, a blanket restorative justice policy from the district without extensive training and buy-in from teachers often backfires. Without the traditional toolbox to fall back on, but with no real new tools either, teachers and administrators are stuck in the middle and might even continue to suspend without documenting it.

“If you’re implementing restorative justice just to get your suspensions down, then you’re not getting at the root of why you’re suspending kids in the first place or the issues going on that are leading to suspensions,” Brown said.

Getting at the root cause of the many conflicts in schools takes a lot of work, much of it preventative. At Chula Vista, teachers are each approaching this challenge in their own way. Some teachers choose to teach various social and emotional skills directly through class circles. As a group they discuss qualities like kindness and why it’s important. Others handle issues as they arise, working on conflict resolution skills when students get involved in altercations. Since most work at High Tech High is done in groups, and group members inevitably have problems with one another, teachers do a lot of working through what it means to be a good group member on the fly.

“A lot of it comes down to a kid’s sense of belonging in the school,” Brown said. Most kids act out when they’re not feeling good about something that’s going on in their life or at school. Focusing on creating a community where students feel cared for and safe goes a long way to making them believe restorative practices can solve their problems. But even with a focused effort on prevention, and constant work to build a school culture of care and belonging, Chula Vista administrators still sometimes suspend kids.

“What’s different is even if we do end up suspending kids, there’s still a ton of restorative pieces we do,” Brown said. Chula Vista staff have gotten a lot of feedback from students that one of the biggest challenges is re-entering the community after a separation or even after a restorative circle. So when a student comes back from a suspension, school staff make sure to welcome her back to the community. They also debrief things she could tell her classmates about where she has been, and sometimes even have a circle with the whole class to address the point directly.

“Overwhelmingly, our kids have expressed this idea of appreciation that they were able to make things right and move on from the incident,” Brown said. Parents also appreciate the process, although it does take more involvement on their part. Brown said she’s noticed that parents who are used to traditional school discipline often don’t bring up home issues that might affect their child’s school life. But if a parent has been involved in the restorative process, she will be more likely to preemptively communicate about ongoing home issues.

RESTORATIVE PRACTICES: EASY TO SAY, TOUGH TO DO

It's not easy to switch discipline policies toward restorative practices. Without a lot of training and practice, as well as a fundamental cultural shift toward communication and trust between teachers and students, it’s hard to get both adults and students to buy into something different. But school leaders that have committed to the practice, and hired staff who are committed to it, too, say it makes a huge difference.

“I think the success of restorative justice in this school is teachers really understanding the effects of trauma,” said Godwin Higa, principal of Cherokee Point Elementary in San Diego. Principal Higa’s school is one of very high needs. His staff often sends food bundles home with children who don’t get enough to eat over the weekend, and students come to school with all kinds of trauma that they act out in the classroom. And yet, Cherokee Point is a school visited by educators from around the country.

“The biggest thing they notice when they look at instruction, not behavior, is student engagement,” Higa said. “Students are jumping up and asking questions and modeling strategies for other students. The engagement we’re talking about is how students are responding to your higher-level questioning.” He says this academic behavior stems from the children feeling safe and the trust teachers have built with them.

Even offenses that would get a child suspended or expelled at another school are handled in-house at Cherokee Point because every educator in that building understands the question is not, “what’s wrong with this child?” but rather, “what has happened to this child?”

Higa believes restorative practices are a good intervention, but without the trauma-informed lens, restorative work can easily become a series of meaningless steps. He’s also clear that nothing good comes from suspending kids, either for the perpetrator or the victim. Often no real lesson is learned and social pressures on the victim can become even worse.

The whole premise of restorative practices, on the other hand, is to help the victimizer see what she did was wrong, to see the human cost of her actions. And when adults give students space and time to come to that realization, they say beautiful things. “They come out with some really great stuff after they realize what they did wrong,” Higa said.

Fundamentally, students won’t learn if they don’t feel safe. And restorative practices alone might not be enough to make students realize school is not like home, Higa said. He admits the approach he advocates takes time, but when done right he has watched kids come alive.

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“[Some educators] don’t realize that once the kids start feeling safe and wanting to learn, the academics will come so beautifully,” Higa said.

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