EASTHAM — A few days a week, students in Crissy O’Hara’s seventh-grade science class at Nauset Regional Middle School (NRMS) start by sitting in a circle and answering a “question of the day.”
The question can be as simple as “What’s your favorite pizza?” or as personal as “When was the last time you cried?” Students answer in turn — though holding back is OK, too. Most often, the question sparks conversation among students and with the teacher, too.
The restorative circle, as this exercise is called, is part of an approach social scientists refer to as restorative practices; it was introduced at the Nauset middle school and high school this year, and the schools say it is going well.
Restorative practices has its roots in restorative justice, which originated in the 1970s as a means of mediation or reconciliation between victims and offenders, a way of looking at criminal justice that emphasizes repairing the harm done to people and relationships rather than simply punishing the wrongdoer, according to the International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP).
The approach is preventive, designed to preempt wrongdoing by strengthening relationships inside the school and building social connections in the community.
Over the summer a workshop led by the IIRP drew about 45 faculty members from the middle and high schools. NRMS Principal Julie Kobold said the faculty’s response was remarkable.
The consensus, she said, was that it “was the most amazing professional development they’d had.”
In January the rest of the middle school faculty was trained in the practice.
One reason the circles work, according to O’Hara, is that they give everyone a voice, “especially the super quiet kids who never speak.”
O’Hara believes the approach helps teachers as well as students. “You learn so much about the kids,” she said. “I feel like I have a better relationship with them.”
And students have been responding well to the exercise, with those who have had behavior problems improving.
But students with problems are clearly not the only ones who appreciate the approach. One day when students weren’t scheduled to circle up, they asked to do so. It was they who chose the question about crying, O’Hara said.
“I think it makes kids feel welcome and safe,” O’Hara said. “And you don’t have to participate — you can pass — but that rarely happens.”
Teachers and administrators at NRMS have prepared for another part of the approach called restorative conferences but haven’t had the need to put it into action yet. The conferences are different from the circles: they come into play after an incident of bullying, vandalism, violence, or other troubling behavior.
Traditionally, when students violate an important rule, they would be sent to the office and given detention, suspended, or even expelled.
The problem is that, for repeat offenders, this cycle can continue over and over without much change in behavior.
Kobold explained that a restorative conference involves a meeting between the students who have misbehaved and those who were affected by their actions. It includes school administrators or counselors and sometimes parents, or could even involve others from the community who might be affected.
The conference aims to get at the root of the issue — what is causing the student to behave this way — and asks how school administrators or counselors can work with the student to change that. It also aims to give voice and validation to those affected by the actions.
The plan is for traditional disciplinary actions to remain in place, Kobold said, but with conferences adding a layer of review.
“Restorative practices are about an open forum to safely talk about things,” Kobold said.
The approach squares with the district’s recent implementation of social and emotional learning as part of its core curriculum. For students, restorative practices are an extension of that.
Kobold pointed out that this is happening against a backdrop of evidence that the numbers of children coping with adverse events or mental health issues are high. “There are so many kids who are depressed or struggling with anxiety, and there are parents who don’t know how to help their kids,” she said.
While obtaining precise data on children’s experiences of trauma is difficult, according to the latest National Survey of Children’s Health nearly half of American children age 17 and younger have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives (with those experiences ranging from parents’ divorce, to living with family members who suffer from alcoholism, to experiencing the death of a parent, to witnessing or being victims of violence).
An analysis published on Feb. 11 in JAMA Pediatrics found that as many as one in six U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 17 has a treatable mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. About half of them get no treatment.
For teachers, the hope is to have better options for handling students who act out. After the IIRP workshop was held over the summer, O’Hara said she felt that she and other teachers would need practice teaching the method in order to convey it to students.
It is a demanding assignment. “Teachers,” Kobold said, will need “high social emotional competencies in order to lead this stuff.”
O’Hara thinks the effort will be worth it. “In society in general it’s a better option to have open communication than yell at someone and move on,” O’Hara said. “You can teach so much more efficiently if you make that a priority.”