My daughter got into a fight with some girls at school. We thought she’d be suspended, but the principal asked the girls involved to “make things right with those wronged.” I wanted to ground her, but the principal advised against it, saying discussing it with her was better. Why?
The current “zero tolerance” discipline policies aren’t working, so many schools instead use discipline techniques called “restorative practices.” The theory is that students learn little from consequences, but should be required to think about their actions, consider how to be held accountable, and decide what they can do to repair and create healthier relationships.
In January, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines encouraging schools try restorative practices because districts using them have seen positive results.
The technique uses three questions to get kids thinking about the causes and effects of their behavior.
“When parents ask these questions, the trick is to keep emotions in check,” says Marissa Gehley, a California student safety specialist and founder of Kids Need Our Wisdom (KNOW) Consulting. “Stay calm. Get the facts. Don’t ask, ‘Why?’ which triggers emotions.”
The first question is: What happened?
Perhaps your daughter says, “It was Reba’s fault. She took my notebook, showed it to Melinda, so I shoved her to grab it back.”
Remind her that you’re talking about what she did, not her friends, says Gehley. Ask what she did before Reba took her notebook. Suppose your daughter tells you they were going to study hall.
At this point, you should clarify: “So you were headed to study hall. Reba took your notebook and passed it to Melinda. You shoved her and took it back.”
Then, the next question is: Who else was affected?
Most kids say, “Nobody!” so ask your daughter to see the fight from another perspective. How many saw it? Who broke it up? Did anyone get hurt?
Ask her to imagine how other students felt. Assume a teacher broke it up. Ask how the actions might have affected the teacher.
“Students start to see their actions from others’ perspectives,” says Gehley.
The last restorative question is: How can you make this right?
“This often comes as a surprise, so listen carefully,” advises Gehley. Your daughter may say she is embarrassed; she is sorry to disappoint you; she regrets hitting her friend; or she wishes it never happened.
Ask her what two or three things would help correct the situation. She might apologize to the teacher, reach out to her friends, or say that she should have simply asked Reba to return the notebook rather than react with force.
Don’t be discouraged if the three questions don’t go according to script with every situation, advises Gehley. The more you practice dispassionate questioning, the more effective it is.
“We can’t ’suspend’ our way to safer classrooms,” says Gehley. “We need to teach kids relationship-building skills to build a more respectful culture in schools and at home. When they begin to use their brains rather than their brawn to solve problems, life gets better for everybody.”
(To learn more about restorative practices, go to safersanerschools.org.)