Repair: Relationship Restoration in Response to Student Decisions

“It’s relationships, not programs that change children…Young people thrive when adults care about them on a one-to-one level, and when they have a sense of belonging to a caring community.” -Bill Milliken

When I (Joshua) was an elementary student, I got into a fight with another student after gym class in the locker room. Our coach quickly broke us up and I was immediately sent to the principal’s office. The principal brought me into his office and told me that fighting wasn’t allowed in school. As my punishment, I missed recess for a week and I was required to write, “I will not fight at school” one thousand times. The principal and my coach never asked why I was involved in a fight or how we were going to fix the problem. The school identified a rule that was broken, responded with discipline and moved on.

Unfortunately, the teacher and the principal didn’t seek to uncover the issues that led to the fight. If they had asked, they would have discovered that after gym class, a classmate was getting pushed into a gym locker by another student. When I confronted the aggressor, he became upset by my interference and the student began pushing me instead, and I fought back. By no means am I saying my actions were correct or I didn’t need a consequence, but I was confused by the experience. Was the most important thing the rule that was broken or the relationships that were fractured?

Due to that and other experiences as a student, at the beginning of my teaching career, my perception of the teacher-to-student relationship was one of compliance. I assumed the teachers dictated the rules with little interaction on a personal level. My expectations was if the teacher provided a request, the students would act with respect and without question. When students began to misbehave, I was quick to raise my voice and remove the students from my class. Quickly, I realized my reaction to student behavior was ineffective and there was a great deal more to learning than directions and procedures. Students’ decisions and reactions varied based on their relationships, personal experiences and learned norms. Based on this realization, my focus shifted to creating authentic relationships with my students and teaching the desired behavior prior to the execution of each activity.

When I (Bethany) became an administrator, I quickly realized the stigma that was attached to the title. Some children feared me before they ever knew me, and some families threatened their children with me as early as the first day of school. I didn’t want to be THAT. I remember questioning my decision to leave my safe and happy classroom! Since that first year, I have made a priority to break the stereotype of the principal role. I am not someone to fear, I am someone to help.

The idea of punishment versus discipline is something I find myself explaining to others often. Families often want to know how I plan to punish their child for a choice that was made. The fact is, kids make mistakes all the time… but so do adults, and we are not punished for every choice, failure, or mistake we make. Are there natural consequences? Always! Sometimes those consequences are negative, and sometimes we experience something great from them. Punitive measures do not teach our kids. They do not help our children learn a new behavior that will replace the undesired one. We want kids to become thinkers so they can self-regulate. We want them to learn how to handle situations with responses, not reactions. Discipline is about teaching, not punishment.

As an administrator, it is a very interesting and difficult vantage point to see students’ decisions negatively impact the relationships with their peers, family members, community members and teachers. Often, when a student makes a negative decision, the adults involved immediately ask the question “What is the punishment?” When a student makes a poor decision, the traditional system of discipline dictates a punishment, the student serves the punishment, and once the punishment is served, the student is placed back into the learning environment. In this model, many times, those involved don’t feel a sense of resolution after the punishment has been served.

How do we respond in the repair process of those affected? How are we able to teach accountability?

The Agreement

Prior to each conversation I (Joshua) have with a student, I present guidelines to establish an agreement on how we are going to communicate to one another. This process allows the students to understand the expectations and norms of a healthy and respectful relationship, such as “when one person is talking, we will not interrupt or talk over another person.” In a conversation, we cannot assume the students know how to interact and communicate the facts, their feelings, and how their choices affected others. Often, the conversation is paused to review the items that were agreed upon. The agreements don’t need to only be used in conversations. Many educators use “relationship agreements” or “relationship contracts” in the classroom as a mutually accepted guideline for student behavior, which allows each participant an opportunity to have ownership in the process to build empathy, trust, respect and a sense of belonging.

When a teacher needs support with a child, they communicate that I (Bethany) am going to problem solve with them, to take a walk and talk about the situation, or to go somewhere for a conversation. It is a way of pulling in another adult to support the needs of a particular child. I do not have an office space reserved for myself, but I do have a place to speak with kids privately. Sometimes we decide to involve a child’s family, and sometimes we talk through possible supports or solutions to the problems. The ultimate goal is ALWAYS to help the child self regulate and get back to class. The long term goal is to put supports in place that will help the child replace undesirable behaviors with socially accepted behaviors. As Joshua stated previously, we cannot assume that kids know the social norms we expect in the school setting. Some of them could be a hidden language that we will have to model and teach.

I am an advocate for the success of children, and I want kids and families to never doubt that. I am also an advocate for teachers, because they cannot support an entire classroom alone. They need administrators to empathize, support, listen, and troubleshoot with them on a regular basis. This happens through kid talks that are embedded into the school days, and through scheduled meetings with agendas. Both are crucial to keep lines of communication open, and for a high level of support to remain consistent for teachers and students.

The Community

Scott Peck said, “There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.” As educators, we are no longer exclusively presenters of knowledge. We are responsible to teach students about emotional health, behavior, trust, responsibility, ownership and equality. To be able to teach these important qualities, a trusting and safe environment must be established through positive tone, consistency, team building and stability. If we want students to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally, educators have to focus and commit to building healthy relationships with all students. Strengthening each student’s heart will allow us to expand their thinking and wonder.

Joshua and Bethany