Behaviour: does the restorative approach work?

Is moving to a restorative approach to behaviour management in schools worth the effort, asks Jamie Thom
11th October 2019, 12:03am
Does The Restorative Approach To Behaviour Management In Schools Work?
Jamie Thom


Behaviour: does the restorative approach work?

This is a very public confession: I am having behavioural issues with one of my classes. To say that S2 and I are not enjoying a particularly positive relationship at this moment could well be the understatement of the year.

My ill-conceived idea to teach them Willy Russell's Our Day Out, which features a group of challenging Liverpool students whose behaviour destroys a school trip, is becoming almost too ironic to bear. Lessons are starting to mirror the chaos that descends when the class visits the zoo - the only thing missing, as yet, is the animals.

Such behavioural struggles are not always shared so openly. I don't think it is just me who feels a sense of embarrassment or is wary of the pressure to project a public image of teaching perfection. Particularly as a new - but ostensibly experienced - member of staff, the temptation is to close the door and continue the battle in private.

Yet, as is rapidly becoming clearer than ever to me, behaviour is fundamental to everything that happens in our schools. Without securing an environment that will enable focus, concentration and effort, the whole process of learning is effectively derailed. The gaps that might exist in attainment and learning for those particular students will be widened yet again, with the waste of precious lesson time.

For our own wellbeing and motivation, behaviour also has a significant impact. There is nothing more emotionally draining, or indeed lonely, than that feeling you have when yet another lesson has been destroyed by poor behaviour. It matters at a very profound and emotional level.

I returned home to join a delightful and supportive school in Scotland in June this year, after 10 years of working in English schools. I have been perplexed by many an acronym since my arrival but this confusion reached a new level when I was told that restorative behaviour management was the philosophy in my new school.

Consequences I am familiar with - I have always felt justified in holding young people back to complete work into their breaks and lunchtimes. I have written many a detention letter, and phone calls home I can certainly do. But restorative conversations to deconstruct the incident? Meetings to discuss how we are both feeling about what occurred? The concept was completely alien to me.

A few months in, and I must confess to still feeling rather bemused by how it works in principle. As my pupils often discover to their peril, however, I am somewhat obsessive and love a challenge. I have become determined to equip myself with the knowledge and skill set of how to employ this mysterious restorative behaviour management policy.

More importantly, given that it didn't seem to even exist when I finished my own education in Scottish schools 15 years ago, I am also keen to establish if restorative behaviour management is working, or are more Scottish teachers struggling in silence? How does it compare to behaviour methods I have been trained in by our friends south of the border?

Behaviour management

It would appear that, since I left Scottish education, there has been a real surge in interest in restorative practices in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, as well as in Europe.

It first developed in the criminal justice system, with the idea that all parties involved in a particular offence come together to try to reach a resolution about how to deal with the aftermath and its future implications.

The past 10 years or so have seen the development of restorative justice in educational settings, partly in response to continuing concerns about discipline and violence in schools.

In 2004, funding was provided by the Scottish Executive for a two-year pilot project on restorative practices in three Scottish local authorities (later extended for a further two years). The results showed a number of positive consequences of schools adopting the methods, although tempered with the admission that further research is needed to see if it is sustainable as a strategy.

There has been a range of different research projects since then, and a number of councils in Scotland have adopted restorative practices to manage behaviour. I have spoken to a significant number of teachers in this restorative odyssey (partly in my desperation to find some solutions for my S2 lessons). The feedback offered has been mixed, with some believing it has utterly transformed their schools, others feeling undermined and frustrated by the lack of clarity.

As an NQT, I trained in an inner-city comprehensive in central London. It was the epitome of a strict, no-excuses environment, in which the expectations of student conduct were extremely high. I was hardly the most discerning of educational customers, so adopted a number of the strategies modelled by the leadership.

I shouted, I publicly berated and I used far too many consequences. It took me time to find a balance, and to work out how to build the positive relationships required in any behavioural strategy. My initial draconian behaviour management persona felt unnatural to me: a lack of humanity and authenticity is certainly not the way to secure positive relationships in the classroom.

It wasn't until I moved to the North East of England that I began to gain more perspective on this and find some balance. In the behaviour chapter of my book Slow Teaching: on finding calm, clarity and impact in the classroom, I wrote about what I called "stoical behaviour management".

I argued that managing our own emotions is one of the most important aspects of securing a positive classroom environment. To be calm, consistent and as emotionally detached as possible in the face of conflict is what I believe young people need from us. The ancient stoical philosophy should be our beckoning call. As Epictetus had it: "It's not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters."

The aspects of restorative management that seem to me to be eminently sensible focus in on this area: teachers need to model calm, consistent and clear behaviour to their students and take time to rationalise approaches they take. The deconstruction of issues and the attempts to repair relationships also seem to me to be very helpful, as well as taking the time to ensure that there is agreement on a positive plan moving forward.

Lots of teachers have told me that their schools are more respectful places since restorative practices have been introduced, and there has been less need for sanctions to be put in place.

Instead, relationships have been improved and learning conditions developed. Alongside this, the rate of exclusions and non-attendance rates have remained proportionately lower over time in Scotland than in England.

As an English teacher, I am forever talking about empathy and human connection in my lessons. A humane behaviour management system that has this at its core appears to offer real opportunities to guide and support young people.

George Gilchrist, a former headteacher and now a writer and commentator on education, found this in the schools he led.

"It helped build up relationships with all, which are key to any behaviour strategy in my book," he says. "It demonstrated that issues were being dealt with in a fair and equitable way. It was not focused solely on punishment but endeavoured to help all parties recognise what they may have done better and can do next time they are in similar situations.

"If we are serious about education and holistic development of learners, we have to do more than just punish, in my view."

Sanctioning sanctions

To suggest that all is utopian in the restorative world, however, would be a mistake. There are criticisms that young people exploit the system and that it can lead to teachers being undermined. Some schools seem to have gone to the extreme of removing all aspects of discipline, relying on restorative practices over any form of sanctions.

This has led to increased low-level poor behaviour in some schools, as young people see that there are, effectively, no real consequences for their actions and behaviour.

Teachers are then merely left with cajoling as their method of managing low-level behaviour, which, particularly with more challenging adolescents, will prove unsuccessful. My experience with my S2 class would certainly support such a theory, with the behaviour rapidly disintegrating, leaving me feeling lost about where to go in a world without sanctions.

There are also difficulties in embedding restorative practice as a whole-school approach. Some staff resent being asked to change their methods of dealing with disruption and behaviour, leading to young people having contradictory experiences in classrooms in the same school. Inconsistency, as we all know, is a real issue when it comes to securing positive attitudes towards behaviour in schools.

The issue, in part, comes down to appropriate training and time. Restorative conversations seem to me to be hugely nuanced, complex and challenging to do correctly. I have heard my colleagues doing them with real skill, but feel under-equipped to do so myself without any training.

There is also the question of the time that they take up: how much learning and feedback time for other students is being lost to these protracted dialogues?

Willy Russell's play, which S2 and I are persisting with, explores the behavioural philosophies of two very different teachers: Mr Briggs, the authoritarian, draconian figure who spends the play shouting at the young people, and Mrs Kay, the liberal and restorative figure who seeks to build positive relationships. So, who has the right approach?

Schools are complex places and what works in one is not always transferable to another. To see them as being two contrasting extremes is to oversimplify the issue.

Instead, I would argue that a combination of both approaches would help to make restorative behaviour manageable and sustainable for the future.

Exploring restorative behaviour management has given me much hope. I firmly believe a humane, empathetic approach will help young people to learn how to manage their own behaviour, and give them the best possible opportunities to do well in education and develop as responsible adults.

Yet I also feel that, without sanctions and deterrents to poor behaviour, we run the risk of, to use another literary analogy, a Lord of the Flies-type scenario, with young people exploiting what they will see as a lack of consistency. Sanctions will always be necessary alongside a restorative process, otherwise a minority of young people will seek to take advantage.

After all, as adults and in society as a whole, there are punishments and sanctions for when we break rules. The arrival of a speeding ticket that brightened my Monday morning recently was a timely reminder of this.

Restorative behaviour has to be sensitively managed, otherwise teachers are being undermined and not given the respect they deserve. In the current climate, with the drive to close the attainment gap so rightly on all agendas, we cannot afford low expectations to pervade in any aspect of what happens in our classrooms.

Perhaps what my S2 class really need is a balance of positive reinforcement, and investment in time, energy and effort to build relationships - but this should be alongside clear and consistent sanctions, enforced when their conduct does not match my expectations. Easy, right?

Jamie Thom is a teacher of English in Scotland and an author. He tweets @teachgratitude1

This article originally appeared in the 11 October 2019 issue under the headline "New method, same old behaviour"

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