Two sides to every conflict

19th January 2007 at 00:00
An increasingly popular approach to behaviour problems in schools is restorative justice, which brings victims, offenders and staff together to decide on the response to an offence. Such sessions can help trouble-makers question the assumptions they bring to class. The aggressor and the victim are brought together and tell one another their versions of events. This highlights the different ways people perceive the same situation.

Juliet Starbuck, an educational psychologist at University College London, believes some pupils interpret ambiguous events in an aggressive way, even when no aggression was intended. For example, if someone bumps into them, they assume it is intentional and slap back.

Restorative justice challenges this default response, Ms Starbuck says.

"We're giving the wrong-doer the chance to think about different possibilities, pushing different constructs into their brain, because they hear the victim's point of view."

Despite its popularity, little research has been done into how and why restorative justice works. "People naturally feel shame following an act of wrong-doing," says Ms Starbuck. "Restorative justice provides a positive forum in which that shame can be dealt with. If it's not dealt with in a more positive way, it may lead to more angry behaviour."

She suggests that aggressors also benefit from the chance to tell their story, because it gives them a greater sense of social belonging. But the primary focus should be the victim. This may be a pupil or a teacher.

"It's easy to forget the victim and concentrate on the wrong-doer," says Ms Starbuck. "When a kid kicks off, no one says to the teacher, 'How do you feel about this?' But a young person can say something that might destroy a teacher."

Restorative justice allows the victim to explain how the conflict affected them. "It takes each case on an individual basis, focusing on the relationship and the person who has been harmed," says Ms Starbuck. "By acknowledging conflict, you deal with it in a constructive way."

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