Answers to your questions about restorative practices in schools
Photo © Carolina Kroon
Photo © Carolina Kroon
We've been doing circles at my school as a study skills course since the start of the year. It's been challenging when students act out, not respecting the talking piece. It impacts the rest of the group and their willingness to share. Do you have any suggestions of how to handle disruptive behavior of this kind?
– Tina Stiver, 7th Grade Social Studies teacher and 6th grade Study Skills Course facilitator, Lincoln K-8, Warren, Ohio
Disruptive behavior can sidetrack even the best-facilitated circle, and can happen even when the keeper has done everything “right.”
I try to reduce the incidence of disruptive behavior by carefully setting the stage. This includes purposefully inviting participation and encouraging meaningful sharing.
When first introducing restorative circles to a group of students, especially in middle school, I try not to speak too much. I’ll say something about why we sit in a circle, emphasizing its democratic nature, as well as the power of the talking piece in promoting equity of voice. Depending on the group’s attention span, I may decide to open with a fun team-building activity to get students on board.
But regardless of the group, I’ll send a talking piece around, early on, whether it’s for a one-word check in, a reflection, or a story-telling go round. I’ll consider going first to model and set the tone, before sending the talking piece around for others to share. I know that ultimately the power of the circle lies in inviting everyone in (everyone and every part of everyone) while the talking piece gives all of us a chance to speak while others listen.
It often only takes one person in the circle to share meaningfully of themselves to show what is possible in circles. In so doing, this person gives others permission to share meaningfully of themselves. But more than that, it shows others that it’s okay to get personal.
To get to this place of personal sharing can take some time. Students need to get used to the circle process, make sure they can trust it, make sure it is safe. Once they do, and once students begin sharing meaningfully, disruptions are less likely to happen.
Unfortunately though, if some students act out, it may leave others less willing to share of themselves, get personal, take a risk. It can make the space unsafe and needs to be addressed.
Of course, this is hard to do when, as the keeper, I don’t have the talking piece. So I may use nonverbal cues, or a gentle “shhh” sometimes, to quiet a disruptive voice. But I try not to intervene in any other way until the talking piece comes back to me. I try my best to respect the talking piece in the same way I ask my students to do. This requires patience, biting my tongue and sitting with discomfort at times.
By respecting the talking piece in this way, I model but I also give others in the circle a chance to take on the disruptions by calling on their peers, redirecting them or asking for their attention. When this happens, we know that students are starting to take responsibility for the circle, making it theirs.
Early on in the circle process, however, it’s usually up to the keeper to address these behaviors. It’s up to the keeper also to model how to address them. So when the talking piece comes back to me, rather than reprimanding or lecturing students who disrespect the talking piece or act out in other ways, I try to speak from my personal perspective, encouraging the student who is off task to reflect on the impact of their behavior and become more introspective. I might talk about how I feel uncomfortable sharing when others in the circle are having side conversations, are making comments, or when their body language shows they’re not interested. Giggling especially stops me from sharing because I suspect people are mocking me. I may say something along the lines of: “I wonder if others in the circle feel this way as well.” This pulls in the rest of the circle participants as we start to address problematic behavior together – all in the course of the circle process.
I sometimes consider (out loud) that people might be behaving this way because they themselves are uncomfortable with the sharing that’s taking place. That’s okay, I tell them. It’s okay to be uncomfortable and it’s okay not to share as a result of that discomfort. But I ask participants to think about how their behavior might affect others and to please give careful consideration to what they put into the circle – both in the way they speak and in the way they act. Rather than telling students what to do, I give them a chance to reflect on and change their behavior of their own accord.
In short, the most persuasive way to get students to participate fully, thoughtfully and compassionately is to give them time, space and, more than anything, a choice; a choice over when they’ll speak and how they can best participate in the circle.
For the keeper, all this can be hard work. It requires patience as well as trust in the process and in our students. It may mean sitting with discomfort. But it’s well worth it, much of the time. I’ve seen students take ownership of the circle process and help address disruptive behaviors with peers, when we give them time and space to do so. I’ve even seen students reflect on their own disruptive behaviors, and admit to either discomfort with profound personal sharing or to lagging skills. It’s transformative when this happens.
As we address safety in the circle, we encourage sharing.
When the more quiet students finally choose to speak, it can be an empowering and reassuring experience for all. When they see that what they share in a circle is respected and understood, they may even surprise themselves and their teachers by speaking up not just in the circle but in other settings, including academic classes. Their silence can been broken by the attention and care they receive in a circle, and we end up seeing a whole new side of a student we never really knew or understood.
"We've been doing circles at my school as a study skills course since the start of the year. It's been challenging when students pass, pass, and pass again. This passing seems to get contagious at times. Do you think it would work to tell students that they can't pass for more than a go round or two? How can we get some of those students to talk?"
– Christina Kittle, Jefferson School librarian and 6th grade study skills course facilitator, Warren, Ohio
I've been in circles with students who pass many times before they finally choose to speak. This can make keepers uncomfortable, and I’ve been asked before about trying to limit the number of times a student is allowed to pass before they have to share. I understand where that is coming from, but I find this to go against the spirit of the circle and that of the talking piece as invitation. Here is why:
As the circle keeper, I don’t necessarily know why a student chooses not to share. I don’t want to impose myself or make assumptions. Circles are about creating a space that is inviting and safe enough for people to want to step in. Part of the safety in a circle resides in the knowledge that the decision to share or not to share will be honored.
There are many reasons a student may not be ready to share. They may feel insecure. They may feel they have nothing of value to add to the dialogue. They may be anxious about speaking in large(r) groups or uncomfortable with this new circle approach, which asks them to share more personally of themselves than is often the case in school. They might even be suspicious about why we, adults, are asking more personal of questions. How does it fit into academics? And what happens with the information they decide to share?
When restorative circles are first introduced in a school setting, students may also be afraid to make mistakes. So often in the classroom, students think they have to come up with the one right answer. Even if they are in an encouraging environment that celebrates effort (rather than simply having the right answer), students can be wary or afraid of being wrong. It can take time for students to get used to the circle process and the idea that in the circle there are no wrong answers, perspectives, or experiences.
In short, the most persuasive way to get students to participate fully is to give them time, space and, more than anything, a choice over whether they will share or pass. Then, when students finally choose to speak, it can be an empowering and reassuring experience.
This is hard work and it requires patience. But it’s worth it. Once students see that what they share in a circle is respected and understood, they often surprise themselves and their teachers by speaking up more in other settings like academic classes as well. Their silence has been broken by the attention and care they received in the circle. We may end up seeing a whole new side of a student we never really knew or understood.
More about Ask the Keeper
Since 2011, Morningside Center has partnered with the NYC Department of Education to introduce restorative circles and other restorative practices to hundreds of public schools. Through our Restore360 Program, we provide educators with a five-day introductory course and follow up coaching. For those who have experience with circles, we also offer a two-day course on using restorative interventions when harm has been done.
In this new feature, our senior trainer and staff developer Marieke van Woerkom will answer your questions about restorative circles and other restorative practices.
Ask us your questions!
We invite you to send us your questions about restorative practices, including about particular challenges you’re facing as you use these approaches in your school. Tell us what’s happening, and we’ll do our best to help! Send your email to: email@example.com
Marieke van Woerkom has worked in the field of cultural exchange, interfaith dialogue, conflict transformation, violence prevention and human rights for 20 years. She's been a Morningside Center trainer and coach since 2006. Having seen the power of restorative circles around the world, Marieke is now helping lead our effort to bring this transformative process to public schools through Morningside Center's Restore360 Program.