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Trouble Brewing? – Restorative Approaches To Managing Behaviour Need Time, Planning And Patience

Like a good cup of coffee, restorative practice requires time and patience if you don’t want to get burned, says Paul Dix...

  • Trouble Brewing? – Restorative Approaches To Managing Behaviour Need Time, Planning And Patience

There was a time when you would breeze into the staffroom at break and gently percolate a coffee, while perusing the biscuit assortment at your leisure.

There was a time before every break was booked up for punishment. There was a time before you took over Y3.

As the term bites, children are tired and tempers fray. Cosy chats on comfy chairs over ‘proper’ coffee seem a distant dream as you give over yet another breaktime to Carl, Jack, Layla and Ayesha. You’ve tried every punishment: sitting them in silence, giving them ‘thinking time’ questions, making them listen to Barry Manilow, and in a desperate surge of irritation and nostalgia, you made them write lines.

None of it has had an effect – not even ‘Copacabana’. Same old faces, same old crime and punishment. Same old coffee and biscuit pangs.

Seeing ‘Restorative Practice’ on the agenda for the staff meeting couldn’t be better timed. You need your break times back and those children need to run and play. You’re excited about getting rid of punitive punishment and trying out ‘restorative conversations’ instead, where children will come to acknowledge and take responsibility for their own poor behaviour.

Eager to get started, you read up on the subject overnight, go Podcast crazy and speak to friends who work in other sectors.

What will you do next…?

A) Cut out the middleman
All these conversations seem to be a prelude to an apology, so why waste time on the preamble?

B) Dive straight in
Test out your new ideas on the children who are most often in trouble.

C) Plan, refine, pilot
Think carefully about how you set up the conversation. Do it once, do it well.

A) Gold blend

You decide to have all four conversations at once to be more efficient. But it turns out to be somewhat one-sided as you run through some of the restorative questions you found and answer each one yourself. You don’t even realise that the children have barely spoken, getting a brief word in only when invited. The pathway to the apology moment is laced with guilt and heavy ‘disappointment’.

When invited to apologise, each child plays his or her part and you are satisfied. The children are running out to break almost as fast as you’re running towards a thoroughly deserved coffee.

But just as you begin the recaffeination process, there’s a loud knock on the staffroom door, followed by the unmistakable roar of the on-duty teacher and the angry counterarguments of the Not So Fantastic Four. This may not be the breaktime you were looking for…

Talking behaviour
• What is wrong with leading children towards an apology?
• Should a restorative conversation be one to one or can it work in groups?
• Why is the reflective part of the process so important?

B) Spill the beans

You decide to deal with each child individually. There’s no time for preparation, and you find yourself sitting across the desk fixing your stare on each miscreant as you race through the sheet of questions – some of which are relevant, some too complex and some simply barmy.

This does not encourage an open conversation.

The children give you either the answers they think you want to hear, or they react badly, talking over you to try to get their point of view across. None of the conversations go well. The children seem pressured under the weight of questioning. In their panic, they offer little that isn’t part of the ‘Y3 Book of Stock Behaviour Responses’ (“I’ll never do it again, ever, in my whole life – I promise!”)

By the end of breaktime you’ve had four unproductive conversations with four children who seem less clear of the boundaries now than when you pulled them up in the first place. As the LSA walks back in after break, you’re sure that you notice the crumbs of your favourite biscuit around her mouth.

Talking behaviour
• What’s the difference between a truly restorative conversation and a ‘talking to’?
• What do you do if a child chooses to be rude in a restorative meeting?
• How can you tell if the meeting has had the desired impact?

C) Ground up

You’ve had a thousand conversations with children who have behaved badly, so you take the time to reflect on those that went particularly well. You recall a memorable one you had with a child on an outward bound residential course. Both you and he were engrossed in sorting shells and stones, yet the conversation was honest, open and truly reflective. Years later, you met the child as a fully grown teenager and he remembered the same moment.

Rejecting the intimidating ‘across the table’ talk, you grab a bag of Magic Sand and a couple of plastic trays, place two chairs next to each other and fully immerse yourself in playing with the sand. As Jack walks in, he immediately notices what you are doing and comes to sit next to you. The atmosphere is unpressured, kind, convivial.

He naturally joins in playing, and there is a comfortable silence broken only by his small ‘I didn’t mean to…’ a while later. You gently lead him into five questions that you’ve prepared:

– What happened?
– What have you thought since it happened?
– Who was affected?
– How they were affected?
– What could you do now to make it right?

At first, his answers are brief, and slow to emerge. He feels that he’s the only one who has been punished as he has missed playtime. But you gently push him into thinking about the range of people who were affected by his behaviour. The questions are shared and you answer them too, from your perspective.

There is a mutual responsibility, a strong model of how to respond. You hold up the mirror and allow him to reflect, all the while just playing with your sand in the sandbox. There is no guilt served as a side dish or ‘disappointment pill’ to swallow.

The consequences are natural. He decides to make things right by helping out before school tomorrow. He offers to apologise – the only apology worth having. As the conversation ends, Jack doesn’t want to leave. Watching him play with the sand, you hope that this might be a pivotal moment for Jack too.

Talking behaviour
• Would you use the same five questions for all year groups?
• What else could you use to relax the conversation and shift the focus of blame? Play-Doh? Lego? A jigsaw?
• In modifying behaviour, are natural consequences more effective than structured sanctions?

Your style

A) Java problem?
There is no shortcut to modifying behaviour. Teaching the children to reflect on their actions – to learn from them, to be able to deconstruct them – might initially be time-consuming, but done properly it can save your future breaktime.

B) What’s Sumatra with you?
Blending a caring, empathetic conversation with the threat of anger is confusing enough. Then, without differentiating your questions or limiting them, the children will simply revert to panic measures.

C) Percolator
A little bit of planning goes a long way. Great ideas from meetings always need a little adaptation and personalisation. Making the children feel comfortable and at ease is the best platform for a truly restorative conversation. It can make the difference between short-term behaviour management and long-term behaviour modification.

Paul Dix is a lead trainer at Pivotal Education and co-presenter of the Pivotal Podcast

The Pivotal Curriculum is a licensed trainer scheme that allows every school to deliver Pivotal Behaviour and Safeguarding Training – you find out more at pivotalcurriculum.com and by following @pivotalpaul

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