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Restorative Approaches in Education
Building Relationships for Success
An understanding heart is everything in a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feeling.
The York Region District School Board, north of Toronto, covers 1780 square kilometers and identifies over 100 countries as places of origin for its staff and student population of over 110,000. The Board’s Mission Statement is: “We unite in our purpose to inspire and prepare learners for life in a changing world community.” How can a school board attain such a lofty ideal when technology, language, culture, geography, generation gaps and life experiences present additional challenges to those who travel along current pathways of learning? Being mindful of the complexity of the task, the Board chose Character Development as a vehicle with an obvious potential to cross all boundaries. Building upon the success of this initiative, other processes designed to foster the development of the whole person have also been implemented. One promising, relatively new philosophy that seems to connect many of these initiatives is Restorative Approaches. I have recently been assigned the exciting task of spending a year working with this portfolio to see how it can contribute to the development of healthy and sustainable relationships among our learners in York Region. An understanding into how we have reached this stage in our progressive Board is needed before I can tell what may happen as this approach is implemented.
Our Board, through a process of community consultation, developed Character Matters!—a character development process for our schools and communities. With it, the attributes of fairness, respect, responsibility, courage, empathy, compassion, optimism, initiative, honesty, integrity, perseverance and inclusiveness are kept in the forefront of people’s hearts and minds through messaging in our schools and throughout our region. The Ministry of Education has added Student Engagement, Character Building and Citizenship to the Numeracy, Literacy and Pathways Pillars, which also aim for the internalization of good character while assisting students in their pursuit of academic success. Restorative Approaches seem to be a natural extension of York Region’s outreach initiatives like Tribes©, and Peer Mediation©. It is intended that Restorative Approaches in York Region Schools will function as an integrative instrument, drawing together both content-oriented and character-focused aspects of education. It will involve incident-specific, interactive treatment of relationships aimed at short-term problem solving, as well as long-term growth in positive personal values. At its most basic, the goal of a restorative approach is to repair the harm done to relationships as a result of conflict. It de-emphasizes or even abandons punishment to make way for a sometimes time-demanding introspective communication process.
Because punitive consequences naturally position the “wrongdoer” against the person who imposes, or is responsible for the consequence, the “punished person” may focus on resentment and anger, rather than on accepting some ownership of the blame. The offending action can then be escalated or can get played out in other damaging ways when the root causes, thought processes, and related feelings are not examined by those involved. Damaged relationships naturally dash the hope of finding, let alone correcting, the root cause of problems, which interfere with successful school experiences for all stakeholders. As we use Restorative Approaches to deconstruct and respond to conflicts, reactive processes will become proactive preventions. It is anticipated that the likelihood of repeat offences will be reduced significantly when all parties involved experience a genuine opportunity to listen and to be listened to. For this reason, a Restorative Approach mindset encourages stakeholders to meet to facilitate communication and work towards understanding between disputants. These facilitators may be administrators, other educators or peers. It is expected that the extra effort and time spent on Restorative Approaches will eliminate shortcuts and will pay future dividends to the students, to their communities, and to the system.
Similar views tend to drive nascent community-based initiatives such as the Restorative Justice Programs and Youth Justice Committees. (Both of these can trace their roots to First Nations approaches to repairing harm done after relationships have been damaged.) The first initiative is local police-detachment based; the second, provincial government initiated. These approaches share a common goal: bring affected parties together, interact, communicate, make agreed-upon amends, and move on as more enlightened, better persons. If society at large can seek effective alternatives to traditional consequences, then so too can progressive school systems.
How do we put character-oriented education into action, while ensuring that students meet or exceed curriculum expectations? Does a focus on one come at the cost to another? Evidence demonstrates that one enhances the other. In pockets where Restorative Approaches have been applied with consistency, effective community/relationship-building programs increased students’ academic achievements and reduced the frequency and severity of behaviour problems.
The staff at York Region’s Morning Glory Elementary School, led by Principal Stephen Young, integrated Restorative Practice—a restorative approach—into their school culture for the past three years. As a result, the number of suspensions declined to less than half, and the number of conflict incidents dropped to less than one-fifth between the years 2003 and 2006. Now, a larger task is to bring the benefits of Restorative Approaches to our 179 elementary and secondary schools and their communities.
Evidence based international research indicates that embedding Restorative Approaches in school settings leads to the strengthening of interpersonal relationships, and consequent improved teaching and learning environments. The expectation is that the system-wide use of Restorative Approaches will lead to improved literacy, numeracy, and to the development of learners who are prepared for life in such ways as to be contributing, valued, caring and empathetic members of society.
Restorative Approaches in York Region, under the auspices of Safe and Supportive Schools, will build on existing practices, and ideally will impact similarly on achievement, behaviour, and teaching/learning environments. It is an exhilarating time here in the York Region District School Board as I join people who are enthusiastically putting forth extraordinary efforts in initiatives such as Character Matters!, Safe and Supportive Schools, Student Success and Equity to meet the evolving requirements of this expanding school system. The co-extensive growth of these areas with effective contributions from Restorative Approaches will further develop our capacity to value diversity of experience, language, culture, generation, and technology. I am eagerly anticipating the work required to facilitate a system wide espousal of a model that seems to satisfy a growing social/emotional, educational/societal need. I believe that this practice will “touch human feeling” and gain in popularity because it will transcend traditional practice with its focus on caring and mutual understanding. I look forward to seeing my hopes realized.
Angie Dornai is beginning a new job as a Restorative Approaches Facilitator in York Region, Ontario. Co-author of two resources for educators, (Reaching for the Stars: Meeting the Needs of At Risk Youth Volumes 1 & 2), she also chairs the Mediation Services Resource Bank of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, conducts workshops for educators around the province, and has experience in the areas of Conflict Resolution, Mediation, Alternative Education and with At Risk Youth. As a teacher and Department Head for 14 years, she looks forward to this new opportunity to help Restorative Approaches flourish in York Region.