restorative practice

Hit with the truth

A long term study determines that ‘smacking’/hitting children isn’t such a good idea for their long term well-being and functioning. Wow – really? I’m shocked. So let’s put the research aside for a second, because there will be plenty of people not willing to accept the evidence.

Regardless of your beliefs, whatever values have been instilled in you from whatever sources perhaps an approach to this delicate topic of parental ‘rights’ and who gets to police that always evokes a challenge to the moral order.

But how about trying to look at this purely from a neurobiological perspective, particularly the fundamentals of the limbic system, namely the amygdala and the associated structures that mediate and process environmental info and emotional responses then how this is mediated by the frontal cortex or the ‘reasoning’ part of the brain. Abuse and trauma in early life (infancy-childhood) directly effects the amygdala producing structural and functional changes. Emotional responses and anxiety are heightened in response to stressful situations or stimuli. This early life trauma has been shown in studies to stay relatively permanent. The amygdala does not work alone, it is part of a network and this is also effected, including the relationship to the frontal cortex.

The brain has some level of neuroplasticity which is great and why children and young people need access to good support and resources to mediate the affective development and not be exposed to more abuse. There are some important places other than homes where children and young people can be exposed to stress and abuse, sometimes in the name of love and support. Schools in particular can be such sites.

While corporal punishment has been outlawed in New Zealand since 1990 the use of shame, humiliation and other threatening tactics are still employed and punishment is still seen as the preferred option. In light of this research I hope that approaches come under the microscope and we can look beyond blaming parents and take a collective responsibility for abuse – all forms including institutional. The growing movement of restorative approaches gives me some hope, neuroscientists such as Daniel Reisel back this process for healing and developing empathy.

So back to the truth – all forms of abuse have an effect, regardless of the intent. The courage our society faces is to start putting the effects ahead of peoples intentions and support the taking up of responsibility for harm.

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Circle of life

Circles are whole and complete. They are geometrically perfect and there are so many magical features to explore if you feel like unlocking your inner maths geek. They also make for a great seating arrangement for working through conflict. Last night I was involved in running a circle conversation with a great group of young women (gender assumption provided by working at a girl’s school) from a hostel. They had asked for one and had participated in one earlier in the year. However this time it was a bit different and it got me thinking about the difficult place of emotions or the places emotions find difficult to be present.

I’ve run plenty of classroom circles where the dynamics had broken down or a specific incident needed addressing. In a learning environment it is fair to say that there are some common hopes and expectations about what works for everyone being able to maximise the opportunities available. There are rules and expectations around participating so that everyone is heard and that the focus is not on individuals but actions, a form of externalising problems that can enable shame to shift into understanding. It gives a form of emotional distance.

But this wasn’t a class. It was a group of 17-19 year olds some of who had been living together for 5 years. I knew a bit going into the meeting and hoped my finely honed skills could keep the process contained however within a few minutes I realised I needed to shift my reference point of containment and what was needing to be held. This was a whanau, the bonds of this group ran deep and so did the hurt and the compassion. The raw emotions and language were rough and at times I felt the urge to stop the process but caught myself in moment of censorship, of trying to sanitise the process for the good of politeness and minimising hurt. Again however had those feelings not been spoken, had the passion, energy and upset not been expressed there would have been an injustice of the utmost kind.

The injustice of silencing emotions and denying people the real effects in the name of ‘managing self’ and having control of our feelings at all times denies a spirit of being and simply cages and penalises people for being upset. Often I sense people want to avoid the difficult emotional part of restorative processes. Sometimes a hearing conversation is needed before healing can begin.

Last night was just that – a hearing conversation. And as we turned out the lights in the library I noticed my t-shirt reflection in the glass. A glowing Kiwi with a laser beam coming out of its eye and a silver fern on my chest. It seemed the match the burning intensity of some of the looks and the unity and genuine sense of togetherness in spite of the conflict and anguish.

Circles also form spirals, springs, and other complex shapes. It was messy and there are probably some people wondering if it was worth it, sphere enough but that isn’t the point (oh so delicate pun to finish).

Class Act

I remember a time when the message to young teachers about how to establish authority in the class boiled down to some simple instructions about remaining distant and aloof. Many of us will recall the doctrine of ‘no smiling before Easter’. While most new to the profession these days will be encouraged to develop more positive connections with students before Easter there is still some of this authoritarian hangover lurking for teachers who’s own default settings remain in the reactive negative affect range of basic emotional responses. In spite of having fully developed frontal lobes, yelling, humiliating, mocking and shaming young people is still a preferred tactic for some.

And I can speak from experience. When I started teaching I was still understanding my own reactive limbic system defaults and wish my teacher education had spent more time to help me work through how to become more aware of how my behaviour impacted on the learning and well-being of young people. I was a bit reckless at times – and had social media been around I’d probably have had a few hash tags of the not so salubrious kind.

Given as a nation we don’t have such great statistics with violence and abuse toward children it seems highly undesirable to have our learning institutions endorsing abuse tactics with so much understanding these days about the effects on developing brains. Yet as adults we tend to hide behind our privileged position as the ‘older species’ assuming this chronological difference entitles us to respect regardless of our own behaviour. Sometimes I wonder who really needs to grow up?

The artificial structures of respect and authority in 21st century schools that linger from post industrial revolution ideologies and practices taint modern learning environments. In a postmodern landscape with technology blurring the accessibility of personal boundaries growing, the very idea of calling teachers Mr or Miss is crazy if teachers profiles can be seen online.

Perhaps the best litmus test for a readiness to change is the openness to restorative practices as these really do challenge assumptions about power, authority and how to do respect. The most confronting aspect however is not so much in the kinds of conversations that are had but the need to acknowledge the recognition that we are all human beings in process. Developing empathy and caring is not done by the time you are 18. Every conversation changes a person therefore the quality of those conversations and interactions matter.

For those still unsure about the power of restorative practice watch Daniel Reisels TED talk. Emotions are there to connect with understanding and I think there is more to empathy than what happens in the brain. Genuine learning engages uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability. We need to ditch the idea of negating or ‘managing’ these emotions or seeing them as primitive and a mark of weakness. Thinking and being reason-able is over rated sometimes or at the very least over emphasised as a mark of maturity.

I hope we can start creating modern learning environments that expect smiling on the first day and compulsory facials by Easter due to face ache.

Dancing In The Dark

This is a bit of a part 2 to my recent thrashing of dance as a metaphor to explore restorative practice in schools. My apologies if it’s getting a little overcooked for some but I will stay with it as there are lovely parallels if you dare to take the floor with me.

I mentioned in part 1 that I dabbled in ballroom dancing as a teen, and those who know me personally will probably find that hilarious. I was also seduced by contemporary dance at university for a short period of time and tried my hand at choreography with mixed results. While I enjoyed the classes I often had a tinge of envy for those who had a bit more of a base. Picking up the steps seemed to require far more concentration and effort than some of my peers who looked like they were bored, stoned or possibly both – yet managed to pull out the sequences well ahead of me. I would often ask them for help, and ask them to slow things down and did a lot of repetition – and it helped.

Choreography is fascinating. Studying various styles and techniques developed and feeling how these shifts in energy and the use of the body allowed me to appreciate the skills needed to become and accomplished choreographer and produce works of moving art. Dancers who study for years under a particular style move with those distinct patterns and flourishes that have been worked into an unconscious level. Moving through the steps and movement of restorative praxis follows a similar dynamic. Where those who have studied rigorously at the school of traditional disciplining practices will move in a particular way, their steps will be precise and definite. Much like ballet that has a long history and language with familiar transferable expectations. People can recognise ballet when the see it. Traditional school discipline practices to me seem a lot like ballet – if you get my point (insert cymbal crash).

The role of the choreographer is to design and create – be the architect of the movement sequence. Sometimes they will have an end point in mind a sense of definite outcomes and how things should look. This high level of control and precision leaves little room for error and means the dancers must all be clear about their role and trained appropriately so they can dance the steps expected. In fact a choreographer will choose dancers they know have the expertise and necessary skills to complete the movement and hoped for outcomes.

School leaders are much like choreographers with a selection of skilled dancers among their staff. They might need to see them perform in different contexts before assessing their ability to carry out the restorative steps. But if a team of leaders cannot agree on the steps or style of dance being performed or communicated with the dancers, one being given one set of movement the others a different the sequencing, and flow and energy of the relationships between the dancers will suffer. There will be confusion and concern about who has got it right. Sometimes choreography is done in collaboration with dancers, allowing their expertise and knowledge to enrich the process and foster a sense of ownership so that those performing have a deeper connection to the overall feel of a piece of work.

My hope is that those in schools who assume the role of choreographer of restorative practice have the ability to recognise when they are putting dancers through sequences that do not fit their style. Because even the most accomplished ballet dancer is likely to look like someone having a seizure if they are asked to do hip hop. No amount of hoodies and baggy pants are going to cover that up.

Oh and if you had a certain tune running through your head reading the title – well done – The Boss says now DANCE! Any style will do.

Sequins of events

When I wrote about learning restorative practices being like learning to unicycle the analogy worked for the individual. But I think in terms of systems shifting it is a bit more like ballroom dancing. When you learn the steps and pattern of the foxtrot and understand who will lead there is movement across the floor. There might be the occasional toe step but if both partners understand the sequence falling back into a cohesive flow is relatively easy. If we needed to switch to a quick step we knew what that meant, it was a shared language.

I did ballroom dancing lessons in cow cocky land so occasionally clarification was needed around the meaning of particular words – such as ‘dip’ being largely dairy farmers, I might have been in danger of a drenching. If one of us was trying to waltz while the other some other step it would look like a bunch of 5 year olds playing football, lots of legs and no sight of the ball, plenty of enthusiasm and vigour but more shin kicking and tripping with little direction. Regardless of the skill level and experience the steps would not align, the movements of one will inevitably disrupt the flow of the other. A good lead can often help a weaker dancer by being firm, so long as there is trust and basic understanding of what to do, but two different styles will just be ugly. I love to dance but it’s been a while since I busted out the cha cha, so would definitely go back to basics and I wouldn’t claim to be an expert. I’d happily follow rather than take the lead, I know the limits of my skills, knowledge and experience.

Schools systems are much like dancing, some might say there is plenty of head banging at times. But without a common shared agreement on what steps we are doing and what some like ‘restorative quick step’ or ‘punitive tango’ are – more than toes are at stake. Stopping the movement might need to happen in order to clarify and offer a hand up off the floor if there is a bit of a tumble.

So if you are starting to do the ‘swing’ or you feel your ‘jazz hands’ flying up in self defense, then stop-drop and ‘rock n roll’. Dust off and start again, put your best foot forward.

Tipping The Balance

I am surrounded by amazing creative educators and interesting people talking about ‘modern learning environments’ and what this looks like. I suppose that is where I want to push and provoke some conversations, because we seem to be stuck with ‘look like’ a lot. The focus and emphasis keeps being drawn into changing the shapes of furniture, open learning and staff spaces and increasing use of technology. We rarely get to ‘sound like’ and ‘feel like’ possibly ‘smell like’ which happen to be important relational aspects of learning. One special interest area for me is the realm of discipline. So as usual I have taken to the metaphorical to share some observations, and yes bikes are involved.

If anyone has learned to ride a bike, or swim you might recall the sensations and emotions that come with vulnerability. There is a delicate relationship between being control and feeling the pang of fear. It’s excitement wrapped in caution. As adults we occasionally are asked to learn new things that push us beyond our comfort zone but it is usually by choice and rarely does it mean learning something that puts our professional identities on the line.

But watching the process of restorative practices enter schools has all hallmarks of skinned knees, struggling for breath and feeling ‘out of our depth’ as a profession. Teaching and schools have been moving along just nicely with traditional practices of discipline and punishment for over a century. It’s a machine that everyone recognises and we generally get the mechanics of how it all works.

Learning to Ride a bike is familiar to many people – bit wobbly at the start, usually held by someone to get going, but the freedom gained was well worth it. Once you’ve ridden one you can pretty much jump on any sort of bike, same principles, laws of physics, maybe the shift in gears could be unfamiliar and mountain and road bikes do operate differently. It can feel awkward but you can adjust pretty quickly. I liken this to schools and discipline policies in general, you can move between institutions which claim a ‘unique’ culture but once you are ‘on and pedaling – it rolls pretty much the same. If rules are broken punishment is dished out – we’ve been riding this punitive machine for a while.

Then along comes the restorative contraption. It is more like a unicycle. We don’t generally see unicycles around, they are for clowns and performers, no serious-rational-real person would consider them just as adequate as bikes. They might even say ‘we need unicycles like a fish needs a bike’. Nevertheless teachers are asked to give up their comfortable seat of power, drive chain of consequences and handle bars of truth for what? A one wheeled contraption with no training wheels? And here is the real spanner in the spokes, no amount of experience on a bike will help ride this thing. It is a starting again, a stripping back to a raw relationship with gravity and balance, shame and vulnerability matched with accountability. No amount of watching, reading, analysing will help you ride one. Just getting on requires patience and perseverance, falling off is required, it is the only way to make progress – yet it feels unnatural and letting go of the stability of the wall requires courage and an understanding that without losing balance you cannot move forward. Then finally you let go and try one pedal and it feels like a mile. You start to get a feel for how the unicycle moves with you and go with it, zig zagging all over. Every subtle turn and shift changes the direction, you can even pedal backwards. So it is about giving in to uncertainty with adrenaline surging and mixing this with cautious anticipation for the next attempt.

To those on the outside, it appears unsafe, reckless, even dangerous. They might wonder where is the control? The direction? How do they steer? It looks awkward and clunky and many will turn away and say ‘I’ll stick to the bike thanks – at least I know how that works.’ A small group will persevere and take the risk of leaving the safety and comfort of the wall of familiarity. A few pedal strokes is exhilarating enough to feel like you are getting it. But the next time in might be face in the floor time, it doesn’t mean going backwards, learning is non-linear and with every painful fall there is a sense of progress, the body senses more and more how to move with this strange new (e)motion. Encouragement, support, laughter and shared experience allow those who continue to maintain their momentum. The wobbles will lesson and the flow will come, falling gets easier and less painful, in fact, direction comes through careful adjustments, a growing awareness of what works for you.

There is no skipping a stage, there is no way to short cut…just get back on… hundreds and hundreds of times. Eventually getting going will be less of a struggle and momentum will come naturally. The effortlessness is illusory, it masks the commitment and dedication, change in physiology with a new and unique proprioceptive relationship to rolling friction. But those who have tried to ride will recognise and appreciate the visual confirmation that ‘it can be done’.

Because the usual mechanics of power and privilege that comes with Authoritarian discipline have been stripped back, the time to get going restoratively does mean many will need gentle introductions whilst others will be ready to throw themselves into it. Both are fine, but recognising the kinds of support people need is something schools need to pay particular attention to when introducing restorative processes. Developing effective restorative practices takes time to develop and they only get easier by doing them. If there ever was a place for repetition in learning it would be here and particularly the skill of asking questions. However it is helpful to find creative ways to ask the same thing otherwise you run the risk of wearing your ‘mental tire’ out on starting in the same place all the time. You can get around this by rotating the tire every few weeks on a unicycle, or to get some alternative starting points to conversations.

One of the things I remember from learning to unicycle was how tired I felt, how exposed and vulnerable I felt. Bruised in places I never thought I could be (or should be) including my ego, frustrated, exasperated at times but also quietly satisfied with each tentative meter gained. Even scrapes and bumps are celebrated and cherished.
I am by no means an expert on a unicycle but having watched and taught over one hundred people to ride one I understand it is a process that has as many demands mentally and emotionally as it does physically. Fear is one of the main reasons people ‘get off’ and return to what is safe. This will always be the case. The irony is – the very ‘gravity’ of the situation is what enables these kinds of conversations to take place.

Finally, surround yourself with others wanting to share the same experience, laugh a lot, console, apply ice packs, laugh more. Expect to fall off then just get back on…again and again and again…