A Restorative Justice Approach to Student Behavior Interventions
Flip a Negative into a Positive
Like most high school teachers across the country, I often encounter negative student behavior: cutting class, refusal to do work, excessive talking and sleeping in class, just to name a few examples. The cause of these behaviors often stems from a student’s desire for attention or task avoidance. In order to positively change these behaviors at my school, New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II (Humanities II) in the south Bronx, we aim to change the student’s behavior through the use of positive reinforcement. For instance, instead of saying, “Jasmine will not stay in her seat,” at Humanities II we say, “Jasmine will sit in her seat for 20 minutes before being awarded a personal break.”
We take negative behaviors and flip them into positive behaviors to encourage and incentivize change in our students. By rewarding a scholar with an opportunity to take a break for a few minutes after working for 20 minutes, I find that I’m able to maintain control of the situation while the student is able to constructively channel her original desire for task avoidance.
At Humanities II, we encourage students to identify triggers, reflect on their feelings, and practice new behaviors by taking a restorative approach to discipline. If students violate our community norms three or more times, we ask them to complete Restorative-Plans (R-Plans), which are guided questions that are intended to encourage self-examination in our students and teachers. We use Google Forms for R-Plans because they expose students to technology and because all of our students’ responses are aggregated in a single spreadsheet.
Filling out the form helps our scholars identify the triggers for negative behavior and walks them through where they went wrong and what they can do next time to handle the situation better. The R-Plan uses student-friendly vocabulary, which helps minimize miscommunication. For instance, the questions on the R-Plan are directly tied to Humanities II’s classroom procedures (Enter and Begin, Be prepared and Participate, Be in Uniform, Behave Scholarly, and End and Exit) and our school values (Rigor, Respect and Responsibility), which are all reinforced daily for our students.
If one of my scholars is removed from class for violating a community norm for the third time, he or she meets with a dean and completes a R-Plan. The student then returns to my class with a printout of the completed R-Plan, so we can discuss the student’s responses. Afterward, I will analyze my own role in the situation by completing a supplemental form. All of the student and teacher feedback is then reviewed by our school leadership team and teacher coaches to determine the appropriate student support going forward.
If one of my scholars continues to exhibit the same negative behaviors, the leadership team, coaches, and myself will work with the student to develop specific behavioral goals and create a daily tracker to monitor progress. We develop a Google Form that asks all of the student’s teachers five custom questions based on the goals for the student. The data from the Google Form is reviewed daily and students can earn points towards rewards, such as breaks, school store items, and homework passes. We have found that incentive programs can be motivating for scholars who find themselves on multiple R-Plans or for those who struggle the most with implementing the new behaviors outlined in their R-Plans. We use extrinsic rewards and self-reflection activities to help our students build intrinsic motivation and self-identify when they may no longer need a daily tracker.
A Change in Student Behavior
We have made significant strides at Humanities II in the last four years towards building a community that is based on restorative justice. Our scholars are supported each day by their peers, teachers, and the broader administration. R-Plans are now used across all classes and supported by R-Grades, which are grades that all scholars receive in their classes, based on their daily embodiment of our school values. These grades are included in report cards each trimester and help place an emphasis on character building.
As a result of the intervention program, we have seen a significant decrease in the number of overall suspensions in the first two months of this school year compared to the same time period last year. One of our students in particular went from filling out at least 5 R-Plans per day in September to receiving zero R-Plans in October. This scholar has several target behaviors identified; his repeated issues justified initiating the use of a daily behavior log at the end of September. While he still struggles with impulse control, he has become much more aware of his triggers and is developing independent coping skills. This student’s parent is very excited about the behavior log system and expressed appreciation for the school’s commitment to helping improve the child’s behavior.
In addition to students, our teachers have become much more reflective as they examine their role in a situation. For example, one teacher wrote a reflection stating that she never realized how important her role was in escalating or deescalating behaviors until she understood the triggers for her particular students.
My advice for other educators looking to implement a similar program is to create a system that praises positive behaviors while not overly punishing students for negative behaviors. For this program to be effective, all staff members need to be trained, student-friendly language needs to be developed, and the use of the intervention and the related steps needs to be used consistently across the school. It is difficult to create change, but with the right amount of support and motivation, it’s possible, and already during the 2015-2016 School Year, we have seen significant change at my school!
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About the Author
Alison Smith teaches at New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II (HUM II) in the south Bronx. This school year marks her sixth year as a NYC special education teacher. She currently teaches literacy classes, using the Wilson Reading Program and Just Words for all students who read at a first through sixth grade reading level. For more on these reading programs, check out our recent blog.