Regional schools are looking at new methods for dealing with troubling behavior, including adopting restorative practices that turn disciplinary actions into learning experiences that promote empathy.
The new approach can break the cycle of misbehavior and reduce the risk of depression and suicidal thoughts by promoting a sense of belonging and safety among students.
For teachers, restorative practices can change how they deal with even small problems, such as missing homework assignments, particularly with students who live in unstable homes, said Royce Tranum, behavioral health services coordinator for San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), which serves eight school districts across a five-county region in Southwest Colorado.
For example, if a child fails to turn in his or her homework and the teacher questions the student about it under the assumption the child chose not to do it, that can cause feelings of shame and judgment, especially if the child’s circumstances at home prevented him or her from completing the assignment, Tranum said.
A restorative approach asks teachers to question the child in private, to be truly curious about why the work wasn’t completed and to come up with other ways the child can demonstrate he or she understands the material, she said
Bayfield Intermediate School and Bayfield Middle School are two of eight schools regionally that are introducing restorative practices with support from BOCES.
At Bayfield Intermediate School, students who get in trouble meet with staff and the student they may have harmed to understand how their actions hurt someone else, said Amber Connet, dean of students.
“It’s been pretty powerful and oftentimes emotional to be part of those conversations,” she said.
Durango School District 9-R is not part of the program. But it introduced restorative practices to its high school and middle schools two years ago through a partnership with La Plata Youth Services, a nonprofit that serves at-risk youth.
The new restorative practices can help students develop skills to deal with conflict and frustration, said Kevin Aten, Bayfield School District superintendent. Those skills can help students manage their own feelings so the feelings don’t escalate to a point where the students contemplate suicide, he said. Youth suicide has been on the rise in Colorado and La Plata County in recent years.
“It’s now more important than ever. We can’t ignore this; we have to work together,” he said.
To help establish the trust foundation to restorative practice, schools working with BOCES are introducing connection circles. The circles create a respectful pattern of communication that can help improve relationships and the climate in classrooms over time, said Ashley Brock-Baca, the trauma responsive service array developer with the state’s Office of Behavioral Health. The circles can start with light topics, such as pop culture, and can progress to how the class should function as a group, she said. The circles are a technique that can be introduced in every type of class, she said.
“It is often even more important and more valued in the secondary setting where people might have a tendency to feel more lost,” she said.
Within 9-R, five restorative justice facilitators have been hired to help implement the restorative practices in the high schools and middle schools, said Dillon Walls with La Plata Youth Services.
“I think there has been a huge trend to refer students to our facilitators as opposed to giving them detention or suspension,” Walls said.
Alternatives to suspensions are important because students who are suspended have a tendency to feel labeled as troublemakers and that can lead to more behavior issues, he said.
In general, traditional punitive approaches tend to lead to students repeating troubling behavior, he said. Often, students targeted for punitive approaches are minorities or identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and are more likely to end up getting in trouble with law enforcement later in life.
“We are trying to work to change that trend and provide a more equitable environment for students,” Walls said.