By Sarah Beauchemin
Staff and instructors at The O’Farrell Charter School are used to thinking outside the box.
As the leading TK-12 AVID National Demonstration charter school in San Diego, OCS continually works to implement the most effective ways to foster high academic standards, ensure emotional and social growth and maintain a secure learning environment for all its students.
Among these fresh ideas is the school’s policy to use restorative justice practices as the basis of their disciplinary code.
Restorative practices focus on teaching students how to improve and repair relationships and behave in a way that empowers themselves and helps others. This begins with trying to uncover the issues behind the student’s problematic behavior by asking questions instead of simply reprimanding.
“We help them make the situation right again instead of just punishing them,” said Dr. Anne Mathews, OCS Elementary School Principal. “We do still enforce sanctions – as we must maintain a safe campus – but we teach replacement behaviors.”
Each disciplinary consequence at OCS is always paired with a restorative practice that aims to provide clarity and insight. For example, if a student is assigned detention, they are also assigned a conference with their hosting teacher to discuss why they were acting out in the first place.
How Restorative Practices Work
OCS’s restorative practices begin in the students’ morning homebase class in elementary school. There, they study a rigorous curriculum called “Zones of Regulation.”
“The Zones of Regulation curriculum teaches self-regulation and emotional control in a very concrete way,” said Samantha Pohaku, OCS Director of Special Education. “We teach them that there are no ‘bad’ zones or ‘bad’ emotions, only unexpected behaviors.”
The Zones break down emotions into four different color-coded zones: red is angry, blue is sad, yellow is nervous/silly and green is happy.
“Students can tell others on campus how they are feeling by just saying ‘red zone’ or ‘blue zone,’” said Steven Slatten, OCS Elementary School Special Education instructor. “We can then work with them to determine how they can back to the ‘green zone.’ We teach specific techniques that students can use to get back on track. It is a very effective part of the curriculum that allows students to feel confident in their ability to work through their emotions.”
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These techniques include learning replacement behaviors, or positive ways to deal with uncomfortable emotions that replace maladaptive behavior.
For example, students are encouraged to take a break, move to the back of the room or get a stress ball instead of arguing with a peer. This allows the student to move himself from an emotional or mental state where he can’t learn into a calmer state where he can.
Restorative Circles Foster Emotional Growth
Replacement behaviors and other restorative practices are learned through restorative circles, which take place at OCS in homebase class and during lunchtime. In these meetings, students circle up and discuss a specific topic.
“The topics of the circles vary depending on the needs of the school,” said Edward Jones, OCS Middle School Vice Principal. “For example, this month is anti-bullying month, so we have dedicated two weeks and two circles to anti-bullying lessons. The first circle deals with bullying experiences, and the second is focused on strategies to prevent bullying.”
Lunchtime restorative circles in particular have become popular with students who have received detention during lunch.
“In the past, detention was simply a time to miss out on something fun,” said Slatten, who runs the lunchtime restorative circles. “But that has been proven to be ineffective in changing behavior. Instead, the students in my circles are asked to reflect on their mistakes. Then they help each other determine how they can make a different choice in the future that will lead to more positive results.”
The most important takeaway, Slatten explained, is that the students leave the circle knowing that their peers and mentors care about and support them.
Creating An Inclusive Community
Since restorative practices are centered around positive approaches to problem-solving and behavioral correction, they create a far more positive, inclusive school environment in general.
“I believe that restorative justice has changed the way that OCS students are able to communicate with peers and adults,” said Slatten. “It is an amazing opportunity for them to come together and share ideas with each other that can make the overall community a better place. Students understand that they have the power to make choices that can affect everyone around them and if they work hard they can achieve anything.”
Jones believes that the restorative circles in particular help students feel a significant sense of belonging and comfort with their teachers and peers.
“The students are more open to the idea of talking to teachers and administrators about what is bothering them and why they made the choices they have,” he said. “With restorative practices, they feel like they belong at OCS, and if something happens, they know the teachers and administrators care about helping them make better decisions.”