Three years ago, teachers and administrators at Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland, Maine, shared a sense of frustration about discipline. Traditional punishment-based discipline, they decided, was not influencing better behavior.
Discipline was no worse at Messalonskee than at any other middle school, but teachers were suspending more students than they wanted.
“In the old style, there is punishment handed down, but there’s not necessarily anything done to change their behavior,” says assistant principal Jon Moody.
When they looked for change, Moody and a small cadre of staff members visited the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast, Maine to examine a new, nontraditional approach to discipline. The Howard School was in its second year of a new philosophical approach to student misbehavior called restorative discipline.
Restorative discipline looks at misbehavior holistically, focusing more on the cause of poor behavior than the end result. Principles of the approach include communication, relationship building, accountability and reconciliation, says Barb Blazej of the University of Maine Peace and Reconciliation Studies Program. Blazej is a co-coordinator of the Restorative School Practices Collaborative of Maine, which includes the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast in Belfast.
The collaborative helped the Howard School implement the new disciplinary model, and teachers at Troy Howard witnessed a dramatic drop in misbehavior under the new system.
Messalonskee staff members learned about restorative discipline from the Howard School staff and took a graduate-level class on restorative practices at UMaine, positioning them to lead their school from a traditional disciplinary model to one of restoration and reconciliation. Within a year, the 600-student Messalonskee school saw a 32 percent drop in detentions, a 73 percent drop in suspensions and a 34 percent drop in serious offenses.
The shift has been well received by students, teachers and parents, Moody says.
“Our success was not simply limited to the reduction we saw in discipline infractions,” Moody says, “but also in the increased discussions that occurred through the restorative process. I think the students like it because they have a voice, and I think the teachers like it because it has increased accountability.”
Restorative discipline and reconciliation go hand in hand. At Messalonskee Middle School, if an individual’s misbehavior causes harm to someone else, the transgressor is given a chance to address his or her behavior in a “detention circle” led by a school staff mediator, typically on a Saturday morning. The student can discuss what led to the deviant behavior, and those offended by it can explain how it affected them. The restorative approach encourages students to account for their actions and find ways to make things right with those they have harmed, Blazej says.
Sometimes friends and parents attend detention circles, which usually end with an apology, a better understanding of the circumstances behind the behavior and a plan to find ways to avoid future transgressions.
“We focus on creating an environment in which people care about each other and respect each other,” Blazej says. “It’s all about civility. It’s also about creating safe, positive cultures and climates within a school.”
A restorative school culture encourages communication, respect and empathy for others, and strengthens connections between young people and adults in a school, Blazej says.
“So often, as adults, we care about what children think, but we don’t give them a forum to express their opinions,” Moody says.
The restorative philosophy provides a forum for that. Messalonskee students and teachers now meet regularly in community conversation circles and social circles, separate from detention circles, to discuss current issues, relationships or other topics
Having a voice and being heard creates a more cohesive sense of community for students, which, in turn, creates a stronger sense of personal responsibility, Moody and Blazej say.
Other schools have taken notice.
“I’ve been contacted by a lot of people,” Moody says. “I think a lot of schools are in a position of trying to reach kids. This is a nice movement back toward the whole child. I think the most positive result is we’re having an awful lot more conversations with kids about everything.”
Blazej says the restorative discipline concept comes to schools from the restorative justice movement, which has been used by cultures for centuries to address offensive, even criminal behavior.
Since Messalonskee shifted to restorative discipline, three other neighboring junior high schools have approached the school to learn more about restorative discipline. The Restorative School Practices Collaborative of Maine has now trained hundreds of schoolteachers, administrators and guidance counselors in the restorative approach, at workshops and institutes around the state, according to Blazej, who organizes and leads many of those efforts.
Not only does the restorative discipline process inspire better behavior among students, it also raises social and academic expectations, Blazej says.
“There’s a growing body of scientific brain research that shows that if students experience stress and incivility, they’re not going to learn well,” she says. “We need to help children feel cared for when they’re in school, even when they misbehave. This enables them to learn and grow into responsible, caring adults.”
Blazej’s role as a partner in the Restorative School Practices Collaborative of Maine is what she calls the third arm of UMaine’s Peace and Reconciliation Studies Program, that of community outreach to Maine’s K-12 schools. Her position, though based in the Peace and Reconciliation Studies Program, is funded through the Maine Center for Disease Control in the Department of Health and Human Services.
At UMaine, the Peace and Reconciliation Studies Program curriculum also offers an 18-credit minor, and organizes speakers and lectures on many aspects of peace building, diversity and reconciliation. In addition, the program, under the direction of Phyllis Brazee, sponsors classes and services in conflict resolution for graduates and undergraduates at UMaine.
In the four years Blazej has been working with community schools in implementing restorative practices, “interest has been spreading noticeably,” she says. “We’re excited to be part of this restorative practices movement, and as far as we know, we are the only training and educational resource doing this kind of work in Maine.”