It happened pretty fast. Almost without warning, two students were at a breaking point. In this case, it started when Samantha and Ariel traded mean comments on social media late in the evening. The next day, their hostility seeped into the classroom. They stared each other down in class, “accidentally” bumped into one another in the hall, and talked about the other person loudly to friends.
Nothing they did was bad enough for a formal intervention by traditional standards, but their teachers noticed these two students, who had rarely interacted other than in some group tasks, were at a standoff. Their attention in class was compromised and they both seemed to be focused on the other person rather than their own learning.
Noticing, But Now What?
Concerned, a teacher talked with Samantha and asked what had happened. The teacher said, “I’m worried. I’m not sure what is happening, and you look really unhappy. Is there something wrong? Something that I can help with so that you can get back to learning?” Samantha said that Ariel was mad dogging her and if it didn’t stop, they would fight after school. When the teacher talked with Ariel, she said, “I’m concerned. This is not like you. You are usually so attentive and interested. Is it something that I’m doing? Is there something I could be doing to help you?” Ariel confirmed that they had suddenly started hating on each other, but she did not know why or when it would end.
Based on their responses, the social worker met with each of the students, gaining a commitment that they would not fight and that they would figure out what was wrong and attempt to resolve it. The next few classes were smoother, but during the last period of the day, both students were missing from their classes. They were found a few minutes later, each with a group of friends, yelling at one another.
The Damage Spreads
The peers were taken back to class with an understanding that there would be additional conversations about the role of bystanders. This would be in the form of a restorative circle. Samantha and Ariel met individually with the social worker and then together, each saying that they had their say and it was over. But that night, the insults continued on social media were traded, liked, and shared.
Restoring Isn’t a “One and Done”
The next day, there was tension through the grade level. It seemed that the other students’ focus was on the two students and not the learning in their classes. Again, nothing serious happened during the school day, but it was obvious to the staff that it was simmering. The social worker tried again, this time inviting the students to get to know one another. They used the sentence frame “if you knew me, you would know ….”
The original statements were introductory and safe. “If you knew me, you would know that my favorite color is green.” “If you knew me, you would know that I have two sisters.” They continued, sharing one thing about themselves, getting deeper and deeper. At one point, Ariel said “If you knew me, you would know that my dad is in jail.” Samantha teared up, and responded, “If you knew me, you would know that my greatest fear is that my older brother will go to jail.” Both of the students were crying. They realized that they did have things in common and that each of them had fears and insecurities. They agreed to end their conflict then and there. They did not agree to be friends, but rather to respect the other person and allow that person to engage in the learning tasks offered by the school. They never did fight or engage in conflict with one another again.
The circle conversation with the peers and other students was held a few days later and students would be asked to share their understanding about the role that they can play as bystanders. Samantha and Ariel met with the social worker in advance of the circle, and they choose to lead the circle on how their actions impacted others. The restorative circle allows students to express their understanding and to gain clarity about the ways in which they can repair harm and ensure that the community is healthy. Samantha and Ariel participated in the circle and came to understand the impact of their actions on others.
Restorative Practices Isn’t Just for “The Big Stuff”
Schools that have a restorative culture work to prevent problematic behavior from occurring and they recognize the early warning signs that relationships may be strained and need attention. The staff are attuned to students because of the relationships and credibility that have been established. Students value the relationships they have with each other and the staff. And staff understand that young people are still learning the prosocial skills necessary for our community to thrive.
In the school that Samantha and Ariel attend, teachers use affective statements and impromptu conversations to invite students to share. The teacher who first interacted with Samantha and Ariel used these skills to uncover some of the issues that were brewing. The social worker also engaged in restorative conversations with the students, and even though it took time, the issue was eventually resolved. This school also used circles to address the needs of the larger learning community.
Had these things not occurred, it is very possible that the conflict would have continued, and time for learning would continue to be compromised. The investment in time from the teachers, social workers, and leaders helped to ensure that the conflict was resolved and that the focus on learning could return.