Julia Steiny: Can Schools Teach What Kids Don’t Learn At Home?


By Julia Steiny

Back in the early 1990s, Margaret Thorsborne was among the original group of Australians exploring restorative justice and its applications.  Eminent criminologist John Braithwaite was among them.  At this point, her international experience in workplaces, communities and schools has made her something of a rock star in the field, so she gave the keynote at the recent Skidmore College Restorative Practices Symposium.

She started as a high school biology teacher in a school on the east coast of Australia.  Then, as she put it in her charming Aussie way, she “went sideways” into school counseling.  It was there, in the course of honing counseling skills, that she discovered “the Restoration stuff.  It grabbed me by the throat.”

She began her address with an adaptation of a John Herner quote:

If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we… punish?

It is completely weird when you think about it.

Both parents and teachers teach their children how to do things by having kids repeat and practice what they’re trying to learn.  Thorsborne says that somehow it has gotten into our DNA that that when it comes to behavior, having a child suffer will be the deterrent to future misdeeds.  “I’ve discovered that schools are the same all over the world.  There’s always the worry that if kids don’t experience consequences, the sky will fall.”

Rules are “dreadfully important,” of course. 

But breaking a rule is not like getting a math problem wrong, because broken social rules have an adverse effect on the people around the child, on the classroom, friends or family.  But social rules aren’t universal.  Each neighborhood, faith-based community and family develops a culture with values from which rules emerge.

And that’s the rub for schools, according to Thorsborne: those cultures vary enormously.  In fact, more often than not, modern kids are switching between two radically different value systems — the distinctly middle-class values of school and whatever the culture is at home.  “Kids aren’t lining up for anything at home.”  Similarly, they aren’t sitting still for longer than 20 minutes.  Adolescents who swear a blue streak likely live in a home or among friends where such language is normal.  A kid’s non-school world has a wealth of norms, which they learn by imitation.  The chasm between the expectations of home and school can be huge.

Schools, on the other hand, are very articulate about their rules and consequences, setting them forth in lengthy handbooks, as if that settles the matter.  Posters that adorn hallways and classrooms trumpet values that are usually about “respect, responsibility and achievement.”  But, Thorsborne says, “a value is of no value to anyone unless you can see its value in others’ behavior.  They need to see the value in the adult behavior.  You can’t expect to see a behavior you haven’t taught.”

“This business is really about relationship management.”

Relationships shape kids’ values.  “Kids can’t do things right because we said it once or they read our minds.  They need focused repetition,” guided by caring adults, “to understand how to behave appropriately according to their social context.”

Thorsborne suggests that an effective way of shaping school-appropriate behavior is to bring the parents in and brainstorm with them about responding to behavior issues.  If their child has been bullied, teased or pushed, what would they like to happen?  Often those answers are harsh.  Okay, but what if their child is the person doing the harm, as the thief, instigator or aggressor?  Suddenly the adults want understanding, empathy, and a stronger emphasis on getting to the motivation for unwanted behavior.  No one wants their own child humiliated, ostracized, or hurt.  They want compassionate responses — unless the offender is someone else’s kid.

What matters most to kids is that they have a sense of belonging and that people care about them.  Thornsborne says, “A wee chat with the kid will probably nudge the child back on the path of righteousness.  But not if the kid doesn’t care about you.”  Probably the biggest problem with punishment is how deeply it alienates and shuts children down at home as well as at school.

As such — and I thought this was brilliant — she urges that we quit thinking about “behavior systems,” and think instead about “relationship systems.”  A narrow focus on an individual kid’s behavior essentially blames the kid and leaves out all other factors and people.  Unless problematic relationships are restored, among peers and teachers alike, teaching and learning will surely be undermined.  Too often we have student behavior systems which leave the adults’ behavior entirely out of the equation.  So the kid never feels invited into the fold.  That just won’t work among modern kids.

So, as Thorsborne says, “This business is really about relationship management.”

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny