By Julia Steiny
The trim, tall elementary teacher, whom we’ll call Ms. Larch, paused before answering the question that had been posed to everyone in the circle. Larch was among a group of teachers from all levels in a Restorative Practices (RP) training. RP, in super brief, are interpersonal techniques that promote healing and connecting instead of disciplining by hurtful punishment. The question at hand was: Since our work together last week, what have you been thinking about Restorative Practices? Just a thought, a take-away, something you’ve noticed.
The mood of the group was bubbly. Taking turns, answers came quickly — and then the pace came to a halt with Larch. After a deep breath, she said, “I noticed the hallways.” The group fell silent, waiting to find out what on earth she meant.
A 14-year veteran, Larch has mainly taught 4th grade. After working in a suburban school, she chose to take a position in a diverse, more challenged school. She’d been there nine years now and was no stranger to their bustling hallways. But in the prior week, for the first time, she found herself standing still and listening. Through the new RP lens, the hallway noise had a harsh, barky quality, driven by edgy adult voices. The kids paid little attention to the adults, which only increased the volume of the bark. Suddenly the hallways seemed hard on the kids. How does one person change such a thing?
During my many years of writing about education, I’ve observed hundreds of schools, though not hers. I’ve been in many such hallways, flowing with negative, military-style commands: “Don’t run.” “Be quiet.” “Stop it!” I get that teachers juggle many pressures and get frazzled. And harsh hallways are by no means exclusive to low-income public schools. Communities, of every stripe, might insist on zero-tolerance orderliness. In the name of order, all sorts of kids get steeped in adult anger, frustration and impatience.
But does command-and-control discipline teach social skills?
A recent Atlantic Magazine piece, Teaching Traumatized Kids, focused on Lincoln High in Washington state, an alternative school designed to help kids whose troubled behavior was known to be driven by trauma. But why need a diagnosis? Every school should just assume the presence of trauma, among kids and adults alike, and be prepared to prevent and respond well to misbehavior triggered by trauma. Interestingly, every single one of Lincoln’s techniques were what we’d call Restorative Practices. They call them “kindness,” which is fine by me. A rose by any other name smells just as sweet. I’m totally down with kindness.
Restorative Practices promote good relationships and strong, supportive communities. They prevent and de-escalate conflict. Lincoln’s “teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special ‘quiet room.’ Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.”
Yes, ask questions. Lately I’ve been thinking that the kindest response to unwanted behavior is to ask a whole bunch of good questions. Not “Whadya do that for?” But something like: “You seem off. What’s up today?” And even that’s not completely kind unless delivered in a low register of your voice, calmly and with good eye contact. Be careful not to sound like you already know the answer. No, kind questions don’t defuse tension every time. But they give everyone, adult or kid, traumatized or merely upset, the chance to recover by thinking through what’s going on with them and whatever upset them. Good questions can provide gentleness.
Years ago I visited an urban elementary school that used music for their hallway transitions. When the public address system played soothing, upbeat classical music — instead of those maddening bells — kids finished up and moved on to lunch, art class or wherever. The music set a tone. The teachers, while watchful, trusted the kids to be self-regulated. The hallway bustled, but sweetly.
Kids take their cue from the adults.
Children of all ages learn far more from adult modeling than they do from formal instruction. Too often we forget that children are organic, living beings. They need human forms of sunlight, shade, nourishing soil and proper amounts of water. A harsh hallway is not a good medium to grow thriving, self-regulating kids.
We could actually sooth our fearful, angry culture if each of us were more mindful of being kind. Kindness is not easy. It takes thought and a commitment to watching how we treat each other. Kids who have a positive experience in school hallways, not to mention school itself, will grow and learn differently than those who do not.