Julia Steiny: Ask Kids Good Questions, Then Let Them Answer


By Julia Steiny

Today we're in a conference with school staff, Mom, and her middle-school son who we'll call Ryan. Kids and their families come to conference when the youth's behavior negatively affects the school community. Conferences are structured meetings designed to get to the root of the problem.

Ryan's already missed 15 days of school. Mom notes that her kids always skip the first week or so because "nothing happens anyway." (School staff cringe.) Then every day he did come, he was tardy. Rhode Island law deems that four tardies add up to an absence. So he's already way over the 18 days, or 10% of a 180-day school year, that defines "chronic absenteeism" and eligibility for Truancy or Family Court.

Tardiness is not a petty issue. Once teachers have settled their classes down to work, each tardy kid disrupts the class; each needs settling themselves.

Employers and colleges get furious with K-12 education because K-12 seems to teach lax attendance by tolerating it. Reliably showing up on time is a basic life skill.

Conferences put the focus and onus on the kid.

If Ryan can't figure out how to change his own behavior, the adults will have to keep working on it for him. So after a few preliminaries, the meeting begins by asking him questions to understand what's making him late. He wriggles, paying no attention to the proceedings, waiting for it to be over. Mom answers all the questions. When asked to let him speak, she says, "He doesn't like to talk, so I do it."

While she's refreshingly blunt about it, conference facilitators see many parents who think nothing of speaking for their kids. Very enabling. No one likes the uncomfortable silence that falls while it dawns on the kid that the adults seriously expect an answer. It's sorely tempting to let him or her off the hook.

In fact, even some school staff find the silence too painful. Yes, some are just impatient. But many suffer the pervasive and misguided belief that a kid shouldn't feel bad, ever. So like the parents, they too rush in to spare the kid the work of formulating an answer.

We all hate that prick of shame we all get when we've done something we're not proud of. But, as John Braithwaite points out, shame builds conscience. Sometimes children or youth need to squirm on the other end of a good question to start taking ownership of their crummy choices.

What's important is not to let them get stuck in shame. Once they're chagrinned by the poor choices they've made, adults can help them find specific strategies to avoid the mess again. But first the grownups need to swallow hard and not enable.

Recently, Ryan's mom has been driving Ryan and his siblings to school to make sure they're on time. So she's clueless as to why he's always late. With kind questioning, Ryan finally starts explaining that he gets caught up in school social life and ignores the bell. Oh, and his first-period teacher doesn't like him. School staff suggest that tensions with that teacher could be a result of disrupting the class every single day, which might go away when that stops. Yeah, he can kinda see that.

Mom jumps in again, swearing she'll make him obey. Actually, Mom, you can't. His behavior is up to him. In only a few years, after high school, he'll legally be a man. It's easier to learn the habits of successful men while still young. Later on Mom can't help him if he's in trouble. He'd feel funny about bringing his mom to take care of problems if his boss or college professor is mad about his being late.

Ryan bursts out laughing. In a little impromptu role-play he tells his imaginary boss that he's going to tell his mom, 'cause she's going to fix things. He cracks himself up. This is the moment conferences aim for. He gets what a doofus he's been. Whether he changes his behavior is yet to be seen. But he made it over the first hump and saw himself through the eyes of others in the context of his community.

Then he gets hugely creative with offering specifics for his Restoration Plan. Many kids just shrug when facilitators probe for their solutions. But Ryan knows there's an alarm clock he can use. He'll lay out his clothes and shower the night before. And more. He's on it.

Ryan signs the Restoration Plan.

Suddenly super serious, he's like a national leader signing an act of war. Mom's a little taken aback, but she signs too. They make a date for a follow-up meeting. Ryan's strangely gleeful. Empowered, hopefully. He gets a late pass and all but skips out of there.

Mom looks like she has a lot of questions she can't quite formulate. Her idea of good parenting had been to force her kids' compliance and when that fails, to protect them from accountability. It hadn't been working. She's speechless. Without smiling, she offers her hand and says a sincere thanks to the adults.

Kids are often lectured, yelled at or otherwise punished. But few seem to have actually been held accountable and asked to explain, own and account for their actions. Conferencing does them the favor of asking hard questions and expecting answers.

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 [email protected] The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny
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