Julia Steiny: Teaching Kids To Manage Their Own Behavior


by Julia Steiny

Being held after school for a little straightening out are ten 6th-graders who were involved in one of two incidents. Three girls were so compulsively talking with each other, they had to be removed from class. And during recess, the seven others caused a minor melee when a bee wandered into their midst. They'd swung wildly trying kill the bee, shrieking and kicking up more chaos than the few adults on the sadly small playground could easily calm.

The consequence is to be held for After-school Restoration (ASR), a re-designed of detention according to restorative principles. While sitting in a circle with a couple of adults, they pass a "talking piece" to indicate who should be doing the talking. In turn, each kid gets a bit of kind, firm adult attention. Adults don't lecture or berate. They mostly ask calm questions. Why are you here? What happened? Who was affected? What might have been a better choice? How can you prevent this from happening again? Like that. Often kids get annoyed, but that's okay.

Compulsive talkers are super-common in ASR.

School is where friends connect, and lots of adolescents can't let go of fun conversation. Two of the three girls in today's group are notorious chatters. But they're basically cooperative, so they're just here for an inconvenient reminder to get back onto their game. They probably wouldn't be here except for getting caught up with a third girl whose issues run deeper. "I talk because I can't stop talking," she says. "I know it. If you let me talk now, I'll just keep talking." The other kids giggled at that, but she was grim as the Reaper. We ask if she'd like to talk to a counselor or someone about the issue. She nods a fierce yes. Ah, she wants help. ASR frequently unearths issues that need further attention. Moving on.

The bee situation is trickier. These low-income, urban kids have precious little first-hand experience of nature. Interestingly, they know that the proper way to respond to a bee is to hold still and leave it alone. But you can just picture how totally exciting it looked when one of them used the bee as an excuse to flail about. Others joined in, screaming and carrying on. As we go around the circle, getting fresh versions of the story, the bee threat gets increasingly dramatic and entertaining to tell. By the end, the bee was the size of a grapefruit. "It was THIS big!," enthused one girl, her hands indicating its Jurassic scale.

But causing a ruckus is not okay.

The problem is that while this group totally unnerved the few adults responsible for a large recess, many of them badly need to run around, scream and flail. They shouldn't be unsafe, to be sure. But they sit more way than young bodies ought to sit — not just in school, but at home with their electronics. Even I have to suppress the urge to run and scream, so I can only imagine how much frustrated, often-traumatized urban kids want to shriek and thrash about. I ponder how these students might get opportunities to run off steam, but today, here in ASR, we really need them to figure out how to manage themselves when tempted to lose control. In truth, they know they were inappropriate. But it was such a blast, they'd probably do it again if given the chance.

The last child to speak is a studious girl who'd wrongly gotten caught in the sweep of the bee incident. She saw the bee and backed away, but not far enough for the supervising adult to distinguish her from the flailing kids. She was furious about being detained. For good reason. So we tried to help her see that at the time, calming the chaos was more urgent than getting her side of the story. Adults make mistakes. This was one. The other kids backed her up, admitting she hadn't joined them. Really? You knew she wasn't involved, but you let her get accused of something she didn't do? They shrugged and said they were sorry. The girl nodded, nominally vindicated. We suggested she could be a non-bossy leader in future by saying, "This does not feel safe to me." She liked that. So the bit of attention she got made up, somewhat, for the injustice of serving detention.

If kids are failing math, we don't punish them.

We re-teach. Kids need a lot of behavior teaching. But when a kid gets lectured about what she did wrong, what does she hear? Likely nothing. But asking sincerely curious questions about her motives and choices puts the onus on the kid to do some actual thinking. Adults' calm patience nudges the little reprobate to take the questions seriously. And if in the course of answering questions, they articulate what the lecture might have been, they got it. You know they see the problem.

And that takes time and patience. Just like all other teaching.

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
10 22, 2014
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