The Dynamics of School Discipline: It's All About Relationships

Guest Contributor

The Following article was written by Emily Bodfish, who spent 6 years working as an instructor at Colorado Youth for a Change's Futures Academy where she was heavily invested in bringing the art of Restorative Practices into the school community. 

You know these kinds of stories

My high school gave students detention if they were tardy more than three times. I was a rule follower, but sometimes a few minutes late because of my carpool. I remember feeling angry about this extreme consequence for students who couldn’t get there by 7am every day, and I started skipping school on days I was going to be late – just to avoid detention. I would miss full days of instruction instead of just a few minutes, and my grades suffered. Nothing about this was restorative and I learned that high school was another “us vs. them” place. 

Many of us have had school “discipline” experiences like this. How can these punitive practices be good for students? How many of you have met a child that tells you that they don’t like school? This is far too common.  How can we make schools a place where students want to be?  I believe that a student’s dislike of school has more to do with how safe and comfortable they feel than anything else.  Traditional discipline often only serves to deepen the divide between adults and students. There has to be a better way. 

A Better Way 

Restorative Practices (RP) (aka Restorative Justice) is a philosophy that CYC’s Futures Academy has adopted, where a culture of community holds the highest value. We assume everyone is doing the best they can with what they have, and when harm is done, we address it in a fair and just manner where everyone feels heard and understood. We then move forward as a community, stronger than before.

Futures Academy began integrating RP three years ago, and it’s one of the biggest reasons our students are happy here.  Most have experienced a traditional school and have been unsuccessful. They join us because their education is important to them.  At some point, the traditional system failed them and they often come to us distrustful of academics, schools, and the adults that are there. We have to get to work right away building relationships.


 Isiah, Futures Academy Graduate 2019; Photo by: Paul Simmons

How

It absolutely begins with building community and a sense of belonging.  We start with a one-on-one relationship with each student, getting to know them and allowing them to know us. We have connection circles where we bring students together and invite everyone to respond to prompts. Some are silly and some are much more serious. “How were you impacted by the school closings on April 17, 2019?” We invite students to share who they are and experiences that have shaped them. 

We also convey that we are equals in our language and use a “power with” approach instead of “power over.” We really listen, which builds trust. We use affective statements focused on impact and empathy, and invite instead of demand. If a student is late to class we might say, “I’m so glad you made it! I wanted to share that when you’re late and come in loudly, it distracts from what I’m doing with the class. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to come in more quietly, and if you can make it on time, it might feel easier to understand what we’re working on.” Instead of putting up a wall, the student is now more likely to come on time and be engaged.

Sometimes there are more serious instances of harm, so we’ll use a restorative conference which requires some time and preparation – but the end result can be beautiful. I used this successfully with a student who had made a racist joke, which really upset another student. I invited both to participate in a restorative conference, where the offended student was able to express her feelings and experiences with racism, her family of origin, her fears and struggles. The other student also shared his perspective and similar experiences and apologized. Both students felt heard and validated. Can you imagine how this would have gone without RP? That might have involved reprimands, detention, or suspension, and a lasting rift between the students.

Does it really work?

At CYC, we know that RP is a game changer. Once students know that we trust them, they trust us, and ultimately themselves. RP helps CYC’s mission to solve the dropout crisis, keeping students engaged in school, so they can earn a diploma or GED and continue to college. It keeps them from giving up and feeling they are at the end of the road with their education. It teaches all of us how to work through conflict. Don’t we all want people to take accountability, work to repair harm, and effectively and respectfully work through conflict? RP keeps students in school and creates the kind of people we all want to work with, work for, and surround ourselves with every day. 

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