Resilient, effective people have strong, internal locus of control. They accurately understand the connections between their actions/decisions/words and the resulting circumstances. They recognize when they are wrong, acknowledge and repair any harm done, and make a plan for avoiding the same mistake in the future. There is a certain power inherent in the ability to take appropriate, personal responsibility – a confidence that comes from the knowledge that mistakes will sometimes happen when we take productive risks, that almost anything can be fixed, that a heartfelt apology can build a bridge, and that all challenges bring unexpected gifts.
Punitive disciplinary practices in schools tend to build inaccurate connections for kids. They learn to associate their behavioral mistakes with adult hostility instead of with their own need to learn/grow/improve themselves; they learn to avoid being caught, or to lie, or to externalize the blame … Precious emotional and cognitive energy ends up wasted on cover-up efforts, deflection, finger-pointing, and denial… And worst of all, precious opportunities for growth and learning (that are the inherent gifts hidden within mistakes), are lost in the process.
An apology can be very empowering, when you think about it. It is an act of heroic optimism and unshakable confidence – Yes, I messed up, but I will fix the damage and learn to be better. The fact is, though, that most children hate to apologize; they have been socialized into believing that mistakes are shameful, and that fessing up is somehow a sign of weakness.
At our school, we use a 4-step Restorative Learning Process to help students: 1) take personal responsibility for their actions; 2) acknowledge the impact of their behavior on others; 3) come up with a way to repair any harm that was done; and 4) develop a plan for getting their needs met in a more adaptive and successful way in the future. This practice (in lieu of suspensions, expulsions, or even time-wasting detention practices) keeps students in school – moving forward in their educational processes, and breaking the ineffective cycle of punitive discipline.
One student explained it recently like this: “If we punch a hole in the wall, they give us drywall tape, Spakle, sandpaper, and paint so we can fix it back to as good as it was before – or better. If we punch a hole in the community – through put-downs or disruptions – we have to come up with a plan to repair that and to give something positive back to help the group become stronger.”