Personal Responsibility through Restorative (instead of Punitive) Discipline

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.”

4 responses

  1. I would be interested to know how many students start your program and how many do not complete it. Also, what are their scores on standardized tests and hw many go on to higher ed?

    1. Hello Nancy,
      During the past nine years, we have accepted every student who was referred to us. Currently the number is roughly 45-47 per year. Students start with us anywhere between 7th grade and 12th grade, and most of them stay with us right through to graduation. Sometimes students transition back into a regular education setting after some time with us. Since we have a rolling admission process (meaning that students can start at any time during the school year), we calculate our graduation rate based on 2 factors: If we have a student at our school during his or her senior year, and if that student is with us for 6 months or more, we’ve had 100% graduation rate over the past nine years. Once in a while. a student has dropped out and not returned to an educational setting – in my nine years at the school, that has happened six times – and it is devastating to all of us every time. Still, our numbers are excellent – especially when you consider that students are only referred to our school after all other interventions and programs have failed to meet their needs, and most are considered to be at high risk for not completing high school when they are referred.

      All of our students graduate with post-secondary education or career plans. Last year, one of our students was awarded a $56,000 scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art. Out of 22 graduates in our past two senior classes, 8 went on to community college; two went directly into 4-year college degree programs; 3 went to technical institutes; 3 went into the armed service; one went to flight attendant school. Most of the others had jobs in their communities when they graduated. Over the years, we stay in touch with our students and continue to offer them assistance with applying to higher ed. programs when they are ready to move on later in early adulthood. Very often, they come back to visit after they have established stable lives for themselves to thank our staff members for the support they received at our school.

  2. Whgat I also see at the REAL SCHOOL is staff modeling these behaviors, not hung up on “roles” , so that all are free to work from that internal locus of control – it’ s not just words but actions .
    Thank You, Pender , for another sampling of your well thought out wisdom.

    1. Thanks Beth! I think you’re right about staff members modeling this stuff – we are blessed to have such wonderful adults working together for these kids!

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