Relationships—Not Rules, Not Policies, Not Procedures Drive Human Development
Restorative Justice in Education is an invitation to create educational cultures that emphasize social engagement rather than social control. This does not imply that rules, policies, evaluation, telling, and success are irrelevant; it simply means that these serve the needs of people living within the community, not the other way around. Restorative Practices in education hold the possibility for changing learning factories into gardens where seeds are planted and growth is nurtured.
Context, Culture, and Relationships
I want to tell you a story from the book Running on Empty by Jonice Webb Ph.D. A young lady named Sarah came home from school and soon after, got a call that a boy in her class committed suicide. She was overwhelmed by a wave of shock, confusion, and grief, a “whirl of emotions she had not felt before” (Webb, 2015, 40:53). She raced home hoping to talk with her mother and was a bit surprised to learn that her mom had already heard the news. Sarah was still hoping to talk through the complexity of her new compound emotion. Before she could say anything her mother said, “I heard about Johnny, I’m not surprised, I think the young man was on drugs”, and that was the extent of the conversation. Her mother didn’t ask her how she felt and never brought up the topic again, and as a result, Sarah pivoted emotionally – she masked her emotion and tried not to think about it. She was caught off guard by how easily she cried at odd times or when left alone with her own thoughts. She attended the funeral and focused on her friends, their grief, her school work and simply, moved on.
To Sarah’s dismay, two more students in her school committed suicide. She attended those funerals as well, focused on her friends, just as she did when John died. Different however from before, in neither of these instances, did she bother to speak to her mother. She also never acknowledged or spoke about how grief-stricken and disturbed she was by the suicides. Eventually, Sarah started to lose her ability to focus in class. Her grades started to slip, she struggled and even began feeling a sense of anger that she could not shake. Her parents became angry and indignant with her asking “what’s wrong with you?” rhetorically, not really looking to engage her because they genuinely didn’t have the emotional awareness to do so. Consequently, Sarah thought the same thing, “what’s wrong with me?” She started to believe that she was weak, stupid, and uncooperative, and she felt this way well into adulthood. She would describe herself as “numb.” She had learned to cut herself off from her emotions so that they would not bother her. She would also feel weak and ashamed any time she felt emotion. Sarah had an amazing childhood, loving parents, but despite all of that, adult Sarah wanted to die.
After listening to the story—just being vulnerable here—I was in tears. I can remember a time when I was a kid, probably 6 years old. I watched the movie Boyz n the Hood with my mom and brother. When I saw Ricky turn and run for his life down that alley only to be gunned down, I lost a sense of safety and security. Questions flooded my mind “Could that happen to me? Why were they so mad that they had to kill him? Why didn’t anyone help him? He didn’t do anything to them, so if someone is mad at me will they just kill me?” This might sound dramatic but something in the 6-year-old me was assaulted during that family time. “Moms” didn’t ask me how the movie impacted me. We just went to bed and moved on with life. In my household, we were not allowed to be afraid or show fear. “Don’t be soft” was a phrase that was often used against any kid who showed a hint of fear. I knew while watching that movie that I couldn’t show that I was terrified by what I saw. So I did what Sarah did, I masked my emotion. As a result, however, I was always anxious, I never felt safe or protected. I also struggled to feel like I could be a “real man”—whatever that means. I never spoke to anyone about that experience until I started therapy some 15 years later.
Child Interpretation + Caregiver Attunement = Healthy Development
Relationships—not rules, not policies, not procedures—drive human development. The quality of those relationships, the adults’ attunement to the child, and the child’s ability to interpret emotions and thoughts from lived experiences, which is facilitated by the quality of their connectedness to their caregiver, either leads to positive and healthy development or negative and unhealthy development. According to Osher et al (2020) human development occurs through reciprocal co-actions between the individual and their contexts and culture, with relationships as the key drivers. Relationships and contexts, along with how children appraise and interpret them, can be risks and assets for healthy learning and development, and their influence can be seen across generations and can produce intra- as well as intergenerational assets and risks.
What does this have to do with restorative practices in education?
Restorative Practices (RP) in education are primarily about nurturing relational interconnectedness. Here at University Prep Schools we have adopted the Restorative Justice in Education framework as the structure for establishing, cultivating, and sustaining a restorative community. At the heart of the framework are two core beliefs—all people are worthy and relationally connected.
Osher’s findings essentially justify any “child-serving system,” for adopting and prioritizing a relationship first philosophy because development is driven by the integration of neural malleability and plasticity with the dynamic relational interconnectedness of children and the adults with whom they interact in their social, cultural, and physical contexts. In other words, the quality of a person’s sense of worth is proportional to their sense of connectedness to the primary caregivers in their lives. This matters because just as you read in both Sarah’s and my own story, when children are left to respond to and interpret life events on their own, especially potentially traumatic events, they can be overwhelmed by their thoughts and emotions accompanied by that experience. If the adults or caregivers in their lives are not attuned to the child, attentive to and noticing the impact of such events, dismissing the impact, or chastising the child for responding emotionally the child most likely will begin to think of themselves as “fatally flawed.” This kind of thinking has a direct impact on their learning outcomes. It is my responsibility to add to the foundation that was laid by building our attunement and response skills. The goal is to increase one’s ability to respond to the contextual factors and experiences that influence a student’s behavior and perhaps reach restoration.
Restorative Practices In Instruction
In addition to proactively establishing relationships through focusing on attunement and responsiveness, another dimension of my role is to develop capacity around intentionally leveraging relationships to support students through moments of academic struggle, the moment when they recognize what they can do on their own and what they cannot do unless supported or guided. This is formally referred to as the zone of proximal development or ZPD. Zaretta Hammond encourages us to cultivate relationships that support dependent learners in taking intellectual risks and stretch into the ZPD. That’s the point of nurturing healthy relationships, supporting dependent learners in avoiding stress and anxiety, and earning the right to push students to be excellent and put forth the effort. She goes on further summarizing that the ultimate goal is to help the dependent learner become active in making decisions about their learning moves. She offers these tools:
- Kid friendly vocabulary for talking about their learning moves
- Checklists to help hone their decision making skills during learning and their attention during data analysis
- Tools for tracking their own progress towards learning targets
- Easily accessible space to store their data
- Regular time to process their data
- Practice engaging in metacognitive conversations
- A clear process for reflecting on and acting on teacher or peer feedback.
Restoring the U Campaign
By definition, the word restore means to bring back to its original state or form. This is often thought to be the case in the context of restorative practices, specifically when responding to and repairing harm. Restore the relationship to the pre-conflict status quo. Well, what if the pre-conflict nature of the relationship was less than ideal? What if communication was toxic? Controlling behavior? Threats? Restorative justice does not imply returning to past circumstances especially when there is a history of abuse or trauma or a long pattern of wrongdoing. In this case, the relationship instead needs to be transformed.
In the same way, here at University Prep Schools, we are not interested in overlooking the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial injustice, and the tension between community members that feels to be at an all-time high. Incidents at the beginning of the school year mirrored similar behavior of the disruptive chaos that had been reported at major league sporting events. We recognized that these isolated incidents were all the cries of relational brokenness that needed to be intentionally addressed and remedied. Our answer was the Restoring U Campaign. It was important to us that we as a school community found a new way of being and doing with one another that fostered a will to good, a protective concern, and conviction to restore our community.
In closing, “Restorative Justice in Education is an invitation to create educational cultures that emphasize social engagement rather than social control. The starting point in ‘how we are when we are together’ is relationships rather than rules, people rather than policies, honoring capacity rather than evaluating ability, creating meaning rather than imposing knowledge, asking rather than telling, and well-being rather than merit-based success. This does not imply that rules, policies, evaluation, telling, and success are irrelevant; it simply means that these serve the needs of people living within the community, not the other way around. Restorative Practices holds the possibility for changing learning factories into gardens where seeds are planted and growth is nurtured.” (Citation: Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002.)
Brandon Lane is a Philadelphia native with over 10 years of experience as an educator in the Philadelphia and Detroit public and charter school systems. He is a graduate of Morehouse College and a member of the cohort of Philadelphia Teaching Fellows. Brandon joined the U Prep Community in 2017 as a high school Science teacher, and advanced to the Senior Director of K-12 Science Instruction. He currently serves as the Director of Restorative Practices for the U Prep Schools network.