A Conversation with Rebecca Altepeter
Head of School, Dearborn Academy
Q: What started you on this path?
RA: At Dearborn Academy, we became concerned that traditional methods of assigning arbitrary consequences for “broken rules” were not doing enough to teach students how to treat one another as part of a caring, connected learning community.
People – especially students who need social skills development – often want there to be defined rules. However, there is just so much gray area in the way that we conduct ourselves in relationships.
Q: What were the first steps you took to make restorative practices part of life at Dearborn Academy?
RA: We reached out to the folks at Pathways to Restorative Communities and used some grant money to have them train our leadership team, then all staff and then families.
Restorative Practices in schools come from the Restorative Justice model adopted by the justice system to try and find alternatives to incarceration to address harm done when someone breaks a law and negatively impacts another person. The research shows that victims feel better when the person who violates the law is held responsible via restorative practices than when the person is fined or sent to jail.
If it can work for criminal behavior, I thought, why can’t it work for the less dramatic but still important – and sometimes long-lasting – ways that we both knowingly and unknowingly negatively impact one another? For example, there can be quite a negative impact when a student says something unkind about another on social media.
At the core, restorative practices are about teaching communication skills and capitalizing on the basic need and drive for relationship. As humans, we are driven by connection. At Dearborn, we are making a mind shift away from rewards and punishment (e.g., carrots/sticks) to explicitly teaching communication and relationship-building skills.
Q: Where are you now with using restorative practices at Dearborn Academy?
RA: At the heart of restorative practices are relationships and community-building. At Dearborn Academy, we create community-building circles weekly. Some classes have opted to do them daily, and students have started to design and lead circles. It is harder to hurt someone’s feelings when you have a relationship with them.
When there are issues that come up that impact relationships and students need some structure to get back on track, we use restorative chats. An adult leads a chat between two students, a student and adult, or between two adults.
The person who has been negatively impacted has the opportunity to speak first and is asked the following questions (or a modified version of them):
- What happened?
- What did you think when you realized what happened?
- What was the impact of this incident on you? On others?
- What has been the hardest thing for you?
- What do you think needs to happen to make things right?
Then the person who has had the negative impact is asked:
- What happened?
- What were you thinking at the time?
- What have you thought about the situation since?
- Who has been affected by what you did? In what way?
- What do you think you could do to make things right?
In many schools and programs, including at Dearborn, it was traditional to ask a student to apologize to another student when they had hurt their feelings. Apologies can be very important, don’t get me wrong. There is research that shows that young children should be instructed and reminded to apologize to one another for harm done. However, as students mature, if apologies are seen or experienced as fake or forced, they can be worse than no apology at all.
Restorative conferences are used sparingly, and we have used them in our effort to reduce school suspension.
Q: What changes have you seen in the school because of restorative practices?
RA: We started using restorative practices last year – our focus was on circles and chats. It was only in the late winter that our leadership started to get training on conferences. Last year we were all caring around “chat cards” with the questions written on them. This year, our so-called restorative practices veterans don’t rely on the cards. We also hosted a session for parents and caregivers and some of the caregivers shared that they started having circles at dinner time and using the questions for chats when their children would get into arguments.
It is also so powerful for adults to make amends to children when we have acted in a way that hurts a child’s feelings. It is just as powerful for adults to learn how to give back to one another when our behavior negatively impacts another. The bottom line is, if you are going to be in relationships with one another, you are going to both hurt and be hurt.
Restorative practices provide a framework where both the person who was on the receiving end of the behavior gets to take a lead role in figuring out and asking for what they need from the person who impacted them. It is empowering. And as someone who has hurt someone else’s feelings and had the chance to really provide the other person with what they need – not what I think they need or should want – it is a really powerful and shame-reducing experience.
Q: What is the path forward for restorative practices at Dearborn Academy?
RA: As you might imagine, this can be pretty sophisticated stuff. We have used visuals and changed vocabulary in order to modify restorative practices for young students and/or those with social skills challenges.
We are excited to have just learned that our proposal was accepted into a pilot program offered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to evaluate whether we are meeting our goals of teaching skills and reducing suspension via these practices.
We have anecdotal evidence from students, teachers and family members that the community-building circles and chats are contributing to a happier and more connected school, but we have not conducted any formal evaluation. We are excited to get some training and support to do this in order to determine where we can improve our efforts.