Discipline program builds empathy

OKEECHOBEE — Educators at Yearling Middle School are using restorative practices for students who violate school rules.

Restorative practices are focused on strengthening relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities. Instead of only experiencing the punishment that comes from breaking a rule, students are also given the opportunity to talk in a group setting about what happened and understand the negative consequences of their actions.

Individuals who may have committed harm or caused a disruption are allowed to take full responsibility for their behavior by addressing those they affected.

Taking responsibility requires understanding how the behavior affected others, acknowledging that the behavior was harmful to others, taking action to repair the harm, and making changes necessary to avoid such behavior in the future.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/YMS
Yearling Middle School Principal Dave Krakoff addresses students during a small group restorative discussion at YMS on Nov. 18.

These group discussions can be used as a tool to teach social skills such as listening, respect and problem solving. They can provide people an opportunity to speak and listen to one another in a safe atmosphere and allow educators and students to be heard and offer their own perspectives. YMS principal Dave Krakoff says the school made the decision to implement restorative discussions following a workshop attended by YMS dean of students Walt Caves and math teacher Zach Stanley.

“It was obvious that this approach meshed perfectly with our educational approach to discipline,” said Mr. Krakoff. “Previously, we worked to guide students to learn that as Dr. William Glasser’s Choice Theory suggests, all behavior results from choices that people make. We used Dr. Glasser’s research to guide students to reflect on their choices, to examine alternatives to the choices they made that might have resulted in better results, and to identify how they will handle similar situations with choices that bring more positive results in the future. We saw restorative discussions as a terrific addition to our approach as we continue to work to develop a positive culture and change bad behavior rather than simply deliver consequences to students.”

YMS held their first restorative discussions earlier this week, and Mr. Krakoff has been pleased with the results so far.

“The early returns have been transformative,” explained Mr. Krakoff. “We have held small-group restorative discussions with students who have wronged one another or have been involved in ongoing conflicts, with teachers and individual or small groups of students who have struggled with their relationships in the classroom, and with individual students who have made mistakes in their behavior. The discussions have been incredibly powerful. We have watched students come to self realizations and develop empathy for others.”

YMS plans to use restorative discussions in two ways, in small group settings and whole class discussions.

Small group discussions will focus on restoring something that needs to be restored as a result of poor behavior. Students will be guided to identify every person that suffered in some way from his or her poor choice with behavior and to analyze why and how someone suffered. Students then discuss what steps they can take to make things right.

Whole class discussions will occur with classes that have struggled the most with classroom disruptions and whose environments have not been as conducive to learning as administrators would like.

“In whole-class discussions, we script questions meant to elicit personal responses from every single person in the room,” said Mr. Krakoff. “We ask every person, student and staff member, to respond to the questions in front of the class. The idea is to help all stakeholders in the classroom to be able to express perspectives and areas of struggle, to develop empathy for one another.”

“We want to build a culture at Yearling where students excel academically and socially and emotionally,” Mr. Krakoff continued. “We want to develop the whole student. When some students struggle to master academic content, we expect our teachers to differentiate instruction to give every student what they need to master the content and to never give up. There is no deadline on learning. Traditionally, when students violate a school’s code of conduct, they are punished. We can’t expect students to change bad behavior if we don’t teach them how.”

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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