One of the most difficult things to navigate as a school administrator is discipline. How do you help students understand that their behavior is not appropriate? How do you respond so that the teacher who refers a student feels supported?

Giving consequences to students for their behavior is not always easy, and it is most certainly not black or white. A few years ago, I delved into research on restorative discipline, feeling that consequences should ultimately change student behavior. When I arrived at Longfellow Middle School, one of my first priorities was doing some deep thinking about whether or not we were moving in that direction.

The reality was that we had systems within our building that were more punitive in nature than restorative, which led to repetitive behaviors. Our approach to discipline did little to correct and prevent the unwanted behaviors and left us with frustrated students and teachers. Our leadership team decided to adopt a new way to address student behavior problems by creating restorative structures within our building and focusing on multitiered systems of support. Making key changes transformed our discipline approach from punishments and penalties to reflection and restoration.

Here’s what you can do to move your school toward restorative and multitiered systems of support:

Create a Common Discipline Matrix

Start by creating a common system for all school personnel to use regarding how to handle discipline. It is important to have conversations about the different types of behaviors and what does or does not warrant an office referral. This involves getting input from your staff and really deciding what behaviors should be handled at the classroom level and which may warrant immediate office action. This helps to create consistency within your building so that students are clear on what the expectations are and what happens when those are not followed.

Create Opportunities for Students to Reflect on Their Behavior

Having students talk about their behavior and discuss what they can do differently the next time is powerful. We implemented this component using restorative questions in our lunch detentions and also our in-school placement programs so that students are able to reflect on their behavior. Administrators also have exit conferences with students to discuss what support they may need to help improve their behavior. It is also a great way to communicate to students that they always get a clean slate. We all make bad choices; it’s how you learn from those choices that’s most important!

Include Community Service Components

One of the best things we can teach students is how to give back to their community. When students have done something within their school community, it is very effective to have them restore or give back to their community. We implement this piece within our in-school placement program and students do some type of school improvement project during their stay in ISP.

Provide Social-Emotional Supports

Creating opportunities for your students to receive social-emotional support is key. We have done this by having our school counselors rotate through our in-school placement program. They teach social-emotional lessons to students based on why they may be in there. It creates another opportunity for student to reflect on behaviors, but also offers opportunities to teach them replacement behaviors so that it increases the chances they won’t return to in-school placement for the same behaviors.

Implement Restorative Conversations

Restorative questions help us have a productive, nonconfrontational conversation with students. It changes the language in conversations we are having with kids in order to shape positive behaviors. This is a critical component. Instead of it being punitive and focused on guilt, you focus more on the needs and responsibilities of all who were affected.

As school leaders, we are the driving force behind what kind of systems we have in our building for handling discipline. What restorative based practices have you implemented within your school? How are you and your staff focusing more on restoration rather than punitive consequences?

Stephanie Williams is principal at Longfellow Middle School in Norman, OK, serving an average of 750 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders each school year. Stephanie has 16 years in education, the last nine in administration. Stephanie is the 2018 Oklahoma Assistant Principal of the Year.

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