Book Review: Better Than Carrots or Sticks – Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management

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Image taken from: ascd.org

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass

As a teacher, I’ve been an advocate for class culture and better practices in classroom management. This is why there’s a whole category in my blog that talks about Classroom Management and Beyond. To my dismay, most people would scoff and shrug off the idea that we need to rethink the way we run our schools. To them, it’s all about rules, procedures, routines – and it stops there. But to target problems like student retention, reducing disruptive and offensive behavior, absenteeism, disciplinary cases, and the like, we need to invest heavily in a school’s physical environment, culture, people, and just what like this book advocates: restorative practices.

Take a minute or two and think about this: How do you define classroom management?

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Is it mostly about a set of rules, routines, and procedures? Is it about effective discipline? Is it about relationships? Personally, I think I found my favorite definition in the book:

Cassetta and Sawyer (2013) define classroom management as being “about building relationships with students and teaching social skills along with academic skills.” There are two aspects of an effective learning environment (and by extension successful classroom management): relationships (specifically the range of interpersonal skills necessary to maintain healthy relationships) and high quality instruction. What we need is an effective classroom management system – one that we can hold onto in times of stress and strife.

In this book, Smith, Fisher, and Frey invite us to rethink how to discipline. A traditional approach would focus on violation of rules, establishing justice through guilt, and punishments that define accountability. In contrast, restorative practices focus on violation of people and relationships, justice that identifies needs and obligations, and accountability as a way to understand the effects of the offense and repairing harm. The traditional approach focuses on the offender while the latter includes the offender, victim, and school system. A restorative approach also gives the offenders a chance to make ammends, instead of just being punished.

The book is divided into six chapters. Below is a quick rundown on what you’ll find in each section.

Chapter 1: Punitive or Restorative: The Choice is Yours

“Our own experience has been that while our collective hearts as educators are in the right place, we tend to make decisions based on past experience.”

This chapter focuses on your current practices on rules and rewards, discipline procedures, and school culture. How do you deal with shame and humiliation? Is it good practice to suspend and expel students?

Chapter 2: Relationships and Meaningful Instruction: The Foundations of Restorative Practices

“It wasn’t the content of the conversations that mattered; it was the fact that his teacher made him feel valued… When we humanize one another, it’s much harder to be harsh, rude, or defiant… every child needs at least one person who is crazy about him or her.”

Rita Pierson once said that all of learning has something to do with relationships. I agree. In this section of the book, the writers tackle the social and emotional competencies that schools need to include in their programs or curriculum. It also gives different strategies on how to develop these competencies and introduces practices that strengthen student-teacher and student-student relationships.

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How do kids feel inside your classroom?

Chapter 3: Classroom Procedures and Expectations: Structures That Support Restorative Practices

“Behavior is how we communicate our wants and needs to the world; we use facial expressions, movement, and words to convey how we are processing all the information that’s coming at us… As educators, we should seek to recognize patterns of behavior so we can correctly anticipate students’ actions.”

Do you know the differences between rules, procedures, and expectations? How do you communicate expectations and goals inside the classroom? How do you respond to unwanted behavior? This chapter outlines how to align rules, procedures, and expectations properly. It also shows different ways to manage and articulate difficult behaviors that teachers observe among students. And on the more positive side, it also emphasizes how to recognize and encourage student behaviors that lead to success.

Chapter 4: Peace Building: Using Informal Restorative Practices Every Day

“Schools that are more invested in peacemaking and peace building than peacekeeping seek to transform their efforts by making them part of the explicit, rather than hidden, curriculum. Peacemaking efforts include the formal restorative practices of problem-solving circles, victim-offender dialogue, and high stakes conferences. Peace-building efforts are folded into lessons such that students develop a vocabulary for discussing their perspective s and considering the viewpoints of others.”

This chapter talks about the daily informal practices that we engage in and it specifically focus on how we use language. Th chapter cites the work of Peter Johnston, author of the book Choice Words (which is another amazing book about language and learning!). The writers challenge teachers to think about the the impact of words on our students’ social and emotional development. Do we use language effectively to help in identity-building among our students? Do our words promote agency and independence or does it have the opposite effect? Can our students engage in difficult conversations with their peers?

 

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How do you tell your students that you care about them?

Chapter 5: Peacemaking: Strategic Implementation of Formal Restorative Practices

“If we are to restore classrooms and schools to healthy learning communities, we have to focus on the actions without rejecting the individuals.”

This part of the book examines formal practices that we can include in our programs and curriculum. Structured conversations are introduced, along with formal classroom circles, victim-offender dialogues, and high-stakes conferences. What I found very helpful is that the book provided sample conversation starters, questions, and forms that you can readily use.

Chapter 6: Creating the Mindset for Restorative Practices

“Too often, we find ourselves trying to resolve a crisis the moment it arises. Anticipating crises can reduce their impact and accelerate our responsiveness to students, faculty, and families.”

The last chapter invites all educators to develop a mindset for restorative practices. This way, the approach is more preventive – we don’t wait for a crisis to arrive, but rather, we have the means to prevent a crisis from happening. It also challenges schools to have a disciplinary audit – how many disciplinary cases does each teacher have in a year? How can we reflect on our current practices to lessen these?

The book ends with a bonus study guide for each chapter which educators and school communities may use in their own professional development circles.

“We don’t leave the acquisition of reading or mathematics skills to chance; we engage in explicit, systematic, and intentional instruction to ensure that learners progress academically. So why wouldn’t we do the same to ensure that students progress socially and emotionally?”

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What can our children look forward to?

These days, the conversations in our country focus on violence, drugs, and what to do with children who are considered criminals. As teachers, I think the questions we ask ourselves shouldn’t just be about whether these kids should be sent to juvenile prisons or what types of punishments are fit.

If we want our children to grow up as good citizens, then we have to fight the daily battles inside our own classrooms. We must rethink the way we discipline, how we show them respect, how we build their identities, and above all, how we make them feel the love and support of a community.