Community, it is a theme that has resonated most meaningfully for me in my exploration of Restorative Justice. People need a sense of belonging, a feeling that they are part of something bigger and more significant than themselves. It is the reason that religions have grown and flourished for centuries. Indeed from the time that humans have populated the earth they have had a basic almost instinctual need to come together in groups, for protection, for resource gathering and in the case of humans for social interaction and mental well being. In this brief outline and exploration I will explore making a case for the implementation of community building and restorative healing practices early on in the education of children. It is my contention that by implementing skills and habits that build pro-social and empathic tendencies early on in life , they will continue on to allow a general shift in attitudes in regard to harm and healing in later years and in communities as a whole.
When hard and rigid, We consort with death,
When soft and flexible, We affirm greater life (Tao 76 Lao Tsu)
I have inserted this quote to demonstrate the conflict of ideals and practises that exist within modern day schools. The almost bi-polar clash of philosophy and practise that exists as a result of such concepts as, expediency, outcome based accountability and society's almost pathological need for quick and decisive responses to harm. The prevalent response to harm within schools ranges from immediate verbal correction, time-out to suspension and expulsion. All of these responses tend to be power imbalanced, punitive and shaming. Very little attention if any is addressed to the targets of harm or to the greater harm that may be inflicted to the learning community as a whole.
Conditioning and learning are often confused and considered synonymous. Conditioning fosters reaction, while learning fosters examination and reasoned response. In a system that supports examination and critical thought, it is an enigma that the majority of responses to harm in our schools are reacted to punitively and without regard to healing. Exclusionary practises such as time-outs, suspensions and expulsions result in the loss of community and marginalization of those who have perpetrated harm upon others.
Once marginalized it is doubly difficult to reintegrate these students back into the learning community as a whole. Recall if you will the responses of classmates to the student who has just returned from timeout, suspension or expulsion. From stares to overt taunts or recriminations the returning student feels very little re-acceptance into the general learning community. Recall also the general response of the adult professional. Was the tone one of reintegration or of warning and shaming.
Shame and the act of shaming another has been raised to an art form in schools. The literature and schools of thought differ as to its use and effectiveness within the scope of "criminal" harm. I hold the belief that within a community such as a classroom that shame will serve to only further alienate and marginalize the child.
"In a school context the way in which punishment is used and the frequency with which it is given will carry messages to other children, and create an atmosphere which can run counter to the intended effect on the offending individual" (Rutter et al 1982)
As evidenced as many as thirty-five years ago, (Rutter et al had referenced a 1977 study results on classroom discipline) educators and researchers have recognized that the "traditional" response to student misconduct and harm not only harm the offending students but the entire community of learners as well. Yet schools tend to fall back to the quick and easy, as well as, react to "results oriented" pressure from parents and governments.
An exploration of various school divisions codes of conduct appear to place high priority on the ideals of dignity and respect. There is definite focus upon using methods and models that strive to maintain the learning community including the use of non-violent means (corporal punishment). Oddly enough despite the best intentions of school districts there seems to be a disconnect between general policy statements and popular practise. On any given day in the course of my walks through the halls of many of the schools in which I worked, I would observe children/students sitting in desks in the hall doing the work that their classmates were doing inside the classroom. Many of the students who were "repeat offenders" had actually been convinced that they "learned better " removed from their community. I have often wondered what learning has been ingrained in these students and how it carried on into later work and social interactions.
It is my belief that, if given another model to ascribe to, that teachers could and would embrace another way to reconcile harm within their classrooms. Teachers, by nature, are open to building community, fostering empathic responses and healing practises. Children, in my experience who express a desire to be teachers at a young age, demonstrate these traits and have a correspondingly higher emotional intelligence and capacity for empathy. Many of the teachers I have worked with have told me that they knew what they were going to do early on in life. By extension I can conclude that those who chose to become teachers have this innate ability to show empathy and posses high emotional intelligence.
Imagine if you will an atmosphere of learning and response that stresses the greater good over the roles and needs of the individual. Children experiencing early on in their cognitive development the idea of community cohesion and harmony that enhances their personal lives. A sense of social justice whereby the end result of caring for others comes full circle to benefit the individual. A way of addressing harm as systemic and the corresponding healing paying dividends through the reduction of harm in the future. I see using the principles and practises of restorative justice as reaching far beyond the legal system and encompassing the social dynamic and fabric of society.
One of the strongest visual, historical illustrations of this practise was illustrated by Theyebdabegea or Joseph Brant of the Mohawk Confederacy. He illustrated, albeit in a militaristic context, the strength of communities banding together through the visual metaphor of the arrow. One arrow shaft standing alone was easily broken, but many arrows bundled together created an unbreakable bond. So it is with community. People bonded together in a common practise to better the community, will make it stronger. By adding the "arrow" of the offending or harming individual, it not only strengthens the group but welcomes in the outsider as part of the overall strength.
How this to be done and implemented is where the real work begins. It is my goal through further study and reading that I will be developing a program of study that uses as its core learning the importance of maintaining cohesion within a community using at restorative justice approach as its foundation. It will be a progressive program that begins in the primary years and builds upon itself throughout students' school lives. Research has shown (Campbell, Frances A.; Pungello, Elizabeth P.; Miller-Johnson, Shari; Burchinal, Margaret; Ramey, Craig T., 2001) as well as many other studies, the success of early intervention programs on cognitive and academic achievement.
In my mind there can be the same success in developing a greater capacity for emotional and social intelligence that when enhanced will alter "traditional" approaches to harm and instill a mindset of healing and reconciliation. This would not be a new curriculum or program rather an insert or augmentation of existing social studies, religious education and language arts programs of study.
In closing I will use the following statement,
"Each one of us is responsible for all of humankind, and for the environment in which we live... We must seek to lessen the suffering of others. ...To do this , you need to recognize that the whole world is part of you" (the Dalai Lama)
If we are to truly create communities where harm is reduced, healing is promoted and reconciliation to the whole is the goal then we must work together and start with the young.