As commonly understood, school discipline seeks to stop misbehavior, teach pro-social behavior, and motivate healthier decision making in the misbehaving student. In practice, the means to these ends often takes a punitive path that fosters a self-protective posture in the misbehaving student, amplified by a sense of powerlessness and a negative attitude that can contribute to an ongoing cycle of harm. School suspensions and loss of privileges mirror a criminal justice system that looks and feels like retribution or payback. Although misbehavior may be stifled temporarily by punitive measures, the possibility for long-term change in the misbehaving student is small. Other negative side-effects from punitive discipline follow.
In a recent article in Children & Schools, Judy Hostetler Mullet, Ph.D., suggests an alternative approach to discipline, one based on restorative justice. Restorative justice, according to Wikipedia, is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community, instead of satisfying abstract legal principles or punishing the offender. Victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions. Restorative justice involves both victim and offender and focuses on their personal needs. In addition, it provides help for the offender in order to avoid future offences. Adapting restorative justice ideas to a school setting, Mullet calls for “restorative discipline”. Her approach involves three areas of action:
- Unwinding: the child who has been harmed is given an opportunity to “unwind” by discussing the incident with the concerned adult.
- Rewinding: the child who misbehaved is given an opportunity to “rewind” and take a second look at the incident, and to explore not only his or her motivations for misbehaving, but also the effects the misbehavior has had on the child who was harmed, and how the misbehaving child can make the situation right.
- Winding up: the children who observed the misbehavior are given a chance to review the incident, evaluate how they, too, may have been affected, and what can be done in the future to support to all involved.
For each area of action, Mullet provides a list of possible prompting questions the adult can ask the children to help further discussion and reflection.
Mullet anticipates objections from faculty and administrators who might see the restorative discipline approach as being too “touchy-feely”, too idealistic, and requiring too much time. She maintains that practitioners who have used this method report more time efficiency than in the usual punitive model.
To press her case, Mullet writes:
Someone once said that we have one distinctive right in America—the right to take action. In some cases this entitlement to act trumps the ethical nature or even the outcome of the action. To act is to be right. Perhaps that is why punishment is unfortunately synonymous with discipline; it is a concrete, quick, and easy action, and we often see an immediate, albeit short-term, cessation of the harmful behavior. Simple action fits our instant messaging mind-set and Twitter world. A principal recently confessed to me: “I know that punishment doesn’t really change the student, but at least everyone involved knows that I did something.” Since when is “something” best practice? We know that pain-for-pain action can actually increase anger and resentment that can trigger future harm, yet we act to get even, in the name of “correction”…. That is real justice today. Do the crime—do the time. We are even. Or are we settling for a cycle of harm that ultimately discourages rather than encourages healthy relationships? Restorative discipline offers a way to escape that cycle.