Children Will Speak When They Feel Safe

As an alternative to traditional, exclusionary discipline, learn how Restorative Circles build positive school climates where students feel safe to speak. Schools that have implemented Restorative Circle Practices have seen: reduced suspensions; increased connection to school and learning; better relationships between parents, admin, staff, students, and beyond.

Early in my tenure at the Minnesota Department of Education, a student, a 6th grader, had brought a handgun to school, waived it around on the playground, and then when the bell rang at the end of recess, he put it in his coat pocket and hung the coat up in his locker. 

The boy was arrested at school. Neither the principal, the social worker, the arresting officer, nor his mother could induce him to talk—to explain to everyone, who were all so scared, why he had the weapon in the first place, how he got it, or why he took it out on the playground.

In an attempt to help the principal, I contacted the restorative justice (RJ) specialist at county court services, but the boy’s case was not referred for a family group conference. I tried to see if Kay Pranis, who was working at the Minnesota Department of Corrections at the time, could help. We could not move the systems, but she did offer an explanation for the boy’s silence: “Children will speak,” she observed, “when they feel safe.” This boy obviously did not feel safe and thought that a handgun would offer safety. His sense of safety must have spiraled out of reach when he was caught. What happened to him that he had access to and took up a gun?

“Children will talk when they feel safe.”

“Children will talk when they feel safe.” This is such a simple observation, but one that has profound implications for schools. Some students who don’t feel safe will end up in the office because they got into a fight. Some will elect to flee and start skipping classes or whole days. And some will just freeze. They are in the seat, but due to fear, no information goes to the pre-frontal cortex, and there is no “conscience thought” or learning.1 Cultivating a sense of safety is important not only for an orderly school but for learning itself.

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The question of safety in schools is not just about preventing extreme forms of violence, fights, or bullying. It is also about shrinking the achievement gap, since the way a school disciplines the students will either help or hurt academic achievement. Russell Skiba and Jeffrey Sprague succinctly note, “time spent learning is the single best predictor of positive academic outcomes.”2 Suspensions and expulsions are time spent out of the classroom. As the research of Dr. Skiba and others has shown, using exclusionary practices to keep a well-mannered school has proven to be costly, harmful, and unfair; neither does it bring about the stated goal of safety or improved achievement for all students.3

In 2014, the U.S. Secretary of Education and the U.S. Attorney General highlighted the need for alternatives to exclusionary discipline as well as the importance of a positive school climate in a “Dear Colleague” letter to all superintendents of schools in the United States. In that letter, they cite the data that shows that students of color and students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended or expelled, and they state that this disproportionality may be a violation of civil rights laws. In the evidence based recommendations for remediation, they list restorative justice practices.4

This is good news for those of us who have learned the principles and practices of restorative justice and adapted them to schools. We have seen the positive outcomes: reduced suspensions; reduced repeat suspensions; increased connection to school and learning; better relationships between parents and school administration and staff; and better relationships between children and their parents.5 But we also know that implementing a philosophy involves more than teaching a set of practices. Implementing restorative practices calls for a paradigm shift—a change in the head and the heart.

Circles: A Restorative Practice

In Circle Forward, Kay Pranis and Carolyn Boyes-Watson  make the case for cultivating not only safety but also a humane, compassionate school. Such a school recognizes the contributions of all members of the school—the students, of course, and the teachers, but also the entire staff, the parents, and the wider community. Through practicing the Circle process regularly, a school can create a climate of care and connection. These school-wide practices enhance the school’s capacities for problem solving and community building under almost any circumstance.

Several excellent frameworks articulate school climate elements. I recently came across a particularly clear and succinct description: to build a positive community in a school, all students (and I would say all adults, as well) need to feel a sense of belonging and significance. Graeme George, an Australian teacher and consultant, elaborates:

One of the key aims of any school is the building of a sense of community among its students, and between students and the adults in the school. For such cooperative relationships to best develop, according to Tyler and Blader (2000), individuals need to feel a high level of pride in membership of the group and a high level of respect within the group. … [T]he descriptors for these key needs . . . [are] belonging and significance. For students to feel part of the school community they must feel that they belong (i.e., they are interested in being part of the group) and that they are significant (i.e., they feel that others are interested in them being part of the group).6

How can all students in a school feel belonging and significance? That is the challenge of creating a safe, healthy school. The word ‘all’ has compelled me to pursue restorative practices and the Circle in particular. I was a “good kid” in school: I liked school, I felt I belonged there, and I was significant. As an extrovert, I raised my hand and was called on, and I felt that I was seen by teachers and peers alike. But many students were not seen. As a teacher, I remember having students whose voices I rarely, if ever, heard. I can’t say that I “saw” them in any honest way. They occupied seats to be checked only for attendance. I have heard students say, in effect, that it is so easy to disappear in a school.

To belong, one has to be seen. To be significant, one has to contribute. In its profound simplicity and deep complexity, the Circle process provides the means for everyone to belong and to be significant under any circumstance: as a student learning a world language; as a member of the classroom reviewing for a test; as a teacher, sharing his highs and lows; as a principal, sharing her favorite dessert; as a member of a team, learning winning and losing; as a kid who caused harm, helping to fix things; as a youth who has been hurt, helping others to fix things; or as a parent, working with the school to support the education of all children. The Circle, for a while, flattens the hierarchy between cliques and cliques, between adults and students, and between the book-learned educator and the experience-learned parent. Everyone has a place.

3 Resources on Restorative Practices for Your School

1. Watch how Restorative Circles are impacting this Oakland high school community.

2. Read about Restorative Justice in Schools and how it has been implemented in the Oakland Unified School District in California.

3. Learn about the foundations and key elements of circles in The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis.

Nancy Riestenberg is a School Climate Specialist, Minnesota Department of Education.

Excerpted and adapted from Circle Forward: Building a Restorative School Community, by Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis. © Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis. Permission granted by Living Justice Press, St. Paul, MN.

Further Reading:

1. The Hawn Foundation, (2011). The mind-up curriculum: Brain-focused strategies for learning—and living. Scholastic Teaching Resources, 35.

2. Skiba, R., & Sprague, R. (2008). Safety without suspensions. Educational Leadership, 66(1), 38–43. Safety_Without_Suspensions_Sept_2008.pdf.

3. For research on outcomes of exclusion, go to the Institute of Educational Sciences’ Education Resource Information Center (ERIC): Also, Dignity in Schools, as well Appendices 3 and 4 in this book.

4. “Dear Colleague” Letter on School Climate and Discipline: gen/guid/school-discipline/index.html?utm_source=E-News%3A+School+Discipline%2 C+Hillary+Clinton%2C+and+Early+Ed&utm_campaign=enews+1%2F15%2F14&utm_ medium=email.

5. McMorris, B. J., Beckman, K. J., Shea, G., Baumgartner, J., & Eggert, R. C. (2013). Applying restorative justice practices to Minneapolis public schools students recommended for possible expulsion: A pilot program evaluation of the family and youth restorative conference program. School of Nursing, Healthy Youth Development Prevention Research Center, Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, the Legal Rights Center, Minneapolis, MN, and Minneapolis Public Schools.

6. Kelly, V. C., Jr., & Thorsborne, M. (2014). Affect and emotion in a restorative school. In V. C. Kelly, Jr., & M. Thorsborne (Eds.), The psychology of emotion in restorative practice: How affect script psychology explains how and why restorative practice works. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 212.

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