When I was 18, my A-Level English Language teacher met me as I left the exam hall. He was furious. “Did you answer question 2?”, he barked. “No”, I replied. “Why not?” he asked. “I didn’t understand what juxtapose meant Sir.” He pulled his hair in frustration. “It means compare!” he roared. “Oh! I could have answered that”, I replied.
My point is that communication, whether written or verbal, is only possible if it is accessible. If I'm honest, my desire to make the restorative conference accessible to children with speech language and communication needs only really came to the fore when my own son was diagnosed with Autism. Inspired by the fear that he would be a misunderstood child, labelled badly behaved when really he was confused and anxious and didn't know how to tell others, led me to create and develop visual tools to communicate with children in the restorative justice process.
There are four areas to consider when translating the narrative to the visual. First, consider your audience. Bryan et al (2007)1 , Crew and Ellis (2008)2 , Gregory & Bryan (2009)3 , and more recently Brooks (2011) have all researched the prevalence of Speech Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) in children in the youth justice system in the United Kingdom (UK). They found evidence of anywhere between 65 – 91% of SLCN evident in those studies. At even the most conservative estimate, it is fair to say there is an over-representation of children with SLCN in the UK’s youth justice system. If we do not develop innovative methods to communicate with children about, and within restorative justice, the message sent, may not be received. This risks children refusing to participate, or participating with anxiety, which can present as unremorseful behaviour. Whether you want to accept it or not, these are the children you are most likely working with, you cannot ignore these statistics and the challenge to engage these children belongs to you, to me, to all of us.
Second, consider the message you want to convey. You generally want to convey five messages in explaining what restorative justice is to children. Adults, often, in our need to feel important, to look intelligent and capable use complicated language which is unhelpful and isolating. Do these phrases look familiar?
Next, consider the medium you use. I advocate the use of visuals in both preparation for and facilitation of the conference. This increases the likelihood of being understood because there is an additional clue – the picture. Visual representations can be cartooning, simple stick men are very acceptable. Pictures of body parts to identify feelings (stomach, heart, lungs, expression, gritted teeth, clenched hands, running feet, speech bubbles and thinking clouds). Graduated colour wheels make intensity of emotions and feelings accessible, and emoticon type faces for typical responses help the reciprocal communication of feelings in the moment. I've used see-saws to show how a child's personal resources can be used to balance out victim needs, the list goes on. With a bit of creativity and very little artistic talent required you can translate words to pictures for any child.
Lastly, consider the process. Asking children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to sit still and communicate for an extended period of time is unlikely to result in a positive outcome. Similarly, expecting children who have SLCN to focus on thinking sequentially about their behaviour and the impact of it on others, is unrealistic. Children can be supported to overcome this challenge by arranging the process visually from left to right in the room the meeting takes place. At the left is the timetable drawn out in pictures. 1) Saying hello and who you are; 2) Ground rules explained; 3) Police facts; 4) Child’s Story; 5) Harm Caused; 6) What do we all do now?; 7) Thanks and close. Moving around the room, each of these parts of the meeting are displayed from left to right, in the visuals the child and victim prepared with the facilitator in the weeks before the meeting. It ends with a blank page where the promises are to be drawn. For children with ADHD this visual movement around the room is a particular gift. They can get up and move around the room; following the process, explaining their story, drawing up harm or sticking on emotion faces at different stages of the victim’s story. This keeps them participating and active enough that their focus and concentration can remain "on task".
Creatively translating the above four areas from verbal language to visual representation for children will increase the likelihood of engaging them in a restorative conversation, regardless of their communication capability; securing more positive outcomes for all.
Bryan K, Freer J, Furlong C. Language and communication difficulties in juvenile offenders. International Journal of language and communication difficulties, 2007; 42, 505-520.
Crew M, Ellis N. Speech and Language Therapy within Bradford Youth Offending Team, 2008.
Gregory J, Bryan K. Evaluation of the Leeds Speech and Language Therapy Service Provision within the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme provided by the Leeds Youth Offending Team, 2009.
Brooks V, (2011) Report outlining the findings of a 13 month pilot project examining the effectiveness of speech and language therapy for young people known to Exeter, East and Mid Devon Youth Offending Team.