RESTORATIVE PRACTICES BLOG
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Without fail, in every training I deliver, at least one teacher or parent will say to me “they don’t mean it when they apologise, it’s not genuine, they just say it to get off the hook.”
My response is always the same. I ask whether they told the child how they had been hurt or did they just tell the child that their actions were unacceptable?
When an apology doesn’t appear genuine it is usually because a key element in the process of reparation has been missed, overlooked or purposefully avoided. What tends to happen is children give an apology for their behaviour. It sounds a little like this:-
While this seems like an apology, it is actually only the first step, it is only an admission of guilt.
For it to connect and feel genuine to the person who has been harmed the child’s apology needs to acknowledge the victim’s hurt and connect it to what they did.
It sounds more like this:-
This is accountability - a connection between actions and impact.
To facilitate this the victim needs to express how they have been hurt through a conversation with the child. Therefore, when teachers challenge the genuineness of a child's apology, I always start with "Did you tell them how they hurt you?"
If we are to find peaceful ways to resolve conflict, there needs to be conversation, and we need to be in the messiness of that conflict together. And yes , you feel vulnerable when you say to a child “your actions pulled the rug from under me, crushed me, hurt me, made me feel small,” but to not step into the circle and speak our truth we close down the opportunity to repair and strengthen our relationships with our students when they need it most.
If you want to find out more about how the skills of restorative practice can help you to connect better with your students or children through, and beyond conflict, then I would love to hear from you, or you can check out our upcoming training events here.
LJ Sayers is a restorative trainer, mum to J, partner to JP, a COVID redundant hugger and the chief quality controller of all chocolate in her household.
The four strategies are represented as different combinations of high or low control and high or low support, (see fig 1.) Practitioners often swap in the words “Expectations of Behaviour” or “Accountability” for control. Personally, I don’t have a difficulty with any of these and also like “boundaries” – but the general rule of thumb is that the vertical axis of the model is about the frame within which you are working, the allowed and not allowed, the purpose, the direction, the boundaries and expectations. The horizontal axis is about what you put into that frame (or don’t put into it) through physical, emotional and social resources.
fig 1: The Social Discipline Model: P McCold & T watchel
The restorative quadrant combines high expectations of behaviour with levels of resources or support and is characterized by doing things with people, rather than to them or for them. The restorative approach allows us to address the problematic behaviour, while also practicing empathy and maintaining a strong relationship.
Take, for example, a child who is repeatedly disruptive, speaking over you, giving back chat, making jokes and distracting or irritating others.
The Neglectful approach is to not do anything, to ignore it and hope that the child will just eventually stop. If you want to learn more about why you are on a hiding to nothing with this approach and you are just storing up trouble for later, then you definitely want to click into our Online Course below and learn about behaviour, communication and displacement.
The Punitive approach is punishment, doing something to the child who is misbehaving. You might give a detention, ground the child, remove privileges like pocket money or school trips. This strategy is all about telling the child “you’d better …(desired behaviour) and if you don’t…(threat).” It drives fear, resentment and disconnection. It also doesn’t work as the child will make decisions to engage in the desired behaviour or not based on their assessment of risk and reward rather than on engagement in curiosity and learning. It also completely fails to address the reasons for the disruptive behaviour in the first place and so this behaviour will keen popping up when you least want it to. Trust me on this.
The Permissive approach is when we do things for someone. We accept their excuses or make excuses for them. We might tell ourselves that it is “because of their disability,” or they are “having a hard time at home / school.” Let’s think about this. We are basically saying “we don’t believe you can do this.” How soul crushingly rubbish a message for a child to hear, no matter how well intentioned. I had a teacher who used to step in frustratedly and say to me “not like that, like this” and then do it for me. It never felt like my work product after – and it affected how much I believed I was capable. This also can impact other children who begin to believe that if behaviour is not expected of one, it should not be expected of another.
The Restorative approach is when we work with the child to resolve the issue. Talking to the child using the restorative language formula of
When you… (behaviour)
I feel … (impact)
Because I need … (needs arising)
Would you be willing to … (connection),
To help me out? (relationship)
To learn more about the difference between shaming language and restorative language – have a quick read at my blog post on “The Shitty First Draft – I’ve put the link for you below – because I’m nice like that.”
Of course, you still need to meet the needs underlying the child’s behaviour. So, at a quiet or appropriately private moment (you will know when it comes) speak to the child to understand what is happening. Keep the questions curious and open ended. Again using the “Can’t Do” lens rather than the “Won’t Do” lens will help you to stay in the curious zone and get a solid understanding of what is happening so you can work out ways to reduce the stressors, meet their needs and teach the skills they need to be a connected child in your family or school.
The restorative strategy for addressing behaviour requires humility on the part of the authority figure approaching the problem in front of them as a curiosity and seeking to understand. It views the people involved in the conflict as each having something interesting and valuable to contribute to the understanding of the problem. So rather than thinking that we know best and approaching the problem with an already formed answer (as is the case in both the punitive and the permissive strategies), the restorative strategy approaches the issue by asking questions, with a humble and compassionate desire to better understand. It is the only strategy that allows us to actually get to the core of the issue.
Here are a few things you can do within your own life to address conflict and issues more restoratively.
First Up: Ask Questions. Lots of them. Keep them open ended, lots of and what else? Tell me more. Help me understand. That’s interesting – can you say more about that?
Next: Follow the three pillars of the restorative framework and don’t skip out the middle pillar of it will come tumbling down. These are:
Spend some time working out which approach is your default response. Take a week and pay attention to what you say and do when someone is causing you difficulty. Do you punish, threaten, warn? Do you ignore, avoid, detach? Do you excuse, protect? Or do you have a conversation about your expectation and what they are struggling with to plan a strategy to support?
I'd love to hear what your natural position is, so if you tell me yours, I'll tell you mine. Let me know how it goes in the comments below.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practices trainer, mum, mediocre saxophonist and chief quality controller of all chocolate in her household.
There was a knock on my door. “Have you a minute?” Lisa said as she edged open my door. She looked angry. Very angry actually. “Of course” I said as I put down my pen, swung around towards the empty chair in the corner and gestured for her to take a seat. I took a deep breath and braced myself for the SFD.
The “Shitty First Draft” as Brene Brown (a shame and empathy researcher from Texas USA) calls it. Brene, if you don’t know her, is my favourite story-teller and knows just a little bit about shame, blame, and leadership. Her teaching tells us so much about how to be restorative when working with teams, complaints, and breakdown in effective communications.
The Shitty First Draft. We all have it. We all do it. We all need it. It isn’t a judgement on you as a person if you have lots of them. I have a library of them – all unpublished. If you ever see me driving the M2 in Northern Ireland you’ll see me orating them in the car. Every. Single. Day. My husband to be, JP, is a seasoned audience of my SFD’s. Patient, kind, generous of spirit, and one of the best reflectors I know, he is my editor of SFD’s.
The Shitty First Draft is your first and most emotional response to an event which threatens some sense of your security. They are usually gift wrapped in past pain, insecurities, fear, and tied with a colourful bow which reads “I’m not good enough.” And before you think this is a gift just for the girls. It isn’t. Guys have Shitty First Drafts too. They just don’t talk about them as much as girls do, which is a great sadness to me considering the suicide rate in men and the raft of research which suggests that women’s propensity to tell their SFD to, well just about anyone who will listen (including a random granny at the bus stop who just asked how your day was going), is a protective factor in mental health. We all need an editor for our SFD’s, and good leaders accept this (often unacknowledged) responsibility with the wisdom that it will build stronger and more resilient employees. It is the “support” function of your leadership role.
Lisa sat down. She took a deep breath and said:
“I hate working here. I am so fed up with this. Do you know what they did?”
“To You?” I asked, checking myself against the fourth rule of braving leadership – Vaulting.
“Yes to me!” she replied
“Ok, good,” I thought, we were within the boundary of talking about things that belonged to Lisa to talk about. In practicing restoratively, "Vaulting" is keeping confidential things that are spoken to you, but which do not belong to you, and equally important, not listening to things that are spoken to you which do not belong to you or the person talking about them. It goes to the core of integrity – of being trust-worthy. Bottom line is if you or the person talking to you, isn’t involved in the trouble you are sharing, if they don’t impact you or them in some way – then mind your own business and frankly, stop being a gossip.
And so out it came, the SFD, words tumbling over each other. How, ever since she had spoken out against the expectation that everyone should work overtime, and she had chosen to not work overtime, because she had children to care for, “they” had ignored her. Whispers fell to silence when she walked in the room, covert looks were passed over shoulders and although nothing was said, she could feel the judging stare as she packed up her bag at 6pm every evening and left the office.
“They’re bullies – they don’t understand what it is like to juggle children and work. I’m going to put in a grievance.”
Now the Shitty First Draft is a double-edged sword. They are dangerous if they become your truth. And they become your truth through unchecked repetition either to yourself or to others. And so this effective and crucial leadership skill of processing the SFD is not just for managers and HR. Everyone should be trained in it. Because often we choose to tell SFD’s to selective people whom we know will agree with us, we keep them secret from people who will actually process them. And yet, in organisations that have great leadership, the task of processing the SFD is a cornerstone in building a compassionate culture, where creativity, solutions, harmony and collaborative productivity resides, and avoiding the shaming, blaming culture where those things come to die.
The unarguable pre-requisite for the SFD is permission to tell the SFD in the first place, safely, and without fear of judgement that you are “hysterical,” “weak,” “a complainer,” “can’t cut it”, or you “need to grow a set.” Don’t even get me started on what the “set” to be grown is… Balls? Breasts? Both? Neither? Who knows? But the message is clear, “you are less than when you express feelings.” The list of judgements which can come on the back of the SFD when your team are not explicitly trained in the value of it, in the right place with the right people, is long and often the experience is harsh, punitive and destructive.
Now, I’ve covered permission giving and receiving as part of trustful container building before, so I won’t labour it again here. You can read it on our blog here, and learn a quick exercises on how to build it in the resources section of our website here. But let’s talk about what you should do when someone brings you their SFD.
Listen to the SFD
Unfettered. A little like a tummy bug that needs to be expelled from the body, just let them get it out. Don’t try and work out what is in it just yet. Just let them say it out loud. I use lots of these:
Tell me more
Can you say more about that?
This takes a wee bit of time, so remember your boundaries. If you don’t have the time right there and then, schedule a time and acknowledge the importance of respecting their story enough to give it time.
Acknowledge and Empathise with their feelings
Acknowledge and empathise with the feelings they are expressing. Naming them is important in building emotional literacy so that they are able to verbalise the emotion rather than demonstrate it. Did you know that only 20% of adults can name more than 3 basic emotions to describe their feelings? That means 80% of us can only name, 1, 2 or 3. And when we can’t verbalise a feeling, we tend to act it out in the manner of a 3 year old stamping their foot.
Find the emotion. Name it. Check it. Without stepping over the boundary, into their feelings (sympathy). So lots of these types of acknowledgements:
"This sounds really difficult for you – you feel treated unfairly, I understand how angry you are."
"I hear you saying how rejected you feel."
"You sound hurt and isolated."
But never this:
“I know exactly what you mean, I felt totally furious when that happened to me. It’s horrible isn’t it?”
This is sympathy. Not helpful. Because now you are both wallowing in the SFD and sinking fast.
Reflect and reframe the basis of their feeling as a consequence of their unmet needs
Learning how to reframe SFD’s as having an impact on your needs as is a key skill in restorative practice. We have a very snappy title for it – “Restorative Language.” Good eh?
Different to blaming language, where the feeling is connected to the other person’s behaviour, in restorative language we connect the feeling to our needs. Identifying your needs which are impacted by someone else’s behaviour, allows you to express much more clearly what is and isn’t a boundary for you in a concrete, professional and assertive way. The difference can be seen in Fig 1 & 2 below.
Restorative Language follows a very simple formula.
For example you might say in response to Lisa’s SFD:
“So when Julie and Aoife stopped talking as soon as you came into the room you felt hurt and suspicious because you need to feel like you belong in this workplace too and if there is a problem you need to be able to address it transparently?”
“So when you pack up your bag in the evenings, you feel judged because you need to be valued for the work you do when you are here and not for the choice to put a boundary around your home life?”
The above way of reframing feelings as connected to our needs rather than someone else’s behaviour helps us to feel more in control of ourselves, express our needs more clearly and take the personal out of what often feels (and sometimes is) very personal to us. Often we go straight to blaming language which connects our feelings to their behaviour and sounds more like this:
“Every time I walk into a room and they stop talking they make me feel like crap.”
This contributes to a sense of not having control over our own feelings because we have given power (in our heads) to someone else to “make us” feel something. And of course this just isn’t true. So having someone help us to make sense of that SFD and start to identify which needs of ours have been offended or infringed upon helps us to identify what we then can do about it.
Bridge the Gap With Them
This is where you help the person to identify what request they must make to best secure their needs being met. It’s the “would you be willing to…” request made clearly and directly after an assertive assessment of how what is currently happening is impacting on their needs.
So the above restorative statement above extends to become:
"When you stop talking as soon as I come into the room
I feel hurt and suspicious
because I need to feel like I belong in this workplace too.
If you are upset with me, would you be willing to talk about it privately with me? "
Of course, when you do this you are making yourself vulnerable to a refusal, a further rejection. This is the bit that takes the courage. There are some things you can do to maximise the chances of the person agreeing to your request.
In my experience, when you use this very clear way of communicating, taking radical responsibility for your own needs in expressing what the problem is for you, instead of pushing your feelings back onto them, I have found people generally work in harmony with you. Of course not always. So let's look at 3 possible outcomes:
When this last example happens it is disappointing but surprisingly it won't bother you anywhere near as much as you think it will. It has less power to impact you, because you now know this is about them and their issues and not you or yours. Because for you, your SFD is no longer tied up with the bow that reads “you are not enough as you are,” and that shaming message, at the end of the day, is most often the real crux of the problem.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner and trainer, a mum, a partner, a mediocre saxophonist, and the chief quality controller of all chocolate in her household.
Relationships are difficult. Even good ones. I want to tell you a story about a young person I worked with, had a great working relationship with in fact, but which went horribly wrong one wet afternoon in August..
I'd been working with this kid for nearly two years. He was a great kid, but had a lot of difficult trauma in his background. He arrived at the office for a meeting and it was as clear as the nose on your face that he was under the influence of something. He was disorientated, paranoid and angry, but couldn't quite explain what he was angry about. Now bearing in mind I was a seasoned Social Worker of nearly 15 years at this point, I did the one thing you should never do when a person is in a state of anger. I told him to "calm down." I know. Let's all do the eye roll and accept we are not perfect. His explosion was immediate. A torrent of abuse let rip at me in front of colleagues, members of the public and other young people, and as he left the office he spat on me. A great, big, wet, gob that landed right in the middle of my face.
I was stunned. It was public and I felt so humiliated. To put you in the picture, my ego and pride had a big part to play in how I experienced this damning display of rejection by a young person I was fond of, I had built a good working relationship with and whom I had worked hard to support. My humiliation came from three places.
Sometimes these are the hardest humiliations to recover from. The one's where people you have connected with suddenly and confusingly disconnect from you. In the interests of radical responsibility let's break down what my part was in this.
Trying to tell someone what you want them to feel instead of connecting, empathising with them and reflecting what they are presently feeling is a sure fire way to disconnect from someone - it is a sure fire way for them to unconsciously realise that you aren't hearing their communication and it is a sure fire way for them to up the ante and communicate in an escalated way what they are feeling again in an attempt to get you to hear them - in this case with a great big gob in the face. Nil points to me.
Failure to receive communication is one of the most common reasons for misunderstanding, one of the most common reasons for escalating behaviour and one of the most important reasons to learn restorative listening skills in working with, well anyone. The ability to put aside the "story in your head" and really slow it down to listen to what a person is feeling is a lot harder than we think.
So now that I had played a part in rupturing this relationship, I had a choice. I could attempt to repair it or I could bin it. Well obviously I wasn't binning it. I had worked too hard to cultivate a relationship of respect with this young person, and I was adult enough to see that I had played a part in the rupture. This is in no way to absolve the responsibility of the young person in spitting on me, or to give him a free pass on this behaviour - it is a horrible behaviour, has a huge impact on someone's self-esteem and whilst this was before Covid, in the current climate it is dangerous.
So let's pause for a second and look at this from the shared story, the non judgement and the restorative angle. This wasn't a relationship that was ruptured just for me. This was a relationship that was ruptured for him. And while I was humiliated and impacted, so was he. We both had a part to play, we both were in the relationship together and we both had to solve it together.
I was surprised by the amount of people who were in support of "charging him with assault," Surprised, not because it wasn't assault - it was by any interpretation, but because it wasn't the most effective way forward for him or me and I thought in the field I worked in, people would get this. I needed him to hear how hurt I was, I needed to say it and have him validate it so I could move on with getting back to the business of working with him. But I suspected he also needed to explain why he had hurt me too, and have the opportunity to learn that his poor choice of behaviour does not equate to the destruction of relationships when it is framed with courageous understanding and real talk. I also knew I needed to apologise to him for missing the opportunity to connect with him and his distress, and I was pretty sure he needed to apologise to me too.
I found my support in a colleague, who also worked closely with this young person, who also had a relationship with him and knew him for better things, and who also respected the importance of restorative practice in talking about actions, harm and needs, not broken rules and laws which in no way dealt with the human beings behind the rupture. She agreed to facilitate the restorative meeting between me and the young person. She prepared him to meet me, reassuring him that this was to "sort things out" not to punish him. Reassuring him that I and she believed that he had made a mistake that he could put right, but that he needed to hear how he had affected me.
I don't mind admitting to you that I was nervous walking into the room that day. I had thought a lot about what I would say, how much I would share, how vulnerable I would make myself by telling him the truth about the feelings that I had when he spat on me and the impact it had on my family. I also knew that I owed him an apology and that put me in a vulnerable position too. It was not lost on me, just how much we both had in common walking into that room to talk to each other.
When I opened the door that afternoon, he looked up at me and the shame and regret was palpable. I put my hand on his shoulder as I passed around the back of his chair to get to mine and gave it a squeeze, trying my hardest to say "we are in this together." He put his head down.
My colleague opened the meeting, thanked us all for coming and reminded us all why we were there - not that I think any of us were in any confusion about it. He looked like he was about to bolt out of the room, so I said "I don't know about you, but I'm really nervous." His shoulders sagged, he let out a breath of air and said in a rush, "I'm so sorry." I nodded, but waited, I knew we needed to go through the process. I knew I needed to go though the process, and I knew he needed it too.
He told his story first. How a breakdown in a family relationship sent him into a tailspin, he went on a bender, took a cocktail of drugs and came into the office that day on the downward spiral of coming off them. He said he had a bleary recollection of feeling angry and that I was out to get him just like everyone else and he remembered spitting on me. "I'm so sorry" he said again. I nodded. "So am I," I replied. "I let you down, I didn't really listen to how distressed you were, I just wanted to get you out of the office before you kicked off, it's partly my fault that you lost it and I'm really sorry that you didn't feel supported by me." A range of emotions flickered over his face, surprise, embarrassment, and then reassurance. We were connected again, by the very nature that we both had a part to play in what had happened and a realisation we both needed to apologise and repair this.
I then told my story. I explained I knew he was under the influence of something because his personality was not recognisable as the young person I knew and respected. I then told him how humiliated I felt being spat on in front of my colleagues, members of the public and other young people. I explained it was because I believed I was good at my job, and nothing communicated I was a failure quite like a young person spitting in your face. I told him that the most difficult thing however, was not being able to kiss my son goodnight until after I got the all clear from the Doctor that his spit which had landed on my face and in my eye hadn't communicated any infections to me. He looked shocked and quietly said again, "I am so sorry."
My colleague, gently and quietly asked him what exactly it was that he felt sorry about it. "For you not being able to kiss your wee boy night night." I felt validated. He had completely understood that it wasn't what he had done that required the apology, it was the impact of it that required the apology. He had totally heard me and validated my right to feel hurt which told me that what happened to me shouldn't have happened to me, I didn't deserve it. Even as an adult this is so reparative. But I also felt shame. Shame that he could demonstrate this empathy and connection, yet I had failed to do it for him. Sometimes we think kids, especially boys, can't hear sensitivity, or reject it. But in a private and safe space I think it is so important for children to hear sensitivity and boys especially. I told him he had more compassion and courage than me, and I was truly sorry that on that day I had shut him down when he needed me most to listen to him. I asked him to accept my apology and he did. There were tears, to be fair it was mostly me and his family supporter, he was way too cool to cry.
If you want to learn more about the frameworks for repairing harm and thinking about the shared story, and the parts we all play in conflict when it occurs, contact us at email@example.com to find out more, or sign up for our Online Restorative Practice in Action course.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and and chief quality controller of all chocolate in her house.
The Double Circle: A Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach
A collaborative problem-solving approach I really like and have used in the past with schools, businesses and in Justice Settings is that of the Double Circle. After all, the only thing that is better than one circle, is two circles. This works on the idea of an inner circle surrounded by an outer circle. Those in the inner circle are the people who are impacted by the problem you are trying to resolve. They might be the child, the teacher(s) and the parents, it might even be a group of staff who are struggling with changes in your school or have a problem to resolve which was identified by an Educational Inspection. Those in the outer circle are the resources. They are there to offer options to resource the plans or needs which the child, family, teachers and others in the middle identify, (see diagram below).
Much like a family group conference model, the Inner Circle meets first to talk about what problems are being experienced and what people need to move forward positively. After this has been identified, the Outer Circle joins and works to resource any needs that the Inner circle couldn’t resource on their own.
Here is an example of a Double Circle we ran at a rural Secondary School back at the end of 2019 and the action plan which the Double Circle came up with as a strategy to resolve a 16 year old girl’s truancy from school.
The Circle (all names have been changed to protect anonymity)
Crystal has been referred to Educational Welfare because her attendance at school had dropped so dramatically in the last 6 months. Her History teacher was vexed because he saw great potential in Crystal and so he asked for a circle to be offered to Crystal and her family to try and support her back into school. An early preparation conversation between Crystal and Mr O’Donaghue revealed that Crystal’s mum was suffering from depression following the death of her Grandmother, and her father was often working away, (he was a long distance lorry driver) so Crystal at the tender age of 16 was being relied on to cook, do laundry and support the younger children with homework.
In the Inner Circle was Crystal, her mother Margaret, her father Patrick, and her two aunts, Marie and Claire as well as the History Teacher Mr O’Donaghue. In the outer circle was Crystal’s Head of Year, Miss Albert, The Education Welfare Officer, Alicia, and a local youth worker, Paul.
After welcomes, introductions and reassurances at the beginning, the Inner Circle began with Mr O’Donaghue explaining why he had called the circle, speaking fondly of Crystal and her fun and bright nature in his class. He posed the question of “What’s Happening?” that Crystal was not coming to school regularly.
There was a very awkward silence and it was clear that Crystal was conflicted, her eyes darting between her mum and dad. The Inner Circle was stuck. Mr O’Donaghue tried again reassuring everyone that this was a safe place to talk and everyone here believed in the importance of all working together to give Crystal the best of themselves. But still the Inner Circle was stuck.
Mr O’Donaghue tried again – this time, working from a basic knowledge of what he knew was going on for Crystal, he shared his own story. He told everyone how as a 15 year old he had struggled to always be at school on time because his parents had separated and his dad took the only car the family had with him, so he had a 2 mile cycle to get to the bus stop. And in a rural setting, he remembered one particular day when he was furiously kicking the “pedal to the metal” only to see the back end of the bus pull away around a corner. The next day in a fit of anger he said to the bus driver “would you ever give me an effing chance – I’m trying to fit in a 2 mile cycle to get to you on time and you left 5 minutes early yesterday morning.” The bus driver, a calm and grandfatherly sort, had laughed and said “son, you should have said – I’ll give you 5 minutes leeway in future.” Mr O’Donaghue laughed as he said “I never realised it at the time, but that Bus Driver gave me the best chance I had back then – I guess none of us can do it alone.” This is a beautiful example of building common ground and connection and it was transformative. Crystal laughed, the Aunt’s laughed, even Patrick laughed, and he didn’t look like a man who had cause to laugh too often with his rough hands and his furrowed brow. There was a pause before Mr O’Donaghue asked again “What Happens in your house that makes it difficult to get out the door in the morning?”
Crystal quietly said that she just “didn’t have enough time to do everything that needed done.” By the time she had “sorted the wee one’s in the evening, made sure they had something to eat and their homework done and their clothes set out and tidied for the next day, she often missed out on getting her own homework done. Or it was sloppy and untidy.” She paused and then looking down at her hands and picking at the skin on the side of her fingers, she said “I hate being told off all the time for being careless and untidy when it’s just not true. It makes me feel pissed off most of the time and I don’t want to be here.” Mr O’Donaghue nodded and replied, “when actually you are caring for everyone a lot, that must feel very thankless and tiring.” Crystal nodded, head still down, tears splashing into her lap. Her father looked so uncomfortable, his face had turned the colour of his t-shirt, a muddy red colour. Mr O’Donaghue looked him straight in the eye and said “I can’t imagine how hard it must be to be torn between working to look after your family and wanting to be there to help your daughter cope with all she has on her plate. What can we do to help?”
Patrick looked like he would burst – he blurted out “I don’t know – it’s all fallen apart, Margaret lost her mum – it’s been really hard”, he patted Crystal’s mum’s hand awkwardly as she started to cry, “I don’t know what to do,” he shrugged. Now this is where silence is a beautiful thing, but as anyone who has sat in silence with someone else before, you know it can also tip over into feeling painful and punitive, so be careful to keep connecting and reassuring people but without stepping into the space and directing the conversation. Mr O’Donaghue held the space beautifully. He made a few reassuring murmurs and said “I know it is hard.”
Then one of the Aunt’s, Marie, explained that her sister had been struggling to cope since their mother had died last year. Mr O’Donaghue turned to Crystal’s mum and said “I know what it is like to lose someone important – I fell apart when my mum died two years ago – it is so hard to get your head above water, what can we do to help?” Until this moment, Margaret had been struggling to say that she felt deep rooted shame that she wasn’t “cutting it” as a mum, something she had always prided herself on, but she felt so angry and lost at the death of her own mother. In a waterfall of words, tears, and pain out came Margaret’s total devastation at the untimely loss of her mother to cancer. A rock in her life, the lynchpin of the family and now she felt completely desolate and lost. Mr O’Donaghue’s empathy and understanding was the catalyst to encouraging Margaret to share out loud her shame and regret that she was not able to be the mum she knew Crystal needed. When she took a breath, Mr O’Donaghue said “right now.” “What?” said Margaret. “You can’t be the mum Crystal needs right now – but you will get back there again with support,” said Mr O’Donaghue. This is a lovely example of understanding, of being real and of recognising that it is OK that we are not all perfect, all of the time. This, I think was the moment I wanted to clone Mr O’Donaghue and put him in my pocket to take to every school I ever visit.
Mr O’Donaghue then asked Crystal directly, “Crystal, what do you need to come to school in the mornings?” Crystal shrugged and then said “I need to not be tired and have had time to do my own home work.” “And what else?” said Mr O’Donaghue. “And to get my head shired” came the simple reply. (For those of you joining us from outside Northern Ireland this is a colloquialism meaning to get out of the worry in your head and have some fun and relaxation so that you can be refreshed) “Anything else?” asked Mr O’Donaghue. There was a pause before Crystal said with a break in her voice. “And I need to know mum is going to be alright.” Mr O’Donaghue nodded.
“Ok,” he said. How do we make this happen? Who can help? He wrote up the four things Crystal had said she needed up on a flipchart.
The Head Of Year from the Outer Circle suggested a referral to a bereavement counsellor, and when Crystal’s mum shook her head in rejection of the idea of talking to someone, Crystal, bolstered by the support of other people in the room, tearfully said “I can’t keep doing this on my own mum, you need to get help.” Aunt Marie then suggested that Margaret might feel happier talking to their priest initially, until she felt more able to approach a specialist support group. Aunt Marie committed to making an appointment for them to see the Priest together and going with Margaret for the first few times until she felt more comfortable. Margaret seemed more able to cope with this suggestion and agreed to give this a try.
Patrick then admitted that he had been taking on a lot of overtime in the lorry driving, because it was so uncomfortable to watch Margaret fall apart. “I don’t know what to do with her,” he said clearly uncomfortable with all these feelings flying about the room. He turned to Crystal and said “love I promise I won’t take on any more overtime, I’ll be at home more often to give you a break.”
Ms Albert, the Head of Year then suggested that perhaps Crystal could avail of the homework club which ran on Monday’s and Wednesday’s after school. It would perhaps help her to find some quiet time to concentrate on her homework. Crystal hesitated and Aunt Claire immediately said, “Don’t worry, I’ll pick the younger one’s up and take them until tea time – it’ll give you a break too Margaret, and you can focus on getting better and maybe having a tea ready for everyone when they get home.” Margaret nodded.
After listening quietly for the whole meeting, Alicia, the EWO simply said, “I am amazed at how strong you are Crystal and what a great family you have around you. I feel like you need something for yourself. To just have some fun. My own daughter attends a dance and drama group – is it something you would be interested in? Crystal nodded and Alicia offered to get the details of the group and check out any funding sources available to get Alicia registered onto a programme. Again, concerned about her mum and the younger children, Crystal hesitated and Paul the Youth Worker suggested that both the younger children attend their youth club which was open 4 nights out of 7, to give Crystal the time to chill out with her own friends and pursue the drama and dance programme if that interested her.
The circle naturally came to a close with Mr O’Donaghue asking Crystal again if there was “anything else?” Once he was satisfied they had developed a workable plan, Mr O’Donaghue asked would everyone be prepared to connect with him by phone in 4 weeks to see what progress had been made, and after gaining agreement, Mr O’Donaghue promised to send out the actions from the circle meeting.
This is what Crystal’s Circle Action Plan looked like at the end.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and an excellent chocolate quality controller.