A previous (and much missed) Assistant Director once challenged a group of us who were arguing that Restorative Approaches didn’t work for every child, that sometimes you just had to give up and accept they weren’t ready. She said “are these children difficult children or difficult to reach children?” The language is subtly different but the visual she gave me was so strong it hit me like Carl Frampton on a Friday Night. With that simple challenge she changed my view of difficult children forever.
It was like getting a pair of new glasses. She changed my lens from seeing the child as difficult to seeing the journey to the child as difficult. The two are very different. One leaves the problem very squarely with the child. They are the problem, they are the reason things are not working. The other, leaves the problem very squarely with those working with the child. How tenacious are you? How willing are you to stick with it? Work harder, longer and more cleverly to reach that child?
Those children, the difficult to reach, are difficult to reach for very good reasons. They have had horrible pasts. They have learned to be out of reach, because being in reach has rarely had a positive outcome. Their core shame runs so deep and is so accessible just below the surface of just about every experience they encounter that they have learned to dodge any sort of connection with people, just in case it hurts, just in case it brings that core shame to the surface.
Our challenge in restorative practice with the difficult to reach children, is to stick with them, keep reaching, until one day, and you might not even realise it, you will catch them.
Today I was leaving my son off at school. I only get to do this twice a week and it is a mix of emotions. Guilt, pride, and sometimes after a difficult weekend, relief. Today was a proud day. His playground assistant, Ruby, called me over. "I have to tell you what Jacob said to me yesterday" she said. I felt apprehension and curiosity all at once. Was this going to be one of those lovely stories I want to share on here or one that I want to file away at the back of my mind? Well, there's your clue. I'm sharing it!
"He told me I was doing a great job sweeping up the leaves and then he told me he loved me." She was so delighted, it had made her week. Jacob with all his social challenges often says exactly what he is thinking or acts out what he feels without any social filter. And while this can be embarrassing (I'm thinking of the time he "drummed" on a young woman's bottom in the queue at the shop because "it was just asking for it mum,") it can also be sweet and compassionate and make me awesomely proud. Like today.
Teaching our children to say the good things in their head, to positively reframe the not so nice things and to ignore the horrible things is an important life skill. And it begins with modelling it ourselves. The age old adage "praise the good and ignore the bad" is only two thirds of the story. The murky in-between ground where you have to find a way to positively reframe negative behaviours and feelings which are expressed by parents, other teachers and students, sometimes even by friends, is also important. If you dig deep enough you'll find that most of those expressed behaviours and feelings are borne out of disappointed expectations, shocked realisation, sullied dreams and broken trust. These are the conversations we need to have, the other side of the story that needs to be told in a way that helps children see that they are not bad, but that what they did made others feel bad. When we tell these stories we give them an opportunity to reclaim the good ground, to build expectations, trust, and hopes again.
One of my favourite sayings comes from a conversation with a colleague – Edele – when I worked in Youth Justice in Ballymena. “Don’t ask how smart are you? Ask how are you smart?” I loved this saying from the moment I heard it. It made me wish someone had said this to me when I failed my GCSE Maths for the 3rd time! I was not Number Smart and I wasn’t Geography Smart (ask anyone who has ever heard my story about where I thought Venezuela was until my 30th year). But that was ok, because I was Art Smart, I was Word Smart, I was People Smart. My self-esteem was grown through a realisation that I wasn’t perfect, I wasn’t good at everything, but I was good at something – I was good enough.
I think one of the biggest challenges a school faces today is figuring out how to meet the performance targets set by the powers that be, but to recognise and embrace the differences of each student they encounter and all the different ways that they are smart.
Helping children to learn how to grow good self-esteem, to learn how to fail successfully, how to make mistakes and learn from them to avoid future mistakes of the same nature, is all part of the fabric of a school culture that is not recorded in the performance targets. And yet it should be. Because learning how to be accountable for our performance, our behaviour, our relationships is so so important in being a well-rounded adult ready to meet the world.
In every part of life, personal and professional, people will have to foster relationships, find ways to disagree and negotiate and resolve differences of opinion and perspective. It is not an easy thing to do - I am still learning. But letting our children go out into the world without the skills to listen to others, put right hurt that they have, and will again, cause others, whilst also communicating their own needs is failing them in their move towards independence.
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.