RESTORATIVE PRACTICES BLOG
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Why do we find it so hard to say no? Being a “people-pleaser” I have struggled with this all my life. And I don’t mind telling you it has landed me in some difficult situations, some of which were just downright risky. So why is it so difficult to just assert our true feelings about something and say “No – I disagree,” or “No, Don’t Do that to me,” or “No, I won’t do that for you.” Why are we sometimes so loose with our personal boundaries? Let’s dial back a few years to unpick this a little.
Toddlers are switched on. They get that they can say no and so they do. Without fear or favour. Just “uh uh.” “Nope.” “Not happening.” “NO!”
And then a few months after we are through with the dramatic eye rolls and chuckling to our friends about how cute wee Callie is saying “no” to everything like she is practising for government, we suddenly realise that shit just isn’t going to get done if wee Callie says “no” all the time.
And so we begin to “socialise” them. We manipulate their needs and behaviour for our convenience and we teach them that “no” is not a desirable word. That it isn’t nice, it’s wrong, perhaps even bold. We teach them not to make a fuss, to just button that lip and get on with it. We teach them that grown up’s, people who are bigger than them, have the final say about whether their “no” really matters or not.
Now like all parents, we don’t get a manual, we often haven’t a clue what the hell we are doing and mostly we are just repeating the histories of our own childhood. We think we are teaching children how to be sociable, how to get along in life with others, but really what we should be doing is teaching them how to explain why they don’t want to go to bed, put down the video game, share their favourite toy, kiss their auntie (don’t get me started on emotionally coercing your kids to kiss random relatives that they don’t want to), or why they don’t want to take their pants off their head.
Instead we skip this step and go straight to the convenience of a quick fix. A guilting and shaming of the “no” word, of exercising the right to make a choice. We say “don’t defy me,” or “it’s naughty to not do as you are told” or (my worst one) “no one will want to play with you if you don’t share your toys.” We communicate that by saying “no” we risk disconnection or worse, rejection. And what do kids want more than anything else? To belong and connect. And so they conform. They learn to say “yes” when they want to say “no”. And big people are pleased and little people reinforce their belief that “no”’is a bad word.
At the lower end of the continuum this creates teenagers and adults who are overwhelmed by saying yes to too much, who have a fragile ego based on “if I don’t say yes to everything then I will not be good enough to be liked.” But imagine it at the worst end of this continuum. Imagine it for a child who learns not to say no when they are uncomfortable with a predatory adults behaviour, or a teenage girl or boy on a night out who doesn’t want to make a fuss and says yes when they really want to say no, to alcohol, to drugs, to sex.
Basically, we are conditioned to say “yes,” to be agreeable, compliant, obedient, helpful and facilitative. Educating our children and ourselves in how to exercise our free will (with positive loving morals) and to say “no” is an important life skill. Learning to say no has been one of the best things I have done for my self-care. I still find it difficult, but I am learning to sit with that difficulty and face down the demons of rejection and displeasure of others.
Broken Promises – The Couldn’t / Wouldn’t Phenomena
The “Couldn’t” “Wouldn’t” Phenomena.
So what do you do when it all goes Pete Tong and the child who caused harm doesn’t do what they agreed they would? You’ve been through the restorative process and it worked really well, the two children in conflict told their respective stories, they developed understanding of what happened and how it affected each other and agreements were made to repair the harm and prevent similar harm from happening again. And then the promises get broken. The child doesn’t turn up for their therapeutic input with the school pastoral care, or they stop making the small restitution payments for the phone they smashed belonging to their friend, or they start bullying again. What do you do?
Sometimes, in fact often, these broken promises get met with the “it didn’t work – Restorative Practices are rubbish” condemnation from those who participated. And yet is this really fair? Particularly with children? What adult, as a child, hasn’t made a promise and then reneged on it, or made a half-assed effort? For that matter, what adult, as an adult, hasn’t made a promise and then reneged on it? Children are learning. They are still forming their character and moral compass as they go through life, and it is perfectly natural for them to break promises or lose motivation.
So what do we do? We hold them to account. We teach them to keep the promise, and (just in case you were wondering) it doesn’t matter if it was an important promise or not, whether it was made by a 5 year in a pinky promise, or by a 17 year old in a formal promise to pay restitution for a jacket ripped. It doesn’t matter if it was a completely unfulfilled promise or an almost fulfilled one. What does matter is that we hold them to the promise they made, in the spirit they made it. This is important not just for the person they hurt and made the promise to, but as a life skill. Someday our children will be asked to commit to paying a mortgage or rent for a home they live in. They will be asked to commit to a person to respect, love and honour them. They will be asked to commit to turning up everyday for a job that they will receive money for doing. And if we don’t teach the importance of keeping their commitment, they may well end up homeless, lonely and with no prospects. Teaching commitment is a life skill which reaches far beyond The Promise.
Let’s look at what is going on when children fail to keep a promise they made.
When children fail to keep a promise they have made there can be a variety of reasons why. It isn’t necessarily that they just couldn’t be bothered, although this is sometimes the case – I have a 9 year old and two teenage steps sons and believe me – sometimes they just can’t be bothered!
From my days back in Youth Justice, when we used Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) to enable highly vulnerable young people to achieve, I have always found the frame below really effective in helping me to figure out how to handle a broken promise.
This basically works on two axis (the “Could Not” and the “Would Not,”) with a broken commitment or promise in the middle. The first thing we need to do is figure out why they have broken the commitment in the first place because this will direct whether we are going to be having a support conversation with them or an accountability conversation with them.
The Could Not Continuum – Capability or Crisis.
Capability is where the child has perhaps promised something which was too ambitious in the first place, or perhaps the child’s circumstances have changed and they are no longer capable of meeting the commitment in the form it was initially promised. Examples of an over ambitious commitment may be where a child promised to pay back the full cost of new blazer they ripped in a scuffle rather than pay for the professional repair of the jacket by a seamstress. Or perhaps they were making regular repayments for a repair of a school blazer they ripped, but a parent was made redundant and now his parents need most of his part time wages or pocket money, to help support the family.
Crisis is where something has happened which has temporarily prevented a child from doing something they promised they would. For example perhaps a child agreed to stay behind after school once a week, for the next 4 weeks and help the school janitor paint graffiti off a school wall, but on week 3 she doesn’t show up because her Granny was taken into hospital the night before and she had to go straight home and look after the younger kids so her Mum could go and visit her Granny.
In both of the above examples, and many more like them, a support conversation is invited.
In the first example your purpose is to either increase the child’s capability by resourcing them with the knowledge, skills or resources that they need to complete the promise they made, or perhaps by altering the boundary around the promise made – such as extending the period of time over which the child might make restitution for the damage he caused. It is never to dismiss the promise made as not important.
In the second example your purpose is to provide temporary relief of timescale, reinforce the promise made and help the child to strategise how she could have prevented this being a broken promise by sharing her crisis with a trusted staff member to ask for her day to be swapped to a different day or the timescale extended. Again, it is never to dismiss the promise made as not important enough to be followed through.
The Would Not Continuum – Commitment or "Chancer"
Commitment is where the child has lost focus on the reason why they made this promise in the first place. Commitment tends to be very high when a child is faced with the impact their behaviour has had on another person and they will most often feel genuinely remorseful and motivated to resolve the harm they caused at the time they made the promise. But we define commitment as maintaining the action to complete the promise long after the feelings, which were present when you made the promise, have passed. And in the fast paced life of a child – this can pass pretty quick! That doesn’t mean they are bad, or unaccountable, or liars, (or any other judgey-type labels) – it just means they’ve lost focus and need to be reminded through an accountability conversation.
The Chancer position is when a child is just chancing their arm to see if they can get away with not doing what they said they would. Now before we all nod sagely and knowingly and a little bit patronisingly, lets just put this in perspective. When was the last time you said you would meet your friend and go to the gym with them to get fit and then you made an excuse at the last minute because you’d had one glass of red wine / bottle of beer too many the night before? We are all chancers from time to time. It’s natural and it's physiological! The human brain is hard wired to take the easy route - it is how the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in the body work. When something is hard the brain looks for an easier route, the path of least resistance.
The Accountability Conversation
In both of the above examples, and many more like them, an accountability conversation is invited.
In the first example your purpose is to re-engage the child with their commitment and often a simple conversation about their promise will be enough to refocus and motivate their commitment to completing the action. However, it is worth bearing in mind that this might have to be repeated several times if the commitment they made is a long term one taking place over several weeks, so I would advise (if it is appropriate) to keep reparations short and sweet and if they are longer for more serious harms, then build in a quick 10 minute review at intervals.
In the second example your purpose is to re-engage the child in the feelings they had at the time of making the commitment , taking the child back to the reasons why they made the commitment, holding their word up as honourable and asking them to respect themselves by honouring their word. Challenge the child to rise to your expectation and hopefully their own of being an honourable person who keeps their word. It is never to dismiss the promise made as not important.
Regardless of whether the conversation is a support conversation or an accountability conversation it is crucial that we hold children to account for the promises they have made. It is important that we highlight the impact that a broken promise has on us now and on them in the future. And it doesn’t matter if it is a little broken promise or a big one, or an almost completed promise or a just engaged in one – the important point is that we all need to learn to be accountable to others if we are to live in more peace and harmony.
If you would like to learn more about this way of managing conflict and holding to account in your school, you can complete our Free Introduction to Restorative Practices in Education online course here, and entering the coupon code August2020
Or you can contact Linda for more information on tailored workshops on 07805093965.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and expert chocolate quality controller.
One of the most common questions I encounter when working with educators in building restorative practice into their schools is “what do you do when a child flat out denies that they are responsible for a harm that has been caused?” This question goes to the very heart of why restorative practice is a culture that needs to be cultivated and not just an intervention applied at the point of conflict.
To understand what to do about this when it happens (and it will happen) you have to first understand the motivation behind why children (and adults) deny responsibility for something they have done that has caused harm to others. While the research on motivation for telling lies lists hundreds of reasons why someone might lie, from protecting others to tact, when it comes to school based examples there are a handful of common motivations.
This is probably the most common reason for telling a lie when a child is confronted with the direct question about what happened. If the child believes there will be a punishment following an admission then there is an increased motivation to tell a lie to avoid punishment. The lie is not an attempt to avoid responsibility (and this is an important distinction) the lie is told to avoid the punishment.
Concealing reward or benefit
In this case the motivation is to conceal the reward or benefit the child obtained by breaking an explicit or implicit rule which they were expected to follow. This could be anything from having stolen something from a peer to having peeked at their neighbours test sheet and copied the answer. This lie is told mostly to protect the self from the shaming of the person "as less than" that often follows being discovered to have done something which "is less than." Again an important distinction between "being less than" and having "done something less than."
This is a common motivation when the child feels guilt about the impact of their actions but also fears that they will be shamed for that impact, rather than understood. An example might be the child who denies they were given the homework instead of admitting that they did not have enough money to buy the supplies to complete it. Whether a child experiences having less than as shame or embarrassment is largely dependent on whether they see “having less than” (embarrassment) as an indication of “being less than” (shame). Children will work harder to hide shame than embarrassment, so always bear in mind that if you suspect a child is lying to you, ask yourself what shame they are risking in telling you the truth and how can you separate having less from being less.
I have a beautiful memory of an Art teacher at my high school who during for the last two periods of every Friday from when I was a first year until I was an upper sixth year, we painted, drew or modelled, still life of food stuffs. Fruit, vegetables, eggs, cheese and once a whole chicken still in the supermarket wrapper. And at the end of that class she would casually comment in her thick Ballymena accent (for 7 whole years) a variation of “Anyone who wants to take that off my hands would you? I’m only gonna have to bin it otherwise.” And always there was one or two pupils who would say “Sure Miss, I’ll get rid of that for you.”
Protecting someone else from harm
In this case the motivation is that the child does not want to get their friend into trouble. It might be because they can identify with their friends reasons for having acted as they did, and so in some way they approve of their actions. Or it can be that they feel the need to adhere to a “bro-code” even if they disapprove of their friend's actions. This one is difficult because on some level we, as a society, approve of the characteristic of loyalty to protect a friend from harm. This is apparent from the derogatory words we use to describe someone who does tell on a friend like “snitches”, “rats”, and a local Northern Ireland one - “tout.”
Pain is the name of the game
Ultimately the underlying purpose of all of these motivations is the same. The purpose of avoiding pain which could be physical, social, or psychological pain. Human beings are hard wired to seek out pleasure and joy and to avoid pain and distress and our brain psychology has many ways of achieving this. Therefore the temptation to tell a lie, when faced with pain as a possible outcome of telling the truth, is a very strong one and it is not limited to children. We all have the capacity to tell lies, omit truths, or deny knowledge of something when the motivation to avoid a temporary painful experience outweighs the benefit of an admission.
If children believe that your intention behind discovery of “What Happened” is to punish, shame or cause pain (physical, social or psychological – even indirectly and unintentionally) then there is a strong motivation to avoid responsibility by denying fault. The Admit Nothing, Deny Everything, and Ask for Proof phenomena is likely to be even more acute with children (or adults) where they have had life experiences which have reinforced punishment or pain as a response to admitting responsibility or being found guilty of something. This is very prevalent in cultures where community reprisals have been historically or are currently active. Children who have strong unresolved shame behaviours are highly motivated to avoid pain through any means necessary to protect their physical, social and psychological being.
But what if you build a culture where children believe your intention is not to punish, but to curiously understand what happened so you can help them to repair harm, rebuild relationships, and develop strategies to avoid future problems by meeting the needs which led to the harmful event in the first place? This sounds more complicated than it actually is. Most teachers I encounter in my training have these skills already but perhaps aren’t thinking about them explicitly or applying them deliberately in a consistent model of practice. As a result, when they are tired, their defences are down and they are “winging it,” (and lets be honest – we all do this from time to time because we are human too), then the wheels come off and we undo great progress we had previously made with children who are less confident about telling the truth and not being shamed and judged as a result. Don’t worry, if you have ruptured a relationship with a child through a momentary lapse of your superhero powers, you can repair this with daring to be vulnerable enough to admit to them that you got it wrong – and the impact of this on your relationship with them is so powerful you will wish you apologised more!
Building a restorative culture to reduce denial, lies, and avoidance?
So what are the key features of building a culture where children can feel able to risk being honest, knowing that there may be a temporary experience of discomfort but with a more permanent pleasurable outcome in the long term?
If you would like to know more, or try out some of our courses which develop the skills to practice restoratively as well as learn the restorative interventions check out our online Introduction to Restorative Practices here, or contact Linda on 07805093965 to book a workshop.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and excellent chocolate quality controller.
My favourite film is "It's a Wonderful Life." I think the story of how Clarence (the Angel for those who haven't seen it) shows George (the suicidal hero) how many lives he had touched and what those lives might have been like had he not been there to touch them. Whilst a wildly fantastical film, there is so much truth in the lesson that "you don't always know the impact you have on others." Sometimes you will be lucky enough to find out in your lifetime. Sometimes you won't and it will be your children or grandchild that hear the stories of the impact you made. All you can do is make sure that whatever you do in this world, you try as best you can to make a good impact on those around you.
My high school was an excellent school. The teachers were genuinely interested in children and I have more that one memory as a young teenager of teachers who reached out to sensitively support children who were struggling. I am immensely proud that one of those teachers who is thought of so highly is my own dad. I am also so glad that he is still with us to hear the gratitude for the impact he had on others. Social media is not all bad!!
This morning I woke to a conversation in which I was tagged in Facebook. It lifted my spirits and I immediately reached out to Bobbie to ask if I could share. This is what Bobbie had to say:
..."At Ballycastle High I was in Glendun and our house colour was yellow. I never did Physical Ed, I managed to get out of it. So in first year I would spend most of my time in the greenhouse at the back of Mr Saywers (sic) class. He was very good to me and did his best to teach me some common sense and initiative. I learnt a lot there and I would like to say thank you to him for going the extra mile with me and having the patience and determination that he had to reach out to me and give me the confidence and strength to redefine myself rather than being defined by my illness....he taught me to have some initiative and in all honestly when I think back it was much more worthwhile I didn't do PE and much better for me that I was in the greenhouse instead....I really appreciate everything he did for me...he also taught me to have respect for others." Bobbie Gibson.
I am immensely proud of the teacher my dad was (and still is to my son - and well - also me). I am thankful that he gets to hear how he touched the lives of others.
Tell me - which teacher made the biggest impact on you and how?