Monthly Archives: October 2010

Communication and Problem Solving Skills from the Conferencing Process

Since students have started school they have been taught to seek an adult to work out problems.  As they grow, they tend to observe adults and model their methods.  If they see results (the results they are looking for) they will likely adopt a behavior and call it their own.

This presents many problems as it does benefits.   What works in the home is not necessarily democratic enough when in school.  In fact, it may have no components for fairness or the golden rule. 

The first lessons tend to be the lessons of listening.  Teachers teach the littlest of students that they must “listen” to learn and understand what is being said and what is required.  Active listening is the hallmark of many of the social sciences and is the bedrock to communication.   If we don’t hear what others are saying, we likely will not answer the question or provide the desired results.  

Technology has communication running at a very high speed.  In order to absorb this communication many times it is “cropped” or winnowed to the chunks that were heard and then a reply is submitted based on the little that was netted from the exchange.  Many times we answer well before the complete thought is relayed or developed.  This lends itself to a corrupted message.

This speed also impedes our ability to transfer information.  With the same effort to hear and respond, we tend to transfer at such a high rate that our words and ideas may not come together to form the desired message.  We know what we want deep in the recesses of our minds, but that doesn’t mean it has been effectively communicated.  When I talk to my brothers, we share many of the same ideas.  In fact, we know each other so well, that we many times finish each other’s thoughts or sentences.  This is not necessarily good.   Sometimes we are not on the same page or in the same state of mind and it leads to problems.

So, taking a snap shot of our “learning how” to communicate as we advance through school, we find that we digress to the mode that seems to suit us best, whether it is conventional or improvised methods.  Everyone is subject to this circumstance and some are better at communicating than others – while some really cannot claim to communicate at all.  It would seem that the more primitive our means of communication (physical vs. verbal), the more likely misunderstanding and disagreements result.  Worse yet, when those who have not found favorable results in the exchange of ideas, wants and needs, are left to work out a potential problem, they are not likely to devote the time needed to reach an agreement, not realizing the time it may take to achieve the desired outcome.

That said, conferencing opens a door to the timing, questions, respectful exchange, equal time, open architecture and the listening required for a beneficial conversation with powerful results.  The setting allows the time needed for the development of ideas, the exploration of feeling, affect and deeper needs that open the door for negotiation and problem solving.  It may be the one of the few times a student sees a process that addresses everyone’s concern and accommodation.  This is powerful and it is a healthy benefit of the conferencing process.

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Neutrality: The fertile ground for free expression

Some parents are guarded as to whether teachers, counselors and administrators offer a non-bias ear to their student’s conflict needs.  It has been most noticeable when I have an observer from the aforementioned group, in the conference.  Parents seem to be more reluctant to open up to the questions.  In conferences where I run the process solo, participants will appear to be more engaged, freely expressing themselves and forthcoming. 

I find the reluctance, when a school representative is present, is that time the participants feel is needed to see what type of interaction the representative will have regarding the topics and results. At least one side of the conference has had multiple dealings with the administration or teaching staff.  These dealings tend to be mixed in the opinion of the parents and likely they lean towards a difficulty or perceived neglect to the issues or the student personally.

Further, the intake or pre-meetings take a different tone when it is revealed that I am a neutral third party.  Parents seem to relinquish the adversarial tones and statements that the school does nothing to help their child.  In developing third party neutrality, many times the conversation must ask what neutrality means to the parent.  Developing the ideas and definitions to neutrality nearly always puts the parent at ease and kindles a willingness to discuss the merits of a new approach to old problems.

Without the neutrality component, every interaction and past situation is a hill to climb prior to addressing the issue at hand.  Narrowing the scope of the conference is possible by introducing a facilitator with no equity in the past problems, but offering a fair process to address the new problem.  The past issues are fair game for permeating the conversations.  It allows the pressure from past interactions to be released through thoughtful listening skills and building a case for new methods to be given a chance to move past the barricades of the past.  The case is easy to make, given the proper time and truly being neutral.

Conferencing works and facilitator neutrality is a strong foundational building block for that success; the fertile ground needed to grow positive images of openly talking together, addressing the situation, expressing affect and responding to the matter collectively.  If parental relations are strained, suspension will likely exacerbate the relationship between school and parent.  Conferencing inherently repairs that relationship based on its tools and its pretenses.  Parents are a large part of the solution.

I offer this anecdote.  After a pre-meeting, a parent exclaimed “Knowing you are not part of the school staff, things feel possible now”.  Interestingly, the same parent claimed her student’s altercation was the fault of the school, prior to our conference.  After the conference, the parent submitted these comments on the exit survey: “I learned of things in the conference in which need to be addressed at home, Thank you.”

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Freedom of Choice in Conferencing

Why do we offer conferencing as a choice?

Seems a fair question based on other disciplinary measures.  Choice doesn’t seem natural based on traditional punishment, but choice is key to accountability.  Honoring terms in an agreement always comes down to choice.  We enter into agreements, such as a purchase agreement for a house, because we have chosen to purchase the home.  Our wants, based on our needs, drives us to honor the agreement.  Forced payments, like taxes, tend to be tardy more often than not.  Choice supplies a willingness to comply, an equitable stake in the outcome.  Given the choice, accountability is built into the agreement.

The code of conduct is a needed procedure/process.  The Restorative Justice process is not a replacement for the code of conduct, it is a choice, just as is Restorative Justice Conferencing.  Students willing to accept their part in the offence and choosing the conferencing option are leveraging their future towards accountability.  They become “all in” as they craft the final agreement, craft being the operative word.  The student’s architecture of the final agreement is active component that ensures accountability.

The facilitator is engaged to work with the students in confirming that the agreement is achievable and can work based on the parties desired outcome.   The students are the decision makers of the final outcome.  Conferencing is potent because of the choices it offers and the environment it creates that allow all those affected by the incident to gather together and determine how they wish to address and respond to the situation.

Often times, students are shocked at the responsibility that is left to them in deciding what their future interaction is to look like.  They are sometimes temporarily unsure how it is they should respond or that they should respond.  The moment arrives when it is asked as to what they would like to see come from the conference.  Sometimes, even with all the preparations, they still look like deer in the headlights when they realize that they actually do get to choose what comes next.  Decisions can be big and bigger yet the messier the situation.  Realizing the gravity of the situation, in most my interactions with the decision part of the conference, we see students rise to the occasion.  Methodically discussing options and outcomes, they grab hold of what makes sense to them and “own” to an agreement that fits their wishes.  Having been part of making such large decisions, on their own, they seem to have no problem remembering the points of the agreement and keeping with the responsibility of their decisions.

Likely, given time to think and process, the students will always finds points to agree on and how they will interact with each other in the future.  It is encouraging them, in moments of doubt or confusion, that they arrived at this juncture together and together they can find a common solution that best fits the situation and is healing to the harm.

Conferencing brings accountability into the classroom and the school community like no punishment can tout.  Accountability is one of the fundamental by-products of the process and is built-in by allowing choice.

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Why Choose Restorative Justice Conferencing?

It stands to reason that when considering something new, you have to move past the comfort of something traditional.  When a process has been in place, it takes either an event, confidence or an ideal to start experimenting.  The question is “where exactly does Conferencing fall in the world of discipline for you?”

The pilot program proved to generate this exact question – and the answer, seeming simple to me (the facilitator), was not that simple for the administrator.   The administrator’s “gut check” made it necessary for a conversation reviewing the case and a feel for the direction, timing and potency.   I found that when a disciplinary event occurs, it is (in most cases) dealt with in expedience to capture the essence of the incident and gather the “facts” while the situation is hot.  More so, the administrator has a schedule and tasks that were assigned well before the surprises.  These student problems tend to be addressed quickly so the administrator can move forward with the remains of the day.  Considering this, new programs and processes can and will likely change the dynamic and the time frames in which these problems would be processed.

The solution is one that takes the victims, offenders and the school community into account without losing sight of education, schedules and tasks.  Restorative Justice Conferencing looks beyond the alacrity to process the Code of Conduct disciplines and focuses on the “tomorrow” for all students and the school.  We say “students” because it carries the same benefits for the victims and the school community as it does for the offender.  Traditional discipline is offender focused, while conferencing is globally focused and for a healthy and open school environment, conferencing is the perfect tool.

Let’s consider the indications that you have a prime situation for the conferencing process.  Select your offending students not by either their new behavior or that of their habitual behavior, but as whether they seem remorseful, sorry, shamefaced, attached to the thought of graduation or reflective.   When a glimmer of any of these exist when processing the student and they take full responsibility for their actions, we have a perfect place to make an impact where they are likely to collaborate on an agreement that statistically they will be 4X less likely to break than that of traditional discipline.  It also coaches the students to new processes in problem solving. 

Parents find this beneficial in that they now see the “other side” of the issue and tend to find things that need to be addressed at home.  My neutral third party status also takes the negative focus off the administrator, which opens new doors for communication and working with parents in assisting their children to realize their full school participation and attendance.   Parent surveys show they feel these conferences are new approaches to old problems and welcome the change.  This is especially true for parents frustrated with administrators based on past instances, for whatever the reason.

Let’s start small or only with students who take full responsibility for their action, whatever the combination that gives you the most confidence, but let’s start none the less.  The program is flexible and can work with the particulars of the case and will assuredly benefit your efforts.   As you become familiar with “active” cases in your school, you will find many new applications for the process and it can grow as needed. 

I invite you to look at your next incident and consider the benefits “globally in your school” and schedule a conference.

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