Newspaper article

From Outbursts to Self-Realization: How One 14-Year-Old Student Is Benefiting from Restorative Practices

Newspaper article

From Outbursts to Self-Realization: How One 14-Year-Old Student Is Benefiting from Restorative Practices

Article excerpt

"Breathe in. Breathe out," Damien says five times, exaggerating the inhale and exhale as three peers and two teachers follow his lead. They're all sitting in a tight circle at the back of an eighth- grade special education classroom at Farnsworth Aerospace in St. Paul.

The only other person in the room is a petite boy with glasses. He's opted out of the circle for today. Something's got him upset -- an unrequited love, his teacher suspects -- and he's all clammed up: head down, eyes watering. The others don't let this distract them, though. They've got other things on their minds, other emotions to control and urges to suppress.

The calm inherent in the scene is striking. At the start of today's class, Damien -- a 14-year-old dressed in a black graphic T- shirt, khaki pants and worn Air Jordans -- couldn't stay seated at his table. He had energy to burn and, without a clearly defined task, was drawn to any number of distractions, including an open space in the middle of the classroom wide enough to practice a dance move. Now, thanks to the circle, he's settled down to a simmer.

Following the breathing exercise, Damien asks the teacher for his preferred talking stick -- the one he decorated with green and yellow yarn in tribute to his favorite football team -- which will be passed around the circle to designate whose turn it is to speak as they share how they're feeling, reflect on the past few days, and discuss their weekend plans. At the front of the classroom, a color- coded chart of emotional zones -- happy, sad, tired, bored, etc. -- is projected on a whiteboard to help guide the discussion.

"I'm green and blue because I'm happy today and I'm thinking about my grandpa," says Damien, who is the eldest of three boys in a single-parent household.

Most students know the chart by heart, but it serves as a good reference for two girls who come late to the classroom and join the circle mid-way through. They bring a "yellow" (silly or goofy) energy to the group. One is crunching on a hard piece of candy and struggling to hold back a fit of laugher. When her even more assertive friend gets ahold of the talking stick, she declares with a mischievous smile, "I don't like school."

As they move on to discussing their weekend plans, which include events at the Cinco de Mayo celebration, the circle's first principle -- no interrupting, even if it's out of sheer enthusiasm - - begins to break down. That's the teacher's cue to wrap things up. (This pre-class circle exercise had already served its purpose, since everyone has had an opportunity to express themself.)

This proactive, relationship-building circle is part of a larger behavioral management model called restorative practices, which uses various circle conversations to help follow-up on disciplinary episodes, resolve conflicts and manage emotions. The overall goal is to help students and teachers participate in guided exercises to reach a place of common ground, anticipate future outbursts, and create strategies for altering a student's emotional trajectory.

On May 16, St. Paul Public School officials awarded $150,000 in dedicated restorative practices funding to Farnsworth Aerospace's middle school campus (grades 5-8), along with five other schools, for the 2016-17 school year. While the district will be pouring $4.4 million into this initiative over the course of the next three years, success largely depends on the willingness of teachers and students to step outside of their comfort zones and be real with each other. Damien's transformation speaks to the growth that can take place when all of the right pieces are in place.

Anger management

Upon entering middle school, Damien (not his real name) quickly developed a reputation as an explosive student. He didn't have any close friends because his outbursts were so unpredictable, and he began racking up suspensions at an alarming rate.

Worried about her son's behavior patterns, Damien's mother approached his teachers early on, questioning whether Farnsworth was a good fit. …

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