Good Life

Communities That Care: Restorative discipline holds children combines accountability, compassion

Many of us struggle with finding effective ways for our children to learn lessons from their wrongdoings. There are so many discipline techniques and no single type works for every child or every situation.

In the State College Area School District, many of us have been learning and using restorative practices. Restorative practices are used in many settings, including the justice system, schools, communities and families. Their basic premise is that people are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in authority do things with them, rather than to or for them.

This approach combines high expectations for appropriate behavior with high levels of warmth and holds people accountable for their behaviors. In a supportive and caring community, children can learn to consider how their behaviors affect others. There are firm limits and clear boundaries for everyone, and these are enforced with compassion and care.

Compare these two approaches to discipline:

Blame/shame (reactive):

•  Focus is on the past

•  Preoccupied with blame

•  Punishment is selected to keep a child from repeating misbehavior

Relational/restorative (proactive):

•  Focus in past, present and future

•  Emphasis on repairing harm done and personal accountability

•  Consequences are related to the behavior and encourage making amends

The process involves the person who has done wrong in a caring discussion around these restorative questions:

•  What happened?

•  What were you thinking of at the time?

•  What have you thought about since?

•  Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?

•  What do you think you need to do to make things right?

The process discourages asking why questions, such as “Why did you do that?” which can put a person on the defensive and inhibit communication. If a child responds, “I don’t know” to what happened, other open-ended wording may help, such as “Tell me, what was your part in the problem?”

A second set of restorative questions is focused on those harmed or wronged by the action of the other(s). These can guide the words chosen by a parent to explain her or his perspective during the discussion:

•  What did you think when you realized what had happened?

•  What impact has this had on you and others?

•  What has been the hardest thing for you?

•  What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

Adapting these questions into one-on one parent-child discussions or into family meetings when people are calm and ready can help keep families focused on finding solutions that allow a wrong-doer to make amends and keep relationships strong.

Building the kind of family community in which this works takes time and intention. John Ehrhart, author of “Restorative Parenting: 7 Ways to Transform the Parent-Child Relationship,” says: “Do we trust and work to understand each other? Children do not know that we love them until we show them, with our time and attention, that we love them.”