The Restorative Way at Waldorf

 In Restorative Communication, Restorative Justice & School Bullying, Waldorf Whole School Restorative Practices, Whole-School Restorative Discipline, Whole-School Restorative Program

The Restorative Way at a Waldorf School

By: Anne Menconi, Community Development Administrator at Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork.  

Like many Waldorf schools, our school was struggling with how best to respond to challenging behavior. And it wasn’t just student behavior that was challenging. Parents were frustrated with how we were attempting to handle misconduct. This frustration often led to rather heated conflict between parents, teachers and our administrative council.

Parents felt we were being too lenient and not holding students or their parents accountable. Teachers were frustrated because we didn’t really have an official policy or consistent way of dealing with misconduct.

We found ourselves continually talking with parents about how behaviors were “normal, developmental, and an opportunity for growth”. While we believed this to be true, we also felt as if we were excusing poor behavior and avoiding conflict. Our follow up with students who engaged in poor behavior felt insufficient, and we had no idea how to handle conflict between parents or colleagues. We just muddled our way through it as best as we could. I was hearing similar stories from other Waldorf schools around the country.

An incident of harassment or bullying would happen, parents would take sides and vent their frustration at teachers and administration, and conflict would arise between faculty and board members.

It was clear we could no longer continue to reactively address challenging behavior on a case-by-case basis. We needed to be proactive. We needed to professionalize our approach to student misconduct.

Like other Waldorf schools, the difficulty was in finding an approach that was consistent with Waldorf ideals, core values, and pedagogical mission. We asked ourselves a series of important questions. What do students need from us? What do parents need from us? What does the Waldorf philosophy and pedagogical mission need from us?

Simply put, “what is the Waldorf way of responding to student (or parent) anti-social behavior?”

We looked into a variety of practices ranging from non-violent communication to peaceful parenting methods. We asked practitioners, speakers and authors to come and work with our faculty and offer workshops to parents. The education was great but it didn’t seem to trickle into the actual behaviors, culture or practices of our school. So we were left with ambiguity and a lot of uneasy parents.

We had become familiar with restorative school discipline and we instinctively felt it was a promising approach but we had some concerns. First, the very notion of “discipline” as a response to student behavior scared us. The term “discipline” is a heavy word and evokes images of punishment, control and enforcement. Other schools were calling it restorative “justice.” This too seemed antithetical to our philosophy.

However, we set our concerns aside and hired a firm from Denver to come and give a workshop on restorative justice to our faculty. The more we learned about this approach the more we felt a resonance with our own Waldorf mission.

We still couldn’t see how to develop and implement these practices on a functional level within the school.

We discussed having a faculty member or administrator trained as a restorative justice coordinator, but that was impractical with budget constraints, and the difficulty of keeping someone trained on staff.

So, we continued down the path of playing footsy with restorative discipline and non-violent communication. However, the more we brought ‘experts’ in, the more discontent we became. Though their philosophies complemented our own pedagogical mission, it seemed like we were attempting to apply methods developed in other more traditional educational settings. They weren’t inherently “Waldorf.”

The experts we brought in didn’t fully understand Waldorf culture or our fundamental educational mission.

We couldn’t see how these methods could become our “official” way of responding to incongruent behavior in students, and the conflict happening between our adults – both parents and faculty.

Literally by chance, we met Dr. Will Bledsoe. A parent had forwarded a white paper he wrote about restorative practices in schools and how to build a restorative behavioral response program. Will had built a nationally recognized university restorative justice program and was a well-respected scholar in the field. He had moved to Carbondale to write a book on using the restorative approach as a response to unresolved childhood relational trauma. When our parent met him and mentioned we were having issues with bullying, he sent her the paper. After reading the paper, I called him.

I explained our previous efforts to incorporate restorative justice and our considerable hesitancy. I told him “the restorative philosophy seems consistent with the Waldorf mission, but something about these models and their practices doesn’t feel like a fit.”

He wasn’t surprised. He explained that the model most schools use in restorative discipline came from restorative justice and were developed in the criminal justice system. He said “students aren’t criminals and schools aren’t justice systems. These models are “reactive” and designed for a ‘one-time engagement’ in response to a violation.”

He added “non-violent communication is great, but it’s only a very small micro-practice in an overall restorative approach.”

Over the course of this year Will helped us implement a Waldorf-specific whole-school program. We established a restorative council to oversee the program and process incidents. We created a “positive behavioral expectations policy” that clearly explained our restorative philosophy for working with challenging behavior, and defined our responses to misconduct. A key component of our policy addresses bullying.

Will trained all of our teachers in restorative communication, classroom practices and trauma-responsive dialogue. We offered all of this to our parents as well. He explained that students need consistency between how conflict and errant behavior is discussed at home, and how it’s addressed at school.

In addition to the behavioral policy, he gave us all the program documents we needed to process and keep track of incidents. In truth, together we created a uniquely Waldorf whole-community response to what he called “just behavior.”

Of course, being faced with personal challenges and alternatives to our own philosophy and ideology can be challenging. But underneath those challenges is the deeper truth that conflict and challenges can be an opportunity for growth, development and coming together in new ways.

This truth is central to our core philosophy. We fundamentally believe humans can (and do) change, grow and evolve. This is central to our work in anthroposophy. We are always in the process of becoming ethical individuals capable of respecting and celebrating other individuals as we all work toward a greater collective consciousness.

The restorative way of addressing behavior secures those ethics in policy and practices.

We all want to hold on to what we feel is right and best. Sometimes it is, but often there is a lot more that can come from a 3rd way that we wouldn’t have experienced without the other. What we discovered from our work with Will is that sometimes that 3rd way already exists within us. We just have to find it and honor it.

Though we’re only in our second year of this new (ancient?) way of embracing challenging behavior and conflict, there has been a significant shift in the conversation about “conduct” among our students, colleagues and parents. Just having a policy based on positive behaviors with a process and high level of accountability has changed the tone of dialogue and the story we tell about ourselves with regard to “an official response.”

With the entire program implemented, we are beyond grateful for this solution and we’re so excited about what we’re learning as a community. What Will did was help us tailor the restorative way to our Waldorf pedagogy.

For more information, contact Anne Menconi, Community Development Administrator at anne@waldorfschoolrf.org or call 970-963-1960.

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