Restorative Pedagogy: Social-Emotional Development through Experience of Community

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© Copyright 2018 William A. Bledsoe, Ph.D.

In schools, restorative communication has several very clear goals.

  1. Individual and Collective Social-Emotional Development
  2. Respect for Self, Others, and the Environment
  3. Constructive Conflict Resolution
  4. Responsibility for Self and Community Well-Being
  5. Learning about the Necessity of Contribution

Schools are where young people learn more than just academic subjects. They learn about themselves in relation to others. With advancements in neuroscience we now know that social-emotional experience in schools profoundly influences brain development. Thus, a young person’s social experience from kindergarten through high school establishes a neuropsychological blueprint for how to be in relationship throughout their entire life.

Healthy patterns of social relationships in schools foster healthy relationships in adulthood.

The primary goal of social-emotional development is to help students learn how to identify, process and express emotions and needs, while also developing awareness, respect and consideration for other people’s experience, feelings and needs.

There are two opportunities where a school can effectively facilitate a student’s social-emotional development using the restorative process/communication. The first is in classroom discussions about current or historical events. The second is when there is a conflict or incident of misconduct.

One 8th grade teacher at a school where we implemented the Restorative Way Whole-School Program explained how she used the restorative process to guide the class discussion about the crisis at the U.S. southern border. She explained that the most powerful part of the discussion was when she asked her students to “envision what it would be like if you and your parents were fleeing violence, hoping for sanctuary in the U.S., and not only being denied entrance, but being separated and put into separate detention facilities with no way of knowing where you or they were?” She said that when the students began to grasp what that experience would be like in their own family, they decided to call it a “refugee crisis” rather than an “immigration crisis.” “The discussion about solutions was “substantial, creative, and heartfelt.”

“The subject of immigration hit home and the compassion the class expressed for the people was powerful”8th Grade Teacher

The second opportunity is when there is a conflict or incident of antisocial behavior. In that moment, how the school responds can help students think objectively about what happened, and empathically about how it impacted others. Here’s a brief explanation of how the basic restorative sequence can help develop social-emotional processing.

What happened?

We use narrative logic to organize our thoughts (beginning, middle, and end), make literal sense of what happened, and assign meaning to an event. Students develop the ability to account for an event, recall details, and learn to utilize (develop) rational recall and truthful reporting. This question engages the prefrontal cortex/executive function (PFC). It also acts as a “redirection” of focus from any fear about having to discuss (amygdala), toward objective thinking.

Who was impacted?

Discovering and discussing the impact of an incident builds social awareness of how personal behavior impacts our relationships with others and our community. As students explore this realization, the relationship between the limbic system (emotional processing) and the prefrontal cortex (rational and objective thinking) is activated.

How were people impacted?

Recognizing and discussing how others were impacted is arguably the most powerful in terms of brain function and reprocessing the memory of a troubling experience. Because this question is designed to activate our capacity for compassion and empathy for others, the entire limbic system is engaged (ideally). Most important – and this is why this discussion is so powerful – the emotional processing in the limbic system also engages the anterior cingulate cortex – “the neurological seat of empathy.” The anterior cingulate sits between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. As a result, a critical neurological pathway is activated between “my emotional memory of the event – my feelings for how others were harmed – and an objective realization that others matter.” An integration of sensing-feeling-thinking occurs.

Why did this happen?

A discussion about the reasons why something happened, or why a student acted in a certain way encourages looking for underlying motivations, thinking, beliefs, and choices. This discussion is designed to engage the prefrontal cortex and executive function. But because the previous question about impact has engaged the anterior cingulate, the executive function of the prefrontal cortex is now informed by the concern for another’s welfare. Because one of the capacities of the prefrontal cortex is problem solving, this question “completes the ratio-emotive” circuitry. Empathy informs objective thinking and reasoning.

What needs to happen?

The discussion about how best to resolve the issue by repairing harm activates the prefrontal cortex’s capacity for creative thinking (imagination) but with a purpose – to use logic to problem solve for the benefit of others. The creation of a restorative agreement takes a moment/experience of social-emotional awareness and turns it into concrete actions. “What needs to happen to restore harmony, well being, peace, etc.?” Creative thinking in terms of ‘benefit for all’ and ‘creative problem solving’ reflects “the whole mind working in concert with itself and others.”

What we can see from this simplistic explanation of a restorative pedagogy is that the restorative process and restorative communication is a pedagogical tool that educators can utilize to facilitate social-emotional development. It does this by organizing the discussion about an event in a way that is structured, coherent, felt and therefore potentially transformative for the student.

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