Amstutz and Mullet position the restorative approach to discipline as existing not in opposition to a retributive approach but rather as representing the opposite point on a continuum. While this may seem like a distinction without a difference, I think it’s important to note because while critics of one side or the other often impugn the motives or methods of the other as alien or absurd, in truth the two have more than a little in common.
The authors describe the four approaches on the continuum, starting with the “punishment” approach:
Within the punishment approach, consequences are selected without any meaningful connection between the misbehavior and the punishment, e.g., suspension for stealing sneakers and trashing the locker room.
With this approach, the goal is simply to make the perpetrator suffer in proportion to the suffering caused by his actions. There is no thought given as to whether suspension is the appropriate response, whether suspension will restore the harm done, or whether suspension will make future instances of such behavior less likely. (The question becomes–could a thoughtful person think about this and still conclude suspension was appropriate? More on this in a moment.)
A consequences approach seeks to make the punishment fit the crime by inking natural or artificially connected consequences to the crime. This may mean that the student’s consequence is to clean the locker room. These consequences are selected by adults or a peer jury based on a menu of options that are seen as connected to the misbehavior, e.g., the student “corrects” the harm done.
While there is more thought given to the punishment, it is still unclear whether the punishment will restore the harm done or make future instances of the problem behavior less likely. And, as many critics of “natural” consequences have discussed, what’s “natural” isn’t always what’s appropriate, nor is there often even a clear consensus between adults on what constitutes a “natural” consequence in a given situation.
A solutions approach sees misbehavior as a problem to be solved. In the case above, the disciplinary procedure would look at why the student was in the locker room and was motivated to vandalize it and steal sneakers. Educators are familiar with a “functional behavior assessment” approach. It seeks to find the function or the purpose of the misbehavior, and then to develop plan to replace the misbehavior with a positive behavior which meets the needs of the student but without breaking rules. In the stealing example, a disciplinarian might find, after interviewing observers, that the student who stole the shoes was upset because the owner of the shoes was getting more playing time than he was. The plan for change might include a new way to address play-time concerns.
The solutions approach comes at the problem from a “skill vs. will” standpoint. If students become better equipped to address their problems, we can eliminate or replace the behaviors that stem from facing problems they don’t know how to solve. Now, the question on the minds of most educators reading this probably a variant of “That’s it? What’s going to stop him or another kid from doing this again now that they’ve found out there are no consequences?” This is a valid concern that proponents of restorative discipline must become more willing to address. While restorative proponents claim that punishments are not effective deterrents because they don’t address the issue at the heart of the behavior, the truth is the jury is still out on the value of deterrents to change behavior generally. And since we don’t know the extent to which deterrents work, it seems reasonable to keep punishments for serious offenses in place while simultaneously working toward solutions.
There is a scenario in which a student might serve a consequence such as in-school suspension, be made to clean the locker room, and learn a new way to address play-time concerns. The first sends a message (crudely, yes, but it does) to all that the behavior constituted a major violation of community norms, the second begins the process of correcting the harm done, and the third equips the student to better handle the problem in the future.
When using punishment, consequences, and solution modes, adults typically select the plan or consequence without the input of the misbehaving student. Some form of retribution is usually meted out in this process, even if solutions are chosen to address an underlying issue. A restorative approach, however, recognizes the needs and purposes behind the misbehavior, as well as the needs of those who were harmed by the misbehavior. A restorative approach works with all participants to create ways to put things right and make plans for future change. Thus, the focus is on the healing that can occur through a collaborative conferencing process.
Both punishment and consequence modes are based on the hope that unpleasant results or pain will deter misbehavior. The solutions mode holds that solving the presenting problem will deter future misbehavior and provide a more healthy replacement behavior. The restorative discipline mode believes that harmers will choose more respectful options when they come to understand, through dialogue and conversation with those harmed, the pain they have caused by their misbehavior.
In this model, the restorative approach is certainly the loftiest and noblest way to deal with the situation. When executed appropriately, the restorative approach returns the situation to its ideal state, meets the needs of all involved, and prevents future reoccurrences. The rub, of course, is the difficulty level involved in carrying it off well, given how different it is from the approach that most of us grew up with and employ in our own schools.
I believe in the restorative approach in theory–how could you not? But the implementation is where the rubber meets the road. Amstutz and Miller (and others) have perfectly captured the ideals of restorative discipline; what we need now are better roadmaps for actually putting it into practice.
(Another thought, perhaps one for a different post–is the success of the restorative approach related to an individual’s capacity for empathy? If the approach hinges on harmers “choosing more respectful options when they come to understand through dialogue and conversation with those harmed the pain they have caused . . . ,” shouldn’t we acknowledge that the capacity for that kind of empathic understanding is not distributed equally amongst individuals, whether by nature or nurture? If we agree that individuals vary in their ability to feel or display empathy, aren’t we then forced to acknowledge that this approach may not be as successful with those who are [at least currently] less able to exhibit such empathy?)