Tom Macready has just posted a thought piece that I wrote on the relationship between restorative practice and the support it gives to children and adults mental health. It was the fruit of thinking about the responsibility that leaders have not just to react, but to create the conditions for growth. I reproduce the first, longer draft, here. Apologies for the lack of links to the references.
Restorative Practice as the new normal: a first intervention for adult and child mental health in Milton Keynes schools
Restorative practice in Milton Keynes has principally been promoted through the work of the Restorative Foundation (www.restorativefoundation.org.uk) which at its peak was impacting behaviour management in nearly 40 Milton Keynes schools. Since 2012-13, it has shifted gear to embrace a communication perspective (based largely on the work of Lev Vygotsky and his adherents, and on the “coordinated management of meaning” and creation of “social worlds” of Barnett Pearce (1989)). In doing so it has created a huge opportunity for those schools who are concerned not only with how we manage relational breakdown (I use this term to refer to any personal or social relationship that needs repair) but how we build the social worlds we desire in our schools. This is of first importance in any discussion of adult and child mental health, because how we define what is the consistent “normal” in our schools will define the “background radiation” of language and action that community members can increasingly depend upon. This learnt culture of respectful relationships, currently the central plank of schools’ developing understanding of restorative practice in Milton Keynes, can be explained, and then reinforced, by a careful study of how we actually create meaning through our social interactions.
In contrast to the language of workers in the field of autism, who have coined the neologism neurotypical for that part of the population who do not have ASC/ASD, ADHD and associated conditions (e.g. Happé, 2018), I propose the term “sociotypical” to describe an environment of explicitly defined relationships, bound together by explicit affection that demonstrates itself in acts of lovingkindness. This has to be worked at by the entire (school) community if it is to have the intended impact. In this paper, I use the work of Macready and Carlile (2014) and Macready (2018) to show how restorative practice as developed in our city has laid excellent foundations to enable schools to use restorative practice as the front-line intervention in promoting good mental health. Elsewhere (Humphreys, 2018, in press) I have written about the theological impact of this work and its relationship to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 on addressing sin and finding forgiveness, and relate these to the day-to-day work of a church school.
Macready (2018) expounds Lev Vygotsky’s work, through the approach of Lois Holzman (2017) on the relationship between learning and development through the three prisms of community building, learning conversations and partnerships. He argues for a distinction between learning (as defined by the narrowing definition of the DfE and the inspectorate) and development (as addressed more fully by Vygotsky). This distinction somewhat blurs the closer – and mutually dependent – relationship that Vygotsky highlighted between the two, but a separation does enable us to see clearly the developmental flourishing that falls within the broader remit of wellbeing.
Within each of these three prisms, restorative practice, where taught and learnt well by adults and by children, has the potential to contribute effectively to good (“positive”) mental health and an appropriate way of behaving within the neurotypical population in a school. This can provide real-time tuition, examples and emotional space for those with conditions such as ASC, ADHD, OCD and other genetic or reactive mental health conditions, or for those who through CBT and other therapies, are rewriting the narratives of their own self-understanding and their concept of themselves-in-community. The consistency and clarity of affection and respect between adults and children in a committed community is the best place to start to support children in particular with mental health conditions.
In establishing a restorative culture of open communication, clarity and learning from wrongdoing, the child or adult who experiences life in such a culture, will be able to grow into an understanding of what “normal” can look like in a school community. If everyone there is learning the impact of their actions and words has on everyone else, then for each community, “what is appreciated” as modes of communication on the way to being established between adults, between children and between adults and children.
This provision of a restorative baseline of relating is hugely powerful in offering children with a variety of conditions a safe and predictable space in which to learn, and for those children who are shy, self-absorbed or prone to childhood depressive tendencies, it offers models of relationship and acceptance that potentially can support their growing self- and social understanding. If a child experiences life in a school where all adults speak well of each other and neither give nor take offence, the example they have to follow can only be beneficial. For children who present with a condition on the autistic spectrum, such dependable behaviour in a school community can provide one increasingly predictable factor in their social learning.
Restorative practice is therefore a front line, universal intervention for the fostering of healthy self-regard and acceptance among the whole Milton Keynes school population: something that will do no harm and in more instances than we care to name, provide a great deal of good.
How we might look through the three prisms of restorative practice
Macready’s three aspects of practice – community-building activities, learning conversations and partnerships involving children, parents and the wider school community are not equal in applicability. Our own practice has shown that the building of community and the learning from conversations and interventions is where the real work of restorative practice takes place. I would argue that only once these are established do partnerships take on any significance. If the practice is not established within the adults of a school, it is hard for children to be “restorative partners” in the work, and parents can only be confident in taking their cue in using these approaches at home from a school where the work is deeply embedded. This is not to say that respectful relationships cannot be nurtured right across the piece simultaneously, but as a systematic approach it is preferable to have the relational/restorative work as a modus operandi in a school before we try and influence families. Thus here I explore the impact of the first two “prisms” as being foundational not just to partnerships beyond school, but to the establishment of a consistent, explicit, restorative and respectful culture from which all can learn, and which can provide the “ground” that encourages and promotes good mental health.
In terms of the needed expansion of this approach in Milton Keynes schools, I hope that this will commend itself to school leaders as a practical and consistent culture-making tool to support their work in promoting good mental health.
A note on human flourishing and wellbeing
The terms human flourishing and wellbeing are used a great deal at the moment, and in this paper I prefer the former to the latter, chiefly because it a less static, more growth-oriented term. Additionally, many today talk about wellbeing as a personal, internal condition, rather than as a social good that impacts those around us. Whilst an internal personal wellbeing will have undoubted beneficial effects for those suffering with conditions of mental health, the true impact of wellbeing – and the route to it – will be outward focused. The charity Mind argues for 5 areas of positive wellbeing – connectedness, being physically active, taking notice of the world around you, active learning and giving yourself to active participation in community life (Mind, 2017). These are more “active” than what is popularly held as “wellbeing;” however, they remain focused on the personal and the impact on the individual. An approach I prefer, rooted in the thinking of the 4th century divine Augustine of Hippo, is expounded by Miroslav Volf (2013): true human flourishing points away from individual experiential satisfaction towards rich fellowship with our neighbour; from human self-improvement towards compassion for the weak; from a concern for living well personally, to concern for the welfare of our society. This much more fully contributes to the creation of a social world worth living in and thus in the long term provides better “boundary conditions” for our desired sociotypical community.
Restorative practice and the establishment of a respectful, affectionate environment
The progression in thinking and practice in the Restorative Foundation from a well-argued and developed “behaviour management system” to a sophisticated approach to relationship building in schools took place through the adoption of a communication perspective on relationships and the forensic exposition by Macready and Carlile (2014) of what actually goes on when we are relating.
One way of looking at this is the overlap of our actions as humans in the creation of social worlds around us, within the huge complexity of human interaction described by systems psychology, and our contribution to the making of meaning through participation and deliberate construction. This places human choice at the heart of the relationship-building effort in any school, and underlines that these social goods, like any good, has to be worked at. They do not happen automatically.
A communication perspective on relationships (Macready and Carlile, 2014) means firstly that there are always two sides to the process and that there is a relationship between an individual and their words or actions. However, it eschews the identification of a person with their actions so that they are not labelled. This perspective enables us to show unconditional respect and judge actions as unacceptable at the same time; therefore, whilst actions and words might be the problem, the person is not the problem. This is tested to the limit in certain cases where even very young children have such ingrained repetitive habits that the unwanted or troublesome behaviour is their norm, but the separation of a person from their actions or words is critical in fostering stability in a child’s self-understanding.
Secondly, this perspective means that context determines content: what we hear depends on the quality of the relationship between us and is the reason why the construction of kindly, positive, respectful relationships are vital to our own mental health and to our internal peace when working in any social environment. They create the “context” in which all communication takes place, minimising threat and creating opportunity for growth.
Thirdly, a communication perspective implies a powerful interactional sequence: managing this creates the right expectations of how we treat one another. Changing the sequence can alter the outcomes for those caught in, e.g. bullying behaviour. We can then make choices about taking and giving offence (Humphreys, 2015), and position ourselves safely and respectfully within the interactional sequence.
Paying attention to these features of communication within any relationship has been focused principally on the learning conversations that are the second prism of Macready’s approach. Because of the changes in approach that teachers have had to undergo when dealing with interventions with children, a lot of the mental work and refocused language of the restorative approach has come from careful consideration of what actually we want to convey when a relationship founders, so as to avoid misunderstanding and making things worse!
What we have discovered together as teachers and leaders using this approach is that this careful work on communication has resulted in a common language and approach that has helped us to create whole-school relational policies that have, in turn, created wholesome and respectful, affectionate and kind school cultures. We have together found that the lessons of careful micro-scale study of relational breakdown has given us the tools to lead better schools.
Effective community building and the conditions for flourishing
Relational breakdown only becomes a true learning experience where both (or all) participants have previously contributed to a community that contains meaning for them. This is why family rows have such emotional power and can lead to such devastating consequences – a betrayal of emotional investment of love or dependence is to a child in particular, one of the most damaging, dislocating, detaching experiences possible. A child puts a huge amount of emotional investment into the “mum-and-dad” relationship, its togetherness, and as is well understood can be temporarily crippled by separation and divorce. So the invitation to each member of a class to contribute emotionally and with “love-in-action” to the common class wellbeing and growth of community is not without risk. The lead must be given by the teacher, who through his/her language creates the emotional space for children, particularly if new to the school, to feel part of the whole.
This begins with “articulated acceptance” at the start of the day in a community-building circle. In our school we try to use the term community-building as a descriptor of circles repeatedly because the more we articulate purpose, the more we understand the effect that such circles have on us, and the better we can make sense of our role in that community. Over time, it is easy to forget the impact that such circles have on our children, and constant renewal as to its purpose is required. The language we use has to be marked by the following characteristics if it is going to have the community-building impact we desire, and thus the contribution to the “dependable culture of respectful kindness” that is intended through them:
- In UK culture, we have few formal ways of welcoming, but it is critical to the development of good mental health that we do not ignore one another when we first meet in the morning. There is a deep sense in which we matter through welcome. The formality of it sometimes seems stale, but thanking children for coming to school, for being part of our class, inviting them to take their place in the class, using specific language that conveys this, is of first importance. This stretches to enquiry about their journey to school, how they slept, how their parent(s) are and comments about the weather – all of these small social niceties add to the rich sense of welcome that each child stores away in their mental constructs of what it means to be with such a teacher and in such a class. It stretches further: to the learning environment and display, and to every evidence that the teacher cares for the class and how it looks and feels. All of these add to welcome. Recently I visited a nursery where the teacher had lowered the ceiling with ornate fabrics and replaced the smallworld kitchen plastic with proper crockery. She gave thought to each area of the class and ensured that it invited children to a sense of homeliness. If context determines content, then the welcoming feel of a class is a critical teaching tool at the beginning of the day. This has some implications for school architecture, for reception areas and the pervasive security doors we adorn our schools with.
- Teachers need to teach this, and the actions that demonstrate it, for instance: smiling at one another, speaking well of each other, waiting for one another to speak, learning not to react negatively to, but enjoy, differences between us, finding things in each other that they are better than us at, accepting our individual humanity as unique and cherished, learning and repeating “mantras” of acceptance (“in this class we are all equally important; even if sometimes we feel less important or more important than others, really we are all equally important”; “you are part of our class and I welcome and honour that”). Acceptance is an umbrella for inclusion. Because inclusion has a particular meaning within the UK school community, acceptance is preferred, but must, absolutely, be demonstrated by inclusive words and actions, firstly from the teacher or adult in the class, and then by the children toward each other.
- Children find it hard when young to know how to serve one another. We need to model and teach actions and language that lead to, for instance, holding the door open for one another, bringing resources for a whole table rather than just for themselves, being aware of each other’s needs (and the specific techniques that go with that). Very young children will need rubrics to help: “Here we serve one another and today I show that by holding the door open for the class/giving out the books in class/taking down the register, etc.” In this way, service to a community becomes one with children’s natural desire to be helpful to their teacher and friends, and endows their “helpful actions” with a servanthood and a community-building purpose.
- Equity and equality. Flowing from acceptance, teachers need repeatedly to articulate this equality, and ensure that it has a tangible outcome in equality of voice. This equality insists that all contribute because all are important, and everyone’s voice needs to be heard. It also insists that all children contribute from an equality of thought, which requires thinking time to be given at the beginning of a circle go-around.
- Honour and respect. Honour is the quality that links respect for an individual to a sense of wonder and reverence at their humanity, and celebration of their achievements. It can be enough just to articulate respect, of course, but a culture of honour has more power, and a language of its own that places an “honoured” individual on a higher level than simply respecting them. However, as a minimum, community-building circles cannot function without a mutuality of respect growing among the class. Again, the teacher modelling the language such as “I respect you because we are both human, both precious and cherished, etc” gives children the language and the confidence to demonstrate respect overtly to others, and to find ways of showing that in practice.
- Responsibility and contribution. As a child comes to terms with their class community-building circles, they will begin to see that they have an equality of voice and that this actually has an impact on those around him/her. They will begin to understand that their contribution and the way that they contribute become part of a wider whole which itself has a distinct identity. In order for that responsibility to learn and grow and for the contributions to take their place within this larger entity, each class will require….
- Shared conduct and values. Any community-building coheres around ground rules for conducting itself peaceably, around a common set of values or virtues that define the work of the community and somehow embody its purpose. All communities require boundary conditions that help shape and define it, and the wise teacher will lead consultative discussions as to “what goes” in their class circles, their class language, and in what keeps each other safe and contented. There will also be rules, perhaps subtle, that are designed to encourage and reward participation and discourage a passive stance with regard to the class community.
All of these together describe an affectionate lovingkindness that is a true social good and which enhances health of all sorts. All of these are conveyed through community-building circles, but not only through them. Community-building, and its articulation, carries on during the day, through the tools of remembrance and recollection, re-telling stories and acting together in play, song and learning. Wendell Berry (1990) defines community like this:
A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to – and will have to – encourage respect for all its members, human and natural. It will encourage respect for all stations and occupations. Such a community has the power – not invariably, but as a rule – to enforce decency without litigation. It has the power, that is, to influence behaviour. And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs that tell (among other things) what works and does not work in a given place.
This powerful definition contains within it many characteristics that lead to human flourishing: the common virtues, mutual respect and acceptance, equality and a code of conduct, all embedded within a social culture. All of the above contribute to the making of a social world in which children may feel increasingly safe, loved, trusted and respected. For the child who is struggling with family discord, such an environment re-normalises a trust in adults and their friends and provides a powerful context for the content of learning as a good thing to do in a good place to be.
Effective learning conversations and the conditions for re-creating fellowship
Part of being human is our legendary ability to screw things up (Spufford, 2013). Good community is good because it has the ability to cope with behaviours that are potentially destructive of it. Our built community is what is offended against when its members fall out with each other. Children who have learnt to value the kind of community described in the previous section as sociotypical of their school or class will soon learn that when they fall out with or hurt a friend, the ramifications are likely to be class-wide, because everyone has a stake in the repair of that relationship, whether they know it or not. If handled carefully, this can provide a genuine safety net of understanding and acceptance in a class. If handled poorly by the adult, it can leave those who have messed up feeling isolated and rejected. The re-creation of a communal fellowship, a restoration of the sociotypical world, is the aim of restorative practice. The ability of a school community to engage in this restoration of fellowship provides safety and purpose for those whose mental health is perturbed by the discord they may witness, cause or be affected by, in their class.
The practical approach to eliciting learning from a restorative conversation is stated by Macready and Carlile (2014). They postulate three modes of creating restorative learning – from immediate feedback (what is said by adults in the moments immediately following a negative incident), from learning conversations (one-to-one conversations that take place to discuss what occurred), and formal restorative meetings (where we are seeking long term change in the person/s who perpetrated a more serious incident). The first two of these modes are the most common currency of school restorative work, but all three have strong features in common that contribute to an environment of healthy thinking and healthy perceptions, and the restoration of fellowship:
- Affirmation: Positive affirmation of the value of the individual. This is critical in preserving the child’s self-esteem at a time when they feel guilty. We know that those who try and fix things from guilt have a much lower chance of success than those who recognise their worth but realise that they have hurt somebody and need to put it right. Those who see themselves as habitual offenders have a very hard time escaping their own self-condemnation. I deal with this below.
- Information: Clear information about the personal impact of their words and actions. In this we use the language of affectedness, expressing upset and disappointment. We find out exactly what happened, not questioning motive (and thus giving a child a chance to lie or make something up or blame a third party). We explore together who or what has been affected, and the feelings of the perpetrator about the effect that they have had on the victim, themselves, their relationships with others and those who saw what happened. This is all good learning, elicited by the adult (or child!) who is dealing with the situation and enables a conversation to progress to:
- Reformation: here responsibility is apportioned to those who need to assume it. Consequences are faced for the person who has done wrong, and actions assigned to put things right and try and make sure it does not happen again. “From the questioner’s perspective, the intention is to support individuals in considering ways of going forward that are in keeping with values of fairness and justice” (Macready and Carlile, 2014, p11)
- Restoration: sometimes, and this is a common feature of the work at Christ the Sower, children are invited to receive the perpetrator back into the class, because it may be against the class that s/he has offended.
It is our experience that the clarity of language and process that this enforces upon adults leads to children learning that they are separate from their choices and that the latter can be altered to their benefit without too much of a “hit” on their self-regard. The creation of new meaning between those in a conversation will often lead to new and imaginative ways of progressing. Macready (2018) argues for the use of “Yes…and…” conversations rather than the more usual “Yes, but” responses we come out with in order to create the new meaning. This imposes a good discipline on the listener, but more importantly ascribes worth to the person who has just spoken. In this conversation, the “yes” becomes a genuine agreement and affirmation rather than just a pause-word whilst a counterargument is marshalled. The completing of these conversant cycles leads to a richer mutual respect and paves the way for all to find a clear way forward, confident in each other’s raised esteem.
Separation of personhood and actions in the restorative framework
One of the strongest messages that the work of the Restorative Foundation has contributed to good mental health has been the weaning of teachers and other school adults from the way that they may have been spoken to by a previous generation of school adults. In this, none is stronger than the language and attitudes that we learn that separate out the personhood of an individual – held in unconditional positive regard, as a cherished and loved individual – from the actions that they have chosen that may have contributed to a relational breakdown. As outlined in the section on communication perspective above, it is clear that there is a relationship – always – between a person’s self and their words and actions, and whilst the “self” must take responsibility for those “actions/words” they have chosen to use, they are not the same. This key message must be reinforced at every opportunity, because without it, it is hard to receive forgiveness. Forgiveness, psychologically, is that which sets us free from internal or external condemnation and lingering guilt. It is extremely hard to be forgiven for who we are; much easier to be forgiven for actions. A person who believes that their bullying actions make them – forever – a bully, needs the restorative work of knowing that through change, love, support and clarity of decision-making, they can leave that bullying behaviour behind. Without this separation of self from action, the guilt creates such a huge identity crisis for a person, and will lead to the long term perception that no matter what they do, they will never be accepted or be good enough. Millions of adults live already under this crippling perception. We do not want to be responsible for creating any more. The message that in our school, who you are is loved, accepted, cherished and respected, but what you do has consequences which can be learnt from – repeated over and over by all adults, every day, until it is part of our school DNA, will contribute to the most emotionally prosperous environment for promoting good mental health.
If we are serious about human flourishing in our schools and families, then the efforts to build community and the restore it when it is damaged, must be the social backdrop to our work as schools. It provides the milieu into which other interventions, family support, therapeutic work, etc. have the strongest effect.
Another way of looking at this, rooted in the growth mindset work of Carol Dweck (2006) and Shirley Clarke (2008) is our willingness to accept those who fail or who make mistakes in the pursuit of learning. This aspect of a school’s culture is much more widely established, and should be harnessed in the promotion of a healthy learning culture which says: it’s OK to fail, but get up and have another go. Critical to this in classrooms is a learning approach which is high challenge (always!) but low stress (enabling plenty of mistakes to be made, laughed about, and learnt from). Whilst not a part of a communication perspective, it becomes the curricular equivalent of the strong work we do in creating a strong class community through circles and learning conversations, and contributes to the same accepting narrative.
This brief discussion has begun to identify those aspects of restorative practice, as followed in some Milton Keynes schools, that contribute directly to the creation of an environment where the “three children in every class that have mental health concerns” (Draper, 2016) may find clarity, social acceptance, love and a place where their struggles will be respected. At the core of it is the creation of healthy communities through active community building strategies, and the separation of children (loved, respected and appreciated) from their actions (whose consequences need to be dealt with and forgiven), something which if we get right, will provide a basic psychological foundation of security for the remainder of their lives. More importantly in the day-to-day, it demonstrates how the loving, disciplined language of the school adult creates new meaning for their children and thus a new type of culture in their classes.
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