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How One School Is Curbing Violence by Focusing on Feelings

By Amy Zimmer | November 4, 2016 8:37am
 Top, Monica Seblst (holding Kermit the frog) leads a restorative circle training at P.S. 42 in September. Bottom, teachers at the school, holding their
Top, Monica Seblst (holding Kermit the frog) leads a restorative circle training at P.S. 42 in September. Bottom, teachers at the school, holding their "talking pieces" share feedback.
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BRONX — Circle time has taken on new meaning for the students in Tara Doherty’s South Bronx kindergarten class.

When the children walk into their classroom at P.S. 42, Doherty asks them how they are feeling. They walk over to a board where they write their emotions. Then they sit in a “restorative circle” passing around a "talking piece" — usually a stuffed animal — giving the holder the floor to speak and share their feelings.

“They come in with so many different emotions, and sometimes they don’t even know they’re feeling a certain way until we ask them,” said Doherty.

For nearly three years, Doherty has been piloting restorative circles at the Claremont Village school on Washington Avenue, which has a high-needs population. Roughly 20 percent of students come from one of four nearby shelters, school leaders said.

While Doherty is considered a veteran teacher, with nearly a decade at the school, restorative practices are still new to her. But she and her peers — who were all mandated to implement restorative circles this September as part of a school-wide effort — have been receiving extensive training since 2013, as one of 16 schools in the Positive Learning Collaborative (PLC), developed by the United Federation of Teachers with the Department of Education.

“I saw students who were really aggressive become more loving and more welcoming,” said Doherty, who continues to see the positive effects after her students have moved to upper grades.

The de Blasio administration has been emphasizing the need to change schools’ climates, allocating $47 million for initiatives focusing on social emotional development, counseling and “restorative” practices. The hope is that focusing on positive behavior reinforcement rather than punitive discipline will cut down on violence and suspensions while boosting academic performance.

To do this, however, teachers need to be better equipped to recognize behavioral red flags before they escalate into violence. That's something that takes a lot of training, and many educators say they have not had the same kinds of training and support as teachers at P.S. 42.

As part of the Positive Learning Collaborative, every adult in those schools — from the teachers to the lunch aides — gets intensive training to help kids deal with feelings such as frustration, anger, rejection, and depression. Every school has a behavior specialist liaison who visits regularly to support the staff and provide tailored assistance.  The program is rooted in a four-day certification course in therapeutic crisis intervention and there are ongoing workshops in restorative practices over several years.

The American Federation of Teachers and UFT gave the program a $300,000 start-up grant for technology, training and consultants, while the DOE pays for three full-time PLC staffers. Schools, depending on their size, pay $15,000 to $30,000 toward the program, which helps cover two more full-time staffers in the program.

The program is at capacity, with a waitlist of about 25 schools, according to officials from the UFT, which is hoping to get more funding to expand it.

“In the beginning, many teachers didn’t believe in it or didn’t want to implement it or thought it was extra work,” P.S. 42’s guidance counselor Monica Valencia said of the initiative. “But the repetitive support and training has built a common language. I see the staff in the building being kinder to each other. We’re modeling kindness, compassion and understanding.”

The school saw a dramatic 43 percent drop in violent incidents since they implemented the program in 2013 — from 46 that year to 26 incidents in the past year, according to data tracked by the PLC program.

“Three years ago our school was in a different place,” The school’s principal of three years, Lucia Castillo Orduz, said. “We had a high number of incidents."

Previously, if a child broke down in class or had a fight in the lunchroom, there was no "real system" for staff members to respond to that student's crisis, Orduz said.

"What we’re doing now is trying to prevent things in the first place," she added.

In an unusual move, the school is not only implementing restorative circles in every classroom, but it's now made restorative circles part of its weekly staff meetings, as a way to build trust among teachers, strengthen their relationships and also reinforce the importance of the circles in everyone's daily teaching practice, Orduz said.

She said that while, seemingly surprisingly, suspensions at P.S. 42 edged slightly higher, from six in 2013 to nine last year, she attributes the increase to a more proactive approach to disruptive behavior brought about through the PLC program, as well as a more diligent collection of data as it makes it easier to track repeated offenses.

Being more "mindful" of how many incidents occur, can led to more suspensions, she explained.

Through the program's data system, schools track qualitative and quantitative changes.

At P.S. 42, for instance, a survey found that in the fall of 2014, nearly half of the staffers felt disruptive behavior was a problem; that number dipped to 14 percent last year.  And while only 60 percent of staffers in 2014 felt they had supports when students had emotional or academic difficulties, last year that number surged above 90 percent.

At a restorative circle training at P.S. 42 in September — one of four such trainings this year led by Miranda Selbst — she guided teachers through the practice, telling them, “We want to have true listening. We want to have open minds, open heart, participation. We want to have honesty, safety and support.”

Selbst conducted her trainings in the morning and then spent the day observing and coaching.

On one occasion, a teacher was missing a flash drive and thought a student stole it, Selbst recounted. But instead of lapsing into an accusatory rant — “Someone in my class has my flash drive" — Selbst suggested the teacher hold a circle, asking the students how they would feel if someone took something they felt was important.

After the kids spoke, the teacher told them that she was upset because she lost her flash drive. The kids responded with great concern, offering to help find it — which they did.

“Imagine if she accused them of taking it. It would have been relationship-breaking,” Selbst said.

“It’s important the circle is not a space where kids get shamed or punished. There are rules and agreements," she said, "and you reinforce the positive behaviors. You’re building relationships with each other."