A frequent observation in schools is that the same children tend to end up in detention over and over again. The belief that ‘punitive’ approaches to school discipline were proving ineffective or even counter-productive has led to an interest in ‘restorative’ practice approaches. These approaches appear strongly influenced by ‘positive psychology’ and frequently also import ideas from a variety of therapeutic disciplines like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Part 2: Restorative practice approaches
The roots of this behaviour management strategy are ‘restorative justice’ programmes arising from criminology. Difficult to define and frequently implemented under a variety of different names, restorative justice is sometimes typified as a compromise position in the ‘rehabilitation vs retribution’ debate. A meta-analysis by Latimer, Dowden and Muise (2005) offered the following definition:
“Restorative justice is a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offence come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future”
The focus of these approaches is to repair the harm caused by the criminal act, so that the victim and the offender have an opportunity to discuss the event and decide appropriate reparations for the offence. In the meta-analysis, the authors find that victim and offender satisfaction tends to be higher using this approach than when using the traditional justice system, and offenders more likely to complete restitution agreements and less likely to reoffend.
The reported success of these programmes led to similar systems, often influenced by therapeutic models, being imported into schools. Once again, the principles behind ‘restorative practice’ are difficult to define and operate under a wide variety of names, but are often typified as a compromise position between authoritarian and laissez-faire disciplinary systems.
The International Institute for Restorative Practices offers the following as a ‘unifying hypothesis’ of restorative practices:
“human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.”
Positive psychology arose out of the ‘Humanistic approach’ developed by psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers who developed theories around human happiness and helping people to thrive or reach their potential. Positive psychology was a term probably coined by Maslow, but has become strongly associated with the work of Martin Seligman – its philosophy essentially the same, to understand the nature of human happiness and well-being.
Applied within education, this approach tends to focus upon how schools can promote positive emotions and relationships, engagement and a meaningful sense of purpose, and positive goals leading to accomplishment. Seligman suggests these form five distinct elements – summarised by the acronym PERMA:
- P Positive Emotion
- E Engagement
- R Positive Relationships
- M Meaning and Purpose
- A Accomplishment
We see the influence of positive psychology in all sorts of areas of education: For example, the idea of ‘teaching for happiness’ or ‘teaching mindfulness’ and many of the ideas underpinning ‘character education’. There appears to be a clear influence of positive psychology in opposition to more behaviourist ideas within restorative practices applied within schools. For example, Hendry, Hopkins and Steele summarise the differences in Restorative Approaches in Schools in the UK:
The goals are identified as developing positive relationships between the teacher and student; encouraging empathy and creating a sense of safety and trust where both parties can express their thoughts, feelings and needs; encouraging self-actualisation and optimistic beliefs about personal development; and supporting individual and shared responsibility. The main empirical claim appears to be:
“Schools that consciously focus the bulk of their effort on building and maintaining relationships will find that fewer things will go wrong and so there will be fewer occasions when relationships need to be repaired.”
However, within academic psychology the ‘positive psychology’ approach has faced significant criticism. For example, the abstract for Alistair Miller (2008) paper “A Critique of Positive Psychology— or ‘The New Science of Happiness’” summarises many of the problems:
“This paper argues that the new science of positive psychology is founded on a whole series of fallacious arguments; these involve circular reasoning, tautology, failure to clearly define or properly apply terms, the identification of causal relations where none exist, and unjustified generalisation. Instead of demonstrating that positive attitudes explain achievement, success, well-being and happiness, positive psychology merely associates mental health with a particular personality type: a cheerful, outgoing, goal-driven, status-seeking extravert.”
An alternative psychological foundation for restorative practice has been cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) often combined with elements of other therapeutic programmes (e.g. Solution-Focused Therapy).
The focus in CBT is to identify and change patterns of thinking or beliefs which underlie behaviours which are unhelpful to the individual. It’s often typified as a problem-solving therapeutic approach – finding ways to better cope with ‘here-and-now’ practical problems (rather than say childhood experiences).
Albert Ellis developed some of the core principles involved in CBT back in the 1950’s and 60’s. Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) emphasises the role of ‘faulty thinking’ (an individual’s interpretation or view of an event or situation) which gives rise to emotional distress and subsequent unhelpful behaviours (e.g. avoidance coping). This makes some intuitive sense to many teachers. For example, a student faced with an impending exam may believe that they will fail regardless of what they do, so they find ways to distract themselves from this anxiety (e.g. procrastination) and fail to revise for the exam.
In restorative practice, these elements of CBT tend to involve encouraging the student to relate their offending behaviours to the thoughts and feelings which caused them. By exploring alternatives to the way the student interpreted an event and emotionally reacted to it, the idea is that the student finds better ways to respond to these events in future. For example, Writing Wrongs is a restorative approach for use in schools which explicitly draws upon ideas based on CBT to encourage students to reflect upon the causes and consequences of their behaviour.
Whilst optimistic claims were initially made for the efficacy of CBT as a treatment for mental illness, much of the empirical evidence supporting these has come into question – not least because, along with other forms of psychotherapy, there’s no easy way to create a ‘double-blind’ arrangement within randomly controlled trials and this means that results may be influenced by bias. A recent meta-analysis suggests that effect sizes for CBT outcomes has been steadily declining since the 1970s, implying that sources of bias may have given a distorted view of its efficacy.
Do restorative approaches work?
It is almost impossible to give an empirical answer to this question. Case studies appear to provide very positive evaluations for programmes. For example, Littlechild and Sender (2010) found evidence from interviews that students and staff at four residential homes for young people with developmental and physical disabilities gave very positive evaluations of restorative justice. However, data from police call-outs was more mixed. They note that one unit had an increase in call-outs and caution that the decrease in call-outs at the three other units was not necessarily due to the introduction of restorative justice.
One area where more systematic evidence is available is the success of anti-bullying programmes, many of which use restorative justice principles. For example, restorative approaches are commonly used in conjunction with sanctions within secondary schools to tackle bullying. A report for the DFE “The Use and Effectiveness of Anti-Bullying Strategies in Schools” (Thompson and Smith, 2011) examined the range of practices used in schools and attempted some evaluation of their effectiveness. They broadly defined restorative approaches as:
“Restorative approaches work to resolve conflict and repair harm. They encourage those who have caused harm to acknowledge the impact of what they have done and give them an opportunity to make reparation. They offer those who have suffered harm the opportunity to have their harm or loss acknowledged and amends made.”
They found that over two-thirds of schools used some form of restorative practice in tackling bullying and that these approaches were recommended by the majority of local authorities above the use of sanctions. The survey reported that 97% of both primary and secondary schools rated restorative approaches as effective in reducing bullying, with high proportions of both school types rating them as cost effective and easy to implement. Small group discussions (circles) were the most common approach in primary schools (96%) whereas some form of restorative discussion was the most common in secondary schools (90%).
So, these kinds of anti-bullying programmes are popular and perceived to be effective. Beyond case studies, however, is there much evidence to support their adoption in schools? The fact that restorative programmes tend to be mixed in with sanctions makes it difficult to pick apart whether these programmes are effective as practised in schools. Historically, the evidence supporting the general effectiveness of anti-bullying programmes is mixed. For example, a meta-analysis by Ferguson et al (2007) examined the effectiveness of school-based anti-bullying programmes. One issue they report with the available research was publication bias (sometimes called the ‘file draw effect’) where studies which obtain some statistical significance are more likely to be published than studies which are non-significant. Thus, while the meta-analysis yielded an overall ‘significant effect’, the very small overall effect sizes led them to conclude that “school-based anti-bullying programs are not practically effective in reducing bullying or violent behaviors in the schools”.
More positive outcomes were reported in a meta-analysis by Ttofi and Farrington (2011). They suggested that significant reductions in bullying tended to be associated with more intensive programs, programs including parent meetings, firm disciplinary methods, and improved playground supervision. However, work with peers (including things like peer mediation, peer mentoring, and encouraging bystander intervention) was associated with an increase in victimization. They recommend that work with peers (arguably a central feature of restorative practice models) should not be used.
Despite mixed and sometimes disappointing evidence of effectiveness with regard to bullying, the popular perception of restorative practice has led some schools to implement these sorts of programmes as whole-school behaviour management systems. It’s hard to define this approach, but typically they involve facilitated discussion between the teacher and student about low-level disruption in lessons in place of – though sometimes in addition to – a direct sanction. Again, there are many case studies reporting positive effects for these programmes, but systematic quantitative evidence is thin on the ground. For example:
“”We’ve shown in case study after case study that schools that adopt this approach report significant changes in their cultures,” said Dr. Paul McCold, researcher and founding faculty member of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) graduate school. “What’s needed now is solid quantitative research.””
There are evidently many problems when trying to implement restorative practice programmes in schools. David Didau identifies this problem in his list of psychological principles for teachers:
“The biggest problem with restorative justice is that it often becomes a blunt and clumsy stick. The culprit’s needs are often placed over those of the victim. A victim may not want a relationship to be restored and this should never be imposed.”
This becomes even more of an issue when such programmes are used for issues of low-level disruption. In my experience, it can sometimes be successful (e.g. where the student genuinely accepts they were in the wrong and is keen to make amends). However, I suspect the same students who ended up in detention all the time simply end up in endless ‘conflict resolution discussions’ instead. I’ve experienced many occasions where the student isn’t prepared to accept any responsibility or – more difficult still – tries to manipulate the discussion to appear the ‘victim’. If a student merely goes through the motions and isn’t really interested in taking responsibility for their actions, there’s the risk that such systems may inadvertently undermine good behaviour.
Lastly, there are some psychologists who are deeply concerned about the therapeutic frameworks being imported from positive psychology and CBT into schools. In ‘The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education’, Katherine Eccelstone warns that these approaches risk developing students into anxious and self-preoccupied individuals, undermine parental and teacher authority, and represent a diminished view of human potential.