In a recent training I did, I was asked a familiar question: how do you know how much restoration is enough? When a child does something that hurts another person or threatens the community, how do you decide how many or how large the tasks assigned for restoration should be? And how do you decide whether the child has completed these tasks with enough sincerity, effort or seriousness?
I think that some of the impetus for this question comes from thinking of restorative tasks as punishments in disguise, and from believing that their effectiveness comes from their being aversive. In other words, that (like punishment) the tasks should not are fun to do, and the child will change his behavior in order to avoid having to do them. In this framework, the tasks should be "as big as" the offense, and take a lot of effort and time, especially if the behavior was very serious or hurtful. The learning or relationship nature of the tasks is secondary. People often speak of staff feeling like the child "got away with" his behavior because what he had to do was not hard enough. The person who was hurt by the child does not feel sufficiently paid back, and thus feels resentful and disrespected.
In order to think further about this, let’s turn to our own lives. We all have had experiences of forgiving people who have hurt us, and continuing the relationship. Imagine that a friend has done something that hurt you. What would that be? Told a secret, let you down, forgotten to meet you for a planned appointment, said something thoughtless or mean to you, cancelled a plan with you at the last minute in order to do something else, borrowed money and not paid it back: what else?
In order to restore this friendship and for you to truly feel better about this friend, what would you want from him? First, I guess, an apology and an acknowledgement of what went wrong and his part in it. You might want him to listen to you speak of how this behavior affected you and to seem to actually care and take in what you said. Then, you would want him to act differently from now on, or try to, or at least start to.
So these are the skills and behaviors we want our kids to learn.
The first thing that gets in the way is shame. In order for a person to deal directly with something they have done wrong, they have to be able to tolerate the bad feelings involved. In order to admit you have hurt some one and to face them, you have to have some inner core of believing you are okay. You have to believe that forgiveness is a possibility.
Stop here for a moment and think of a time when you did something wrong, hurt some one you cared about, or made a mistake you were ashamed of. As you were trying to convince yourself to face up to the mistake and deal with it, what were you feeling? What got in the way of your honestly going to the person you hurt and admitting what you had done? What helped you to do so?
When our kids realize they have made serious mistakes, their sense of hopelessness comes crashing down on them. All is lost. There is no hope of forgiveness or redemption. They remember everything that has gone wrong in their lives, which they believe is totally their fault. When feeling this horrible despair and seeing no way out of it, their impulse is to run away from the events. This running can take many forms: actual running, denying responsibility, blaming or attacking others, aggression, self harm, retreat to bed, and many others. Often it takes the form of the child demanding to get out of this stupid place: send me to detention! Hospitalize me! All of this reflects self loathing, despair and lack of hope.
So- back to the restorative tasks- in treatment we are trying to help the child grow and be able to feel hope, to believe in the possibility of things working out, and to have some skills that will provide steps towards that outcome.
Traditional punishment, such as confinement to your room for a period of time, has exactly the opposite effect- it leaves the child feeling worse and without any adult support or steps to reconnect with others.
The restorative tasks should aim towards helping this particular child, with her particular abilities, needs, and treatment formulation, to become slightly better at:
- Acknowledging what went wrong and her part in it.
- Listening to the hurt other speak of how this behavior affected them, caring and taking in what that person says
- Acting differently from now on
In order to do any of these, the child has to develop some sense of being a worth while person, someone who deserves the air she breathes; some one others could care about and could forgive. Much of our treatment is designed to accomplish this in many different ways.
How do you get better at acknowledging your mistakes, and listening to the other describe the effect on them? Practice, mostly I think, and discovering that the world doesn’t end and in fact you can often repair the relationship. So, for some child the whole making amends could be a short conversation with the person hurt- that could be a huge step for her. Another child can’t do that, the shame is too intense. But he can draw a picture of the steps leading up to the event, and how he was feeling, and give it to the person hurt. Maybe she could respond by drawing a similar picture of the events from her point of view and how she was feeling- and he could further respond with some communication that shows he paid attention to what she said. The goal here would be: what are this kid’s current abilities to face her mistakes, and what action would be one small step further than she usually can go? In the past in this child’s life, making mistakes has led to abuse, and often to the person hurt disappearing all together. Our goal is to make this time different, a restorative relationship experience, to create a new template which includes the possibility of healing.
We’d all like the kids to then act differently. Preferably completely and immediately. In fact, that is one difficulty people report with the Restorative Approach- when you engage in a heart felt exchange with a child and the child still repeats the behavior, it feels worse than when you punish them and they repeat the behavior. We all know it takes a long time for these children to change, to un-learn the lessons of their life times.
But what will it actually take for the child to be able to behave different? Emotion management skills. Developing a sense that there are people who care about him, and that thy still exist when they are not physically present. Developing a sense that he is worth the air he breathes. And developing the ability to recognize, name and manage emotions, including the ability to self-sooth.
Thus, the learning aspect of the restorative tasks. This part is aimed to teach some small part of emotion management skills. This could be describing what I was feeling, or what else I could do, or listing ten good things I have accomplished, of drawing pictures of people who care about me. Again, what are this child’s current emotion skills strengths and deficits? What are the next steps in her treatment, what are we currently trying to teach her? Let’s give her some chance to practice as part of her restoration.
So back to the question we began with- how much is enough? It is enough when the staff feel the child has made any little step on any of these dimensions. They have talked about what happened sincerely. They have actually listening to the person they hurt. They have explored the feelings that led up to their actions. It doesn’t have to be the whole solution- just one tiny step, one new interpersonal experience, one moment of feeling "I am worth worrying about"- one building block in creating a new reality for the child.
Next questions- how do we as a team decide this? How do we teach it to new staff? How do we convey it to the children? Let me know your thoughts.