Repairing Harm – Throw A Chair At My Head And I’ll Smile When I See You Next

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Chapter 4 of ‘Hacking School Discipline’ – “Hack 3: Repair the Harm” – has been by far my favourite chapter. It struck a chord with me instantly because it’s based on fundamental common sense that things don’t really change unless something has been learnt – and for that to happen, the consequence of an action has to be linked to the impact (damage) it had.

Put it this way, if someone does something wrong, you can shout and scream at them all you want, but that fails to address some fundamental things:

  1. No one understood why that ‘wrong’ was such a big deal – i.e. the impact it had;
  2. The shouting doesn’t tell them that;
  3. The ‘perpetrator’ failed to take ownership of the damage they caused and hasn’t done anything to fix it.

In summary, nothing changes.

We’ve all seen this. In a classroom context, this plays out as student does something wrong; student does a detention for X number of minutes; student re-enters the classroom that same classroom the next day/week, not having actually done anything to repair the harm they caused. The message we’re sending out is that you can do anything, serve some pre-determined length of time in a room sitting in silence (at best) and then you go right back into the same environment without having made up for anything.

What the authors suggest here is that you should talk to the student to understand all the factors involved in why they did the action(s) they did and everyone who was impacted by it and then time should be spent with the student deciding what they will do to fix the damage – the action being directly linked to the harm they caused. The solution should be led by the student, with the teacher acting as a guide, so that they can develop a sense of problem solving and empathy. Some examples from the book are writing a letter of apology, a face-to-face apology and even conducting a lesson on the negative impact of a behaviour.

In my opinion, this is a fundamental component missing from most sanctions policies. Most of our sanctions ladders involve punishments of varying degrees of severity (usually varying degrees of sitting in a room in silence), but that doesn’t help you to repair the harm of swearing at someone or fighting or throwing rubbish in the playground. It’s almost the easy way out.

If you had to make up for swearing at someone by apologising to their face, or had to repair the environmental impact of littering by picking up litter in the playground, my bet is that it would make you think twice about doing it again in future because it’s actually more uncomfortable than serving a detention, since you’re having to actually face the injury you caused. And this is easy enough to build into a behaviour policy. For example, that ‘detention’ time can be spent having a conversation with the student based on why they did what they did; what they are going to do to address the damage caused and agreeing a restorative plan for repairing the harm they had on others that were impacted by their actions. A date and time can be agreed and then this can be monitored through form tutors, Heads of Year, classroom teachers, lunchtime supervisors and even other students to ensure the action was carried out. As a follow up, a reflection could be written/discussed as to what they learnt and what they felt during that process of reparation.

Sounds lengthy right? But think about it… who wants to go through that headache every time they do something wrong? That’s the beauty of it, I think. It makes you think and hopefully makes you learn from your actions. A one-hour detention simply doesn’t do that.

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