Getting to the Root of the Conflict: Interview with Spec Ed Teacher & Co-author of Restorative Discipline Practices

Co-author of Restorative Discipline Practices and special education teacher talks about classroom benefits of practice

As a middle school special education teacher, Jennifer Karydas is no stranger to navigating complex classroom dynamics.

But while her university training taught her how to teach subject matter to kids with varying levels of abilities, Karydas said she struggled to find a way to deal with emotional and behavioral issues and help students process harms done in the classroom and greater community.

Over lunch with a friend, she learned about an organization using Restorative Justice Practices in California, a system based on the belief that traditional, punitive responses to injustices or wrongdoings used in schools do not really provide resolutions to conflict or help students grow. Instead of relying on measures like detentions, time-outs or suspensions, Restorative Practices advocate for relationship-building and conversation, centering around the use of a “circle” format to encourage dialogue and exchange.

In 2015, Karydas had the opportunity to work on a Restorative Practices pilot program in her school and began to implement it in her classroom. After a student was involved in a violent episode in the community, Karydas gathered her students together. “We sat in a circle, and I asked everyone what they knew and how they were feeling. And even though we had not used this format before, students were very responsive to it,” she said. “It was really eye-opening.”

While her initial experience was positive, Karydas admits that integrating Restorative Practices into the classroom has been “a process,” but that over time her students have become the biggest proponents. “It’s vulnerable,” she said. “But when given the option to stop the circle, the students would always say, ‘No, let’s keep going.’”

Karydas says that she’s seen massive growth occur in her students over the course of using circle time. She’s seen relationships become restored and mutual understandings deepen.

“I have one student who is super goofy most of the time, but in circle when it was her turn to speak all of the sudden she turned into the most eloquent person, speaking about friendship, empathy, and treating people well,” she said. “The process helps everyone see a more complete human being in front of them. Instead of someone [defined] just a ‘troublemaker’ or a ‘kid with special needs’, we see a human being with feelings, challenges, and triumphs.”

When she speaks about Restorative Practices to others, Karydas says she sometimes hears people say that it sounds too much like “kumbaya.” While she accepts the comparison, she firmly believes that it goes far beyond it.

“At the heart of Restorative Practices, is the fact that we all, regardless of our backgrounds, come to our places in the circle with our own biases, and the circle is the way we get to the root of the conflict,” she said. “If we don’t have the opportunity to connect in deeper more meaningful ways, we don’t have the opportunity to disrupt [traditional] ways of thinking. And that’s so important.”

Jennifer Karydas is one of the authors of our new book, Restorative Discipline Practices. She formerly taught sixth grade at Martin Middle School in Austin ISD, where she began using Restorative Practices in her classroom. She currently teaches at Russell Byers Charter School in Philadelphia, PA, and also leads and supports Restorative Practice professional development for fellow educators. Jennifer will be speaking on the topic at the upcoming SXSW Edu Conference in Austin.

Click here for more information about the Restorative Practices Book.


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