New programs help students open up and engage in class

A class at Bethel Middle School uses a new program called “circles” to discuss the day’s work.

Our schools are in the middle of a philosophical change in how they deal with student discipline. Gone are the days where disruptive students are tossed out of class and suspended, only to return the following day with the same emotional problems.

Now, instead of simply banishing misbehaving students, schools are following what’s called the restorative justice model of discipline. Restorative justice mirrors the way students are already learning in class: Teach. Practice. Reinforce. Repeat.

“Restorative justice is an umbrella term that means moving away from punitive discipline towards rebuilding a community, rebuilding relationships, rebuilding the emotional integrity in the classroom,” said Bethel Middle School Principal Julie Schultz-Bartlett.

For instance, if a student is having a hard time in class, he or she will be able to ask for an R and R form, which stands for reflect and restore. A call will immediately go out to school administrators and social workers about the issue, and within a matter of minutes someone will be in class to help the student process whatever is going wrong and get them back on track and back to learning.

“Instead of assigning blame to an event, you discuss what led up to it and the impact it had on the people around you,” Schultz-Bartlett said.

The goal is to work through the problem and have the student back in the classroom within 10 minutes.

The shift to restorative justice doesn’t mean misbehaving students are off the hook when it comes to punishment. After-school detention isn’t going away, and students will still be suspended for things like fighting. The difference is that those students might also have some sort of mediation on top of their punishment.

The other big change happening in many of our middle and high schools is the addition of what’s called “circles.”

At many schools in the district, teachers are bringing their classes together in a circle several times a week to go over a variety of topics, from how to solve a math problem to how to resolve a conflict. In the circle, everyone is asked to participate in the discussion and no one can hide in the back of the class.

It’s all part of the district’s new Social Emotional Learning curriculum, which aims to give students the ability to understand and regulate their own feelings and emotions while also recognizing feelings and emotions in others.

“It ensures an equity of voice,” Schultz-Bartlett said. “ It ensures that people feel heard, because everyone is in a circle looking and listening to each other. It flat lines the power structure so no one is before or behind anyone.”

Schultz-Bartlett says she’s received positive feedback about the circles from both teachers and students. Both groups have said the circles have helped them form stronger bonds in the classroom.

“Culture and community has to be the number one foundation that you’re focusing on with middle school kids. Because if you don’t have that, they’re not going to feel like they know you and they’re not going to engage,” she said.

Helping kids learn is the driving force behind all we do in the Bethel School District.

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