When swearing in class was a reason to rejoice #restorativepractice

Just last week, a boy, I’ll call him Tom, burst into my office, squeezed himself into the gap between my cabinet and the wall and yelled, “I’ve had enough of this fucking school and everyone in it!” After the pressure of the tight space had calmed him, he agreed to come out and we talked things through.

It emerged that he had offended two girls by swearing at them during a lesson. The incident had been referred to Head of House and there had been an impromptu restorative conference, in line with school policy. The girls had told him how upset they were by his language and he had apologised. However, they had since withdrawn their acceptance of this apology and Tom’s meltdown was triggered by his confusion. Why would they do this when the thing has been sorted out?

Tom has Asperger’s. He has already given a presentation to his form about this, telling peers about his anxiety, about the fact that he was permanently excluded from his last mainstream school and about his experience of special education. He wanted to be accepted, understood and successful in mainstream this time.

I reassured him that I would speak with the girls and the situation would be resolved. In the meantime, he would work in the learning support area, our ‘Cottages’  – to avoid any further episodes.

Like Tom, both girls are mid year transfers which is perhaps why, for the full hour that I spent discussing the situation with them, we seemed to be speaking different languages. We are at my school explicit and celebratory in our commitment to inclusion. At the start of the new academic year, the Headteacher’s assembly, ‘Every Child an Equal Chance’, reminded students that to have a genuinely equal chance, some people need more help – more adjustments – than others. This unequal treatment is not unfair, he explained, but actually the only true basis for equality of opportunity. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “There is nothing so unfair as the equal treatment of unequal people.”

By and large, our students don’t just accept this philosophy, they embrace it; they are proud to be part of an inclusive community school because they are regularly reminded that, without their compassionate and intelligent participation, there could be no inclusion. Equally, staff are proud to have developed skills in managing learners who present with a wide range of needs. Inclusion might be hard and relentless work, but it does make everyone who contributes to its success feel very good.

However, the girls did not want to hear any of this. The bottom line was, they wanted to see Tom punished for his bad language, just as they thought they would have been punished. These views were expressed in the most vociferous terms, through tears. I invited my deputy SENCo in to talk about her son, who is also on the autistic spectrum and finds it difficult to control outbursts, but it made no difference. Two minds were closed against us.

I remained troubled for the rest of the day and it was difficult to know quite what to do next. Contacting parents to discuss the deadlock was one obvious strategy and I had resolved to do this when there was a tap at the door. It was one of the girls; the angriest.

She looked quite transformed. She explained that she had reflected and she felt really, really bad about the things she had said and the way she had spoken. She said that she had no idea why she had been unable to accept Tom’s difficulties that morning. Smiling, she said that she had just now accepted his apology and given him a hug.

We talked a little about why she had been so angry. She admitted that her volatility had been a major issue at her previous school, hence the move. (Jumped before illegally pushed.) So I introduced her to one of the school’s counsellors and they arranged to talk. She left saying that her mum would be really happy that she would now be getting some help.

People will take different things from this series of events. For me, though, they serve as a powerful reminder that our decision to implement restorative practice five years ago was the biggest, boldest, most transformational thing we ever did for inclusion.

If Tom had been punished, according to a set of inflexible ‘do this and you’ll get that’ rules, he would not have had the opportunity to practice the skill of apologising and he would already be questioning his ability to succeed within the mainstream. If Tom had been punished, the girls might have felt vindicated for a short time – but they would have missed out on the deeper, more lasting pleasure that comes with reconciliation and forgiveness. If Tom had been punished, they would have learned nothing about autism and one of them would not have left school with a lighter heart and some good news for her mum.

Most important of all, without that swearing in class and the restorative process it triggered, there would have been no hug and our school community would be one relationship weaker.

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18 Comments

  1. I found this to absolutely astonishing, to the point where I wondered if it was a spoof.

    The following for me would be totally unacceptable and would need to be addreassed.

    ‘burst into my office, squeezed himself into the gap between my cabinet and the wall and yelled, “I’ve had enough of this fucking school and everyone in it!”’

    THis pupil had been excluded from his/her previous school, and explains to peers that he/she ….. “bravely telling peers about his associated struggles with anger and anxiety.

    This pupil had been aggressive to two girls in the class, who clearly given time to reflect had decided that an apology did not resolve the issue. The very idea that adults in this situation would try to force these girls to accept an apology and agree that it had resolved the issue is very worrying.

    This may turn out to be a spoof, and I really do hope that it is. I would not let my children or grandchildren attend this school and I have no idea whether the school caters specifically for students who are unable to control their aggressive behaviour.

    School should be a safe place for children, they should not have to make allowances for aggressive behaviour as they should not be subjected to it.

    Let’s hope this aggressive pupil wasn’t given the wrong idea, and his next outburst doen’t have a worse outcome.

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    1. “I have no idea whether the school caters specifically for students who are unable to control their aggressive behaviour.” In the blog – Mary says the boy “had offended two girls by swearing at them” – you make it sound as if he attacked the girls physically.

      As we well know – the Law does not always equal Justice – Tom is dealing with huge levels of anxiety – he is doing amazingly well do be in a mainstream secondary school. He is also doing well in being able to apologise – as being able to empathise with another persons feelings enough to apologise is also tough when you have asbergers. The emotional growth that happened for the girl from that situation is as valuable as any academic lesson. Perhaps
      bt0558 before you get your best emotive vocabulary out – you should read the blog more carefully.

      As for me – as I have a daughter at 6th form its a bit late for her – but Mary – where do I sign my grandchildren up to?

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    2. I’m a student at this school and I’m appalled that you could assume such nonsense when you yourself are clearly unaware about what is appropriate in the way of dealing with such incidents. What would you rather, him being expelled? For what? He is only acting by instinct that he can’t control yet. Whether or not this is the correct thing to do, he needs to be helped, and the best thing for this is to stay at a school like Thomas Cowley where people can get help for any specific need they may have, whether a recognised disorder or just a student not coping in mainstream education. Maybe because their life is terrible and they are stressed out. The only way to help these students is to help them and not just kick them out of school, but to understand there specific needs and act upon them. Not cast them aside. It’s a good job young people haven’t got you as a role model, who knows how they may turn out with you throwing them on to society’s scrap heap. To be honest It’s a good job you won’t send your children here. We don’t want them to be setting an example to us students in how to be a shallow and heartless human being. An example of which would have been set by you! Your point is invalid and you’re not really setting an example to your future grandchildren in how to be a responsible adult. If your narrow minded attitudes do make it into our school then it wouldn’t be a place worthy of the name. School isn’t about just educating the mind but helping the students emotionally and help them develop the skills to live in peace with their peers. You can’t simply remove students from the class or even the school every time someone makes a mistake. People make mistakes. (For example- your post is full of mistakes, mainly your point overall but also your spelling and grammar ) it’s a part of growing up; leading from your mistakes and putting things right. How do you expect people to do this with out guidance and support.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow, Jordan thank you for adding some student voice to the discussion. Your head teacher should ( and I’m sure will) be rightfully proud of having such compassionate and passionate students at your school.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure that allowing a student with Asperger’s Syndrome to sit outside of the behaviour system is inclusive… It sounds more like low expectations (for behaviour), internal segregation and a grey area for him and the other students. Surely we want the same for our ASC students as we want for all of our students? I’m not advocating a one-size-fits-all policy. I’m advocating a one-size-fits-one policy… A system designed to meet the needs of all students. ALL of them. But the conversations and interventions that arise from that system having to be implemented are going to be tailored to the individual… because they’re autistic, or a repeat offender, or have learning difficulties… Or because their dog died that morning. In my opinion, a behaviour management system should be robust and reliable, timely and aimed at correcting a behaviour for the benefit of the student and the school community. Not a punishment to make other students feel they have been vindicated! Restorative conversations are a crucial part of this process but this should be par for the course for all students – they’re kids; they need guidance and support in repairing whatever has gone wrong. Would it not be ideal to have a clear, fair system that ensures corrective, restorative, personalised positive outcomes for all students?

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  3. Thank you Mary for your amazing piece of writing. Everything you wrote resonated with the beliefs I formulated over 25 years as a teacher about inclusion and behaviour management. One-rule-fits-all type of ‘thinking’ is only ever okay until we apply it to ourselves or to our own children.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve just been filing through some old papers, and I came across the media feedback to my 2008 paper on the American Troops-to-Teachers programme. It was covered by all of the major national newspapers and most of the provincial press. I was interviewed on prime-time television and regional BBC radio. Michael Gove and Liam Fox endorsed the idea the day the paper was published. All of this is evidence of the perceived need for some kind of authority in our schools.

    Admittedly, most of the journalists I talked to had the wrong end of the stick–they didn’t realise that National Service ended half a century ago, and that a modern volunteer army will fail utterly if men and women are not highly motivated; good discipline cannot be achieved by coercion. Nonetheless, it should be a salutory reminder to those who will excuse almost any kind of behaviour and who refuse to consider any kind of punishment. However noble it might be to think that humans are naturally inclined to be good, history strongly suggests otherwise.

    And more to the point, modern ‘behaviour management’ philosophy is the most appallingly inept way to make children grow up with a strong moral sense. In 1999 I inspected some of East Anglia’s top comprehensive schools for the Telegraph Good Schools Guide. The one that impressed me the most had a zero-tolerance discipline policy. In every classroom I visited, pupils were fully engaged in lively interchanges with the teacher and with each other–but what was most striking was the total absence of challenging behaviour (in striking contrast to the school where I was then teaching). At the end of the day I was left in the school library with all of their Year 11 pupils, and no staff present. They were all delighted to talk to ‘the press’, and their enthusiasm for their school–and explicitly for zero-tolerance–was astounding. They were mature enough to understand that letting pupils get away with anti-social behaviour drags everyone down, and does no favours whatsoever for the offender. As one pupil said, “you soon realise that lessons are a lot more interesting when they aren’t constantly disrupted”; another volunteered that teachers who aren’t stressed out have a lot more time and energy to help you out.

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  5. RJ has it’s place- but children with ASD need consistency and, when it all goes wrong, a proper analysis of what happened.

    Many schools (not yours, I’m sure) use tolerance as a mechanism to avoid addressing a child’s need for skilled, pro-active, ASD-adjusted teaching and support

    Can I signpost you to a discussion about your post https://twitter.com/oldandrewuk/status/523726018667094016 and a resource about the STAR approach http://sociallyspeakingllc.com/my-mission-for-socially/free-pdfs/understanding_behavioral.pdf

    Your school is trying hard to be inclusive- and children with ASD are much more likely to stay included when the most effective approaches are used.

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  6. I am a parent an would be very worried about sending either my child with ASD or his sibling to a school like this with such lack of understanding about how best to prepare children for life as independent confident adults. Indeed I have recently removed my son with ASD from an ‘accepting’ school due to his consequential escalating behavioural issues. I would also remove my daughter from a school that expected her to receive abuse from a male without consequence.

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  7. “to have a genuinely equal chance, some people need more help – more adjustments – than others”

    How do you propose to level the playing field between the child with ‘learning difficulties’ and ‘challenging behaviour’ from a sink estate and the very bright, privately educated child of a consultant and a GP, with their music/ballet/drama/Atlantic Challenge and private tuition the moment grades drop below A. I’d suggest you can’t, unless you’re going for the kind of levelling described in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron”.

    “To try and do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise” as Michael Oakeshott puts it. I must say in my school governor days I’d have been horrified by the outcome you describe.

    “The bottom line was, they wanted to see Tom punished for his foul language, just as they would have been punished

    Isn’t that called justice ?

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    1. Quite so–children have a strong sense of justice, and I find it difficult to understand why teachers are incapable of seeing how much they alienate their classes when they make exceptions for kids who are perceived to have special problems.

      On the other hand, children don’t have a problem if a child with special needs gets additional help to keep up academically–and they are easily persuaded to participate in peer tutoring whenever it is appropriate. This genuinely builds bridges that enable the pupil to feel the acceptance that all children crave, whereas the scenario described in the article magnified Tom’s outburst into a major incident–rather than dealing with it swiftly and fairly.

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