Learning to get along has always been one of the toughest challenges for schoolchildren and when children fight, it's disruptive to a school's instructional environment.
Educators in the City School District think they've found a better way to help children avoid angry resentments and reduce lost class time because of conflicts.
Administrators and teachers have been trained in the practices of peace circles and restorative conversations. The practices are being used in all four of the district's schools.
"It aligns with our districtwide model on promoting social-emotional learning," said Kia Evans, principal at Jackson Elementary. "At our level, with 5-year-olds, social-emotional learning for us means helping kids learn to process very, very big emotions, helping them deal with different situations; helping them come up with the words to articulate it instead of some of the negative behaviors that are attached to it."
Currently, the district has a pretty young crop of principals. Ashley John Grillo is entering his third year at Batavia Middle School; Paul Kesler was principal at John Kennedy but is entering his first full year at Batavia High School; Evans is entering her second year at Jackson; and Amanda Cook took over at John Kennedy Intermediate in the second half of last year.
But a test of whether an innovative program is really working is whether its proponents would carry it with them if they changed employers and all four principals said, about peace circles and restorative conversations, yes, they would, absolutely.
"What’s nice about those things is you get kids talking about those things and then they start writing about them and it just flows nicely," Grillo said.
Grillo said the practices of the peace circle aren't just used in conflict situations. Students also get a chance to use them and learn from them in academic situations.
"In the science lab, you have hypothesis and conclusion, and as you go around the circle, they're all going to have different results in some cases," Grillo said. "Then they can come up with a consensus in class and decide, what is the main takeaway from doing this activity. We call those academic circles but those fall on the same protocols as doing peace circles or a restorative circle."
A peace circle usually involves an entire class and at least one adult facilitator (though at the higher grades students can become their own facilitators). An object, such as a ball, is used -- the peace object -- and only the person holding it is allowed to speak. The students are encouraged to talk about what's bothering them in respectful ways and what concerns them about a particular situation. There are guidelines to follow but the students respond well, even at the younger grade levels, the principals said.
"It forces you to listen and process and a lot of times if you’re still upset and you're passed the ball, you might say pass," Evans said. "But the next time it comes around, you’ve heard and you’ve had an opportunity to process things, you can go further. Sometimes the person who was upset never contributes but it still feels like a healing process."
Grillo said a peace circle is a safe setting with rules of engagement and the students respect the protocols.
“I’ve seen it work beautifully," Grillo said.
Peace circles are also a way of building a sense of community among students.
"Teachers are using it to set values," Cook said. "This is a classroom community. We are all learners. How are we going to best take care of our classroom?"
Restorative conversations more often take place at the high school level, Kesler said. They usually involve a student who has been the subject of disciplinary action but the conversations are a chance to resolve conflicts once the disciplined student returns to class.
"It really does allow both parties to share how they feel they've been harmed what express what they would like to see as the intended outcome," Kesler said.
Kesler said not all of the BCSD teachers have been trained in peace circles. Many have taken the one-day seminar, several others have been through the full, three-day training session during a summer break.
As evidence students respond to it, Evans recalled the time a student saw a friend being mistreated in a hallway before class and he came to the teacher and requested a peace circle.
"He was in first grade," she said.
It might seem like peace circles take away from precious classroom academic time, but all four principals said the time spent on peace circles is a good investment.
"Your return on that time you’ve invested in a peace circle is going to pay back 10, 20 fold because you’ve already laid that groundwork," Cook said.
If small conflicts fester, other kids start picking sides and egging on the main antagonists. That's what administrators and teachers are trying to avoid.
"That 15 minutes is well spent," Evans said, "because later on the teacher has to address the behavior or address situation that could have been mitigated with a peace circle. That will cost more time academically."
The main data point the principals have to know protocols are working is the number of referrals to the principal's office. At his school, Grillo said referrals are down 50 percent.
"I really feel a big part of that, I’m not saying it’s the only answer but a big part of that is the restorative practices that the two assistant principles, the counselors, myself, and the teachers are all using," Grillo said. "We try to really get control of student issues and be proactive instead of reactive. I always feel that secondary education is reactive when it comes to discipline and I feel like we’ve turned that tide at the middle school."