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Classroom Management, Education Trends, Equity Resources   |   Apr 8, 2018

How YOUR response to student behavior can change the trajectory of a child’s life & disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How YOUR response to student behavior can change the trajectory of a child’s life & disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline

By Angela Watson

This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast, I talked to educators about the school-to-prison pipeline and how restorative justice in the classroom (which starts with you) can change the trajectory of a child’s life.

One of the toughest parts of teaching students who enter our classrooms with a lot of personal and behavioral issues is that feeling of helplessness that comes from working with them. You might feel that there is nothing you can do to reach that student, or that you have no control over the situation at all. It might be your instinct to simply get those challenging students out of your class. Maybe you’ve thought, They clearly don’t want to learn, so why keep them here and let them disrupt everyone else’s learning?

It’s a frustrating situation for sure, but my friend, you have far more power and influence than you may think. And I don’t mean in the “savior” sense. You’re not Michelle Pfeiffer, and this isn’t Dangerous Minds. We’re not talking about saving students, nor is it your responsibility to do so.

This is about having a restorative mindset versus a punitive mindset, and about what happens when we choose as a school community to approach behavior problems through a lens that is focused on long-term solutions which restore a child to wholeness rather than punishing or criminalizing kids for their behavioral choices.

This episode will be formatted slightly differently than most of my episodes because I interviewed a lot of different people to put this episode together. You’re going to hear sound bytes from a teacher, an instructional coach, and two principals.

It might be a challenging episode for some, but it’s one of the most important episodes I’ve ever done. I urge you to listen to this episode all the way through, even if you have to pause and come back and finish later because it might shift your perspective in a way that literally changes the trajectory of a child’s life. I have no doubt that there will be educators who will hear this message and experience that lightbulb moment, where they realize their own power to disrupt a system that is often not designed to benefit all kids. This choice on the part of a single teacher has the power to completely transform that teacher’s relationship with students. We’re going to talk about some deep stuff here, and you are going to walk away feeling not only informed but also empowered to have a positive influence on the future of your students just through your regular daily interactions with them.

restorative justice in the classroom

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How do “zero tolerance” and mandated punishment policies affect kids?

Let’s start with the big picture perspective. In some schools, when students break the rules or fail to meet behavioral expectations, the policy is to respond with harsh punishments and sometimes even to get the police involved. The goal of these policies is to get these kids out of the school by arresting them for classroom offenses, and then handling the kids within the carceral system instead.

In other words, these policies criminalize student behavior and push troubled kids into juvenile detention facilities, rather than working to support students in being successful in our classrooms. This process of pushing kids out of school and into the juvenile justice system is often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

You might be thinking: Wait, this has nothing to do with me. Especially if you’re an elementary teacher, you’re probably thinking. My students don’t get arrested.

But the disciplinary policies in elementary school classrooms are where the school-to-prison pipeline begins. We’ve all heard stories of kindergarteners being taken away in handcuffs for pretending to shoot each other on the playground during recess. This kind of thing happens when there are “zero tolerance” policies in place. Students DO get arrested in schools, even elementary schools, every single day, so even if that’s not happening in your school, I want to take just a moment to paint that picture for you so you can see what’s happening elsewhere.

In South Florida where I taught for six years, we had resource officers assigned to almost every school, and they would intervene in student altercations in the cafeteria and so on, instead of having an administrator or school counselor step in to de-escalate the situation. I have a friend whose entire class watched as an armed school resource officer, or SRO, wrestled a student to the ground after the student rolled his eyes at the officer.

In other schools, the police routinely arrest students for disorderly conduct, profanity, and insubordination, and transport them to juvenile detention centers for minor classroom misbehaviors.

What’s happening in some cases is that schools are essentially outsourcing discipline to police officers and the juvenile justice system rather than providing support to kids through school leadership, counselors, and psychologists.

When a School Resource Officer (or SRO) is assigned to a school, students are five times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct than at a school where there is no SRO. After all, if a student is being disruptive, you might not ever dream of calling 911, but if there’s an officer right outside your door, and your school has provided you with no faculty members like a counselor who are there to help, it’s awfully easy to bring in the officer and have the kid removed from your class.

That is one example of how kids are pushed down the school-to-prison pipeline. That single decision on the part of the teacher — often given without thought, since the school disciplinary policy states that the teacher should utilize the SRO — can result in even harsher punishments in the future since the child now may be seen as a “repeat offender.” This could result in the child having a juvenile criminal record which can lead to an impact on his/her ability to find employment, and the list of potential consequences just goes on from there.

Which kids are most likely to be pushed down the school-to-prison pipeline?

All kids are not equally affected by these policies. There are two groups of students who are disproportionately represented in the school-to-prison pipeline: students of color, and kids with disabilities.

For example, the US Dept of Ed Office for Civil rights found that black students are 3.5 times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled. To put it another way: Black children constitute 18 percent of students, but they account for 31% of arrests and 46% of those suspended more than once.

And, though only 8% of school children have been identified as having learning disabilities, 32% of youth incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities have learning disabilities.

Think about that for a moment. A third of children who are incarcerated right now have special needs which are unlikely to be met in the carceral system, pushing them further down the pipeline toward imprisonment. And race plays a role there, too: 1 in 4 black children with special needs were suspended at least once, versus 1 in 11 white students with special needs.

This outsourcing of student discipline to the juvenile justice system is perhaps more important to understand now than ever because so many schools are moving to add SROs to protect kids and teachers from mass school shooters. I urge you to keep a watchful eye on what’s happening with that so you can speak up on behalf of our students who are likely to be at a disadvantage with more officers in schools.

Many people are advocating for arming school resource officers because they feel THEIR kids would be safer with armed officers or even teachers in schools, but it’s ahistorical to believe that ALL kids will be safer. These guns won’t just be present in schools when, God forbid, there’s a mass shooting. Those guns will be there when kids are arguing with a teacher, fighting with each other in the hallway, and a whole host of other situations where the presence of a deadly weapon could (either intentionally or unintentionally) escalate a situation which would otherwise be de-escalated.

When you understand how the school-to-prison pipeline functions, you understand that the presence of SROs, particularly SROs with guns, are statistically likely to make certain segments of our students LESS likely to stay safe at school on a daily basis unless we change the way we discipline.

If there is an SRO on campus, his or her role should be to protect students from outside threats rather than intervene in minor classroom disruptions and students’ interpersonal conflicts. The SRO’s primary focus when there are problems with kids should be to de-escalate the situation.

I hope this background info is helpful as you think about how your school policies might be pushing kids down the school-to-prison pipeline. According to Tolerance Magazine, ANY school policies which encourage police presence at schools, any harsh tactics including physical restraint, and any automatic punishments that result in suspensions and out-of-class time are huge contributors to the pipeline, so we need to be very cautious of these things as educators.

How can the way we respond to kids’ behavioral choices prevent them from being pushed down the pipeline?

Fortunately, a growing number of schools and teachers are recognizing the dangers of overly harsh disciplinary policies, and they are leading the way in making these changes. Let’s move into some alternative ideas and tie that into what’s happening in individual classrooms. Because ultimately, you as the teacher have tremendous power to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, probably more power than anyone else, just through the way you interact with your students and respond to kids’ behavioral choices.

Here’s what Afrika Afeni Mills, a K-12 Instructional Coach with BetterLesson, said about this in our recent conversation:

Teachers, if we’re lucky, get in-school support regarding literacy and math, but not ongoing, embedded professional development regarding culturally responsive teaching and learning. I think part of the problem is we tend to parent the way we were parented. We tend to parent by default so unless we’re intentional about changing the way we think about parenting, we will just replicate patterns, hopefully positive, but sometimes negative. I think that same thing is true of teaching, that we tend to teach the way that we were taught unless we’re intentional about changing the way we think about teaching.

We’re also not taught about alternative approaches when it comes to students engaging in behavior that makes the learning space unsafe for themselves or others. So we don’t get taught a lot of times about restorative justice approaches and alternatives to detention and suspension. And I think that if we had been equipped with those things, and if it was required for us to as teachers to be knowledgeable about how to enact things like that, it could change things so much for students.

I think that when you’re punished for things like going to the bathroom without permission, eating in class, being late to school, or not being in uniform, and your school supports things like zero tolerance policies, then school becomes an unwelcome place where the focus is on controlling students instead of the students being seen as people who deserve a welcoming learning environment.

And if like it gets to the point where school feels so unwelcoming for you that you’re no longer wanting to be there, the likelihood of being arrested increases exponentially because it’s hard to access the resources you need to take care of yourself and those you love without finishing school.

So I feel like a lot of times–instead of being pro-active and putting pedagogical and instructional approaches into place to tells students that they matter, that what they think, feel, want, who they are, where they come from, that all of that has value, and that their representation in the curriculum matters–we’re often reactive to the behaviors we see instead, and we don’t take enough time to consider and address some of the causes of disruptive behavior.

Have you ever read the poem “Cause I Ain’t Got a Pencil”?  He got to school and he was not “prepared to be in the learning environment.” But he was just like, “I got up. I got myself ready. I found the uniform clothes. I got my siblings ready. The lights weren’t on, but I made sure to get us to school on time, to get breakfast, and then my teacher was coming down on me because I didn’t have a pencil.”

We need to start thinking differently instead of just reacting to the things that we find disruptive. We need to think about what might be contributing to the disruptions in the student’s life, and how we can change those things so that they can be okay.

Why don’t punitive measures work?

I think we’ve all had experiences like the one in that poem by Joshua T. Dickerson, where we punish or reprimand kids at times when a different response would be more constructive. And it’s often because we are responding out of frustration, and a lack of resources, or a lack of alternatives. It’s understandable — but it just doesn’t work. When disciplinary measures are punitive — in other words, intended only to punish students — we end up with kids who keep getting punished over and over again. They’re in the principal’s office by 9 am every day.

Punitive measures are short-sighted in most instances because they neglect to factor in that the student will eventually be returned to class. The relationship with the teacher and other kids in that classroom will eventually need to be restored.

So when we’re focused only on making kids “pay” for what they did wrong, when we’re ignoring their needs and simply trying to get them out of the classroom so the “good kids” can learn, we run into the very inconvenient issue of having the kids we punished be returned to the classroom. They come back to our rooms and we’re still angry or bitter about what happened, and even if we’re not it’s awkward and difficult to figure out how to re-integrate a child you just suspended.

For me, it always felt like the moment after having a shouting match with your partner or spouse: You have to figure out some way to get the relationship back on track because you’re stuck with each other, but you don’t really know what to do to fix things. Often the kids who return back to the classroom are resentful or embarrassed, and the underlying needs that caused them to act out in the first place weren’t ever addressed.

What’s the alternative to a punitive mindset or approach?

The question that many educators are asking right now is, what would it look like to change our focus from the punitive model and punishing students, and instead focus on restoring that student to the classroom, restoring the relationship, making restorations to the person who was harmed by the student’s choices, and addressing the underlying problems so that the situation doesn’t happen again?

That’s how restorative justice works, and it’s an extremely effective alternative to harsh discipline policies that push kids toward the school-to-prison pipeline. Here’s Victor Small, Jr., a middle school administrator in Oakland, California, who explained it recently in an interview over on Cult of Pedagogy:

What we’re essentially teaching students is your behavior has effects, your behavior affects people, and so in order to deal with the consequence of that, you’re going to have to figure out how to make things right. And so when we talk about restorative justice, we’re talking about that, the systematic idea.

We’re talking about the things you’re doing as adults on campus to ensure that students are recognizing that they’re doing something wrong and finding a way to make it right.

If a kid gets angry and says something to another kid, and that kid gets mad, do they need detention for that or do they need to just fix the problem and not be mad at each other? Probably just fix the problem and not be mad at each other, go on about their lives.

Maybe it’s better for the student to just say, “Sorry for this one, buddy.” Maybe their written apology’s a good idea. Maybe they should reflect on this. They can handle that between the two students. You could facilitate that. It teaches them, “Hey, you have to be accountable for your actions because your actions do have an impact on other students,” without having them sit in detention.

Restorative justice is not a cut-and-dried system or a prescribed formula you follow. Each school has its own approach. But having a “restorative mindset” is the foundational element. Begin thinking about your own biases and reflecting on how you respond to student behavior from a place of empathy and understanding of the root issue, rather than just reacting from a place of wanting to punish a student for what feels like a personal attack. Here’s Victor Small Jr on that:

It’s really easy for us to think that student behavior is about us, but we know it’s not. We know psychologically they’re not even thinking about us. They’re thinking about them. Their actions aren’t happening as an intentional thing to derail our lesson that we spent, that we worked on until about midnight, you know?

Students don’t have sick days. They don’t have bereavement leave. If someone dies that’s close to us, we can take some days off and we can deal with it. They don’t have that opportunity. You gotta figure in America, with all the different variables that are happening in different households, that one of your kids just had the worst night of their lives. And they come into school because they have to. And I’m going to guarantee that you reacting in the most negative way to them might be the last straw.

Head over to Cult of Pedagogy and get episode 89 of that podcast to hear Victor speak more on how RJ practices work in his school.

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Is there ever a scenario in which a student waives his or her right to be part of the classroom?

So you might be wondering at this point, okay, I see the benefits of restorative justice but does a student EVER waive his/her right to be part of the classroom? Is there ever a scenario in which a student needs to be removed? How do we keep teachers and kids safe at school without disregarding the rights of ALL students to be in class and get an education?

Here’s Afrika Afeni Mills again on that:

I think a student may show a need to be in a different learning setting because of, say, mental health challenges or because of behavioral challenges. When I was a teacher, I had a student in one of my classes who was terribly verbally and physically abusive to some of the other students in the class. And it really honestly broke my heart that he was going through that because I was trying to hold both things at the same time: I wanted him to be okay and be part of the learning environment, and I also wanted the rest of my students to be okay and safe from some of the things that he was doing.

Just using that as an example, I think that we should really be in a process of creating high-quality alternative schooling. And I need to say that part about quality, that’s really important to note, because there are some alternative schooling programs that are not high quality and that’s not effective either.

So if there are high-quality alternative schooling opportunities that the students could participate in instead of being suspended and expelled, where they’re not being isolated but really trying to be led back into a learning community, I think that that’s something that needs to be pursued.

It’s not an easy answer. So I’m just going to lead with that, because I feel like it’s a process that we go through, and any meaningful transformation is not going to be rapid, but I think that we could at least get on the road and start moving toward it.

I think a lot of it has to do with being less reactive and more proactive. If a student is disruptive and exhibiting challenging behaviors, if they’re doing things that make it difficult for everyone to be okay in the learning environment, then yes, there are reactions we need to have, like implementing restorative justice and creating high-quality alternative programming for students who are a lot of times maybe responding out of trauma. So that’s a whole other thing that we could have a conversation about.

But when we think about trying to be proactive, then we could say: “We’ll deal with what we’re facing right now. We have some systems in place and some programs in place to deal with what we’re seeing in a way that’s going to be safe for every child, even the child who is engaging in the disruptive behavior. But then what do we need to do moving forward, because we need to really investigate what is it that’s happening that’s contributing to why this student is feeling this way? And what is actually happening with them and what do we do to mitigate some of those things? What kind of programs can we put into place? What type of prevention programs can we put into place? What type of counseling services and ways to help students be okay can we put into place to make sure that they’re all set?”

Notice we are not saying the individual teacher is responsible for this entire process on his/her own. I think we as teachers fall back on punitive measures when we feel isolated and powerless. I have been there, and I touched on that a bit in EP 119 about how I let 2 students’ behavior ruin my entire school year. I had no support, no school counselor, no backing from my admin, no resources, and I was frustrated. My goal became to simply get the child out of my classroom as much as possible.

That was not the right thing to do, and I explain in that episode why I regret taking that approach, but I’m sharing that here because I want you to know, I get it. Restorative justice practices take a school community to implement well. Dealing with challenging student behaviors takes a school community.

How can I support a positive trajectory for my students, even if my school culture doesn’t support that?

If your school is not yet on board with restorative justice practices, go to restorativejustice.org to get some resources that can help. And, keep reflecting on the choices you make in your own classroom, because they have a HUGE impact, regardless of what is happening at a school-wide level.

For example, I always taught in schools that had punitive disciplinary policies. But I can count on one hand how many students I ever wrote an office referral for in those 11 years I was in the classroom. I had the right to document what was happening and begin the path to suspension for many students, but I generally waived that right because I wanted to keep the student in my classroom. I wanted him — and it was almost always a boy — I wanted him to stay with me because the suspension process simply didn’t work. It made MY life easier because I didn’t have to deal with the kid for a couple of days.

But the student came back, and then I had to deal with this child who was typically working below grade level and behind the rest of the class anyway, and now he’d missed three days of instruction and I had to either privately tutor him to catch up or move on without him, leaving him to fall even further behind and be confused about what we were doing in class, and guess what would happen — he’d act out again, and the process would repeat.

So my approach was to try to keep the student in my classroom rather than rely on office referrals and suspensions, and when the student was simply unable to meet expectations and I needed to get him or her out of my room for a while for his or her sake and mine, we did that. I partnered with another teacher and we were “buddies” in this way, we could send students to one another at any time so they could take a break from our classrooms.

Larry Huff is an elementary school principal in Indianapolis, Indiana, and when I interviewed him recently, I realized he advocates for his teachers to use this same practice. I’m going to let you listen in on a longer clip of our conversation, as I think Larry does an outstanding job of empowering teachers to make the difference for kids and this portion of the discussion is highly actionable:

We hear that relationships are vital to everything we do, but particularly with ending this school to prison pipeline, you must believe you’re that one who can change the trajectory of a student. And it starts with the language we use.

I’ve heard teachers call students offenders. “Well, he or she is a repeat offender.” Aren’t they a student? The language in which we use to describe behaviors are something that I find that really lets you know what’s happening in the mind of the teacher.

And so if you’re in that individual classroom where that teacher is doing a community circle and building relationships, you’ll find that the classroom is not only a well-managed classroom, but it’s most likely that that child will have a voice in the classroom and will feel safe. And we know from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that they must feel safe in the classroom, and a teacher must feel safe, too.

So I think that a teacher’s influence on how they deal with those challenging kiddos, to build them up, plays a vital role in where a child ultimately ends up. We utilize positive behavior and intervention supports in my school, and that’s really made a difference. Teachers also feel more confident when they are utilizing PBIS initiatives in the school to reach kids who they typically would find an opportunity for them to take a break in another classroom.

Taking a break, in my school, looks like a student going into another classroom, in that other learning environment where he or she is still getting access to the same curriculum, and is going to a classroom where that child may have a good relationship with another adult. It’s not necessarily taking a break in the office. It’s not necessarily always taking a break with a counselor.

It’s, “Hey, who is the best person at this time that can meet the needs of the child?” Sometimes the classroom teacher is not the best one in that moment, so he or she goes to what we call a buddy class. The goal is for the child to go to his other place, self-regulate and come back again to learning as quickly as possible.

Now I wish all my teachers followed that model, and it’s a process. Some are still under the impression that, “This kid did this. I need him to be out for this period of time.” But I try to tell them, “Remember, at the K-5 level we’re still a teaching institution, and our kids learn best from you and with you.” So whenever the kids feel like, “I’m ready to go back into my regular classroom environment to learn,” we try to get them back there as quickly as possible.

One of the best things that you can share with the student when they come back to your classroom is that, “Hey, our room is not the same when you’re not here.” I have a phenomenal second-grade teacher who always tells the student, “We missed you when you weren’t here. Our room is not the same. Will you come join us?”

What kid would not respond to that? It’s like a verbal hug. And the kid comes back in, and most likely I as the principal won’t see that student for the rest of the day. That restoring piece is critical. 

What are some practical steps I can take to start making a difference for my students right now?

I hope you can see how you have the power to influence the trajectory of a student’s life, be it for the better or for the worse. If you want to take action on what I’ve shared here, I’ll give you a couple of practical steps.

1) Root out your own internalized bias.

We know that boys, black students and other students of color, and kids with special needs are more likely to receive harsh discipline policies. Very rarely will a teacher be aware of this bias, because it’s not conscious — it’s implicit bias. You have to try to be conscious of it.

Think about how you would instinctively react if you saw a very small, petite, quiet white girl push someone in the hallway, versus how you would react if you saw a large, loud, black boy push someone. The way that most of us interpret that experience is colored by bias. We are more likely to see the large black boy as a threat and want to issue a harsh correction, whereas with the small white girl, we’re more likely to address her in a softer way, or perhaps assume she was the victim of bullying and trying to fight back and look for ways to protect herself.

If that’s your instinct, it doesn’t mean you’re racist. It means you’ve been socially conditioned to see black boys and white girls in very different ways. It’s important to be aware of that social conditioning, first and foremost, instead of believing that we see and treat everyone the exact same.

The next time you go to correct a student, simply be more aware of how you’re responding, and notice: Are you more sympathetic toward and gentle with white students, girls, kids in the gifted class than you are toward kids of color, boys, and kids with special needs? Notice that tendency, and work toward being more equitable.

Sometimes it’s easier to observe these biases by examining the language we use when speaking about students. When we call kids “repeat offenders,” we’re using the language of the criminal justice system and that’s a clue that we might have a punitive mindset rather than a restorative one. When we say, “These kids can’t handle that,” it’s indicative of limiting beliefs about what students are capable of.

The foundation of the school-to-prison pipeline is these sorts of assumptions, limiting beliefs, and biases — the actions which come later all stem out of that — so the first and most important thing you can do is that internal work.

2) Help your school leaders become more aware of the effects of criminalizing student behavior.

Share resources which explain the dangers of zero-tolerance policies which require mandated punishment rather than allowing school administrators to handle behavioral infractions on a case-by-case basis. (For example, these articles from NEA Today and Colorlines, or this research paper from the Forum on Public Policy.

3) Move toward restorative discipline practices versus punitive ones.

Buddy up with another teacher to have students take breaks from your rooms when needed instead of sending students to the office or suspending them. Make it your goal to keep students in classrooms where they can learn instead of pushing them out. Hold restorative circles in your class meetings and focus on restoration rather than punishment in your disciplinary practices. Cultivate a restorative mindset rather than a punitive mindset.

How can my everyday interactions with students have a positive effect?

I’m going to wrap up the show with a takeaway truth from Larry Huff. I asked him to tell me ONE thing he wishes every teacher knew about their power to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. Here’s what he told me:

We as teachers have an everyday platform, an everyday opportunity, an every second opportunity to help show a student that, “You know what? You are more than just a test score,” that “I am going to do everything possible to stop you from getting to this place.”

It’s important that you use affirming language, that you let them look for a hopeful future, and you stay away from those habits, of saying, “Hey. I know where he or she is going to be 10 years from now.”

There’s nothing more devastating than for someone to try to predict the future of a 7-year-old. If someone would have predicted my future at age seven, they would have never said that I would be an elementary school principal.

So I want us to stop trying to predict where he or she is going to be in the future, and instead say, “What can I do now to make sure that they are successful today, so they can have the future that they desire?”

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. Angela, You mentioned that you would have a list of more resources at the end of your blogpost. I don’t see those but would love to read more. Thanks for this post.

    1. Ah, thanks for mentioning the oversight! I’ve added them in. Also check out the articles linked to throughout the post–there are so really helpful resources out there!

  2. Thank you so much for doing this podcast! This is a subject that is near to my heart. I’ve seen so many kids pushed down this “pipeline”, but I’m blessed to work in a school now that uses restorative practices.

    1. Yes, thanks Angela for doing this podcast. I work with the Pre-K and it’s one of the main focuses for this age level to work on their behavior and give the young ones strategies to get out of poor behavior. It is at this young age where they can adapt their behavior more readily. If they are shown different and better ways to behave they can take on those behaviors and are not left only knowing to throw fits and strike out when they are 9 or 10 years old. At that age that type of behavior will have a double whammy for them, for their peers will be looking at them funny wondering “what’s with that kid.” The earlier you can work with kids on different behavior strategies the better.

  3. Wow! This is truly a pray answered, thanks! I’ve used some of these practices, but not to this extent! Thank you so much for this! I look forward to listening to more of these!

  4. Thank you for your suggestion and your support to deal with difficult students in our learning space. I do believe in restorative of justice, however, it takes efforts and patience. It’s very difficult with beginning teenagers as they are very self conscious and struggle with peer pressure.

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