David Douglas aims to build relationships on a foundation of quick connections
Doug Overton, a trainer from Texas with National Educators for Restorative Practices, enthused to David Douglas educators Friday about the power of restorative practices to build relationships with students. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Oregon educators have cried out for help with student behavioral health. David Douglas School District has responded with training in restorative practices, quick and simple relationship-building tools to head off student misbehavior.
The east Portland district was recently awarded a $2.5 million federal School Climate Transformation Grant to embrace restorative practices. David Douglas was the only Oregon school district to receive a grant this year from four new federal programs aimed at addressing school safety and student mental health.
The district will use the money to deepen training it has already started with restorative practices. The approach emphasizes relationships and is built on the philosophy that connections come before content. Once that connection is built, learning is more likely to stick. Discipline measures are less likely to be needed and will have more impact if used, according to training materials.
The Student Success Act, which will inject approximately $1 billion into preK-12 public education, will provide grants next year for schools to support their students’ mental and behavioral health. Restorative practices offer one way to address students’ daily needs.
On Friday, about 50 educators and staff gathered in a chilly gym on David Douglas’ Fir Ridge Campus. The all-day session included all the alternative school’s licensed and classified staff, as well as educators from the high school and three middle schools.
The session was equal parts learning and inspiration, with videos and activities. Teachers laughed, sometimes nervously, as they were introduced to often silly, occasionally deep daily tools to build and sustain relationships.
Teachers were encouraged to contact students at the door with fist bumps, high fives, hugs or smiles. Door greetings increased student engagement by 20 percentage points and decreased disruptions by 9 percentage points, according to a 2018 study. The training offered different methods for quick checks on students’ emotional settings for the day, such as hand signals or a chart of superhero moods.
Restorative practices techniques include 60-second “relate breaks” in which the whole class answers a simple but fun question, such as which song do you always sing along with or what Girl Scout cookie would you like to smell like. Teachers answer the questions too, so everyone in the classroom can learn about each other.
Staff also practiced “sparks” to increase positive classroom energy, such as an exercise where they had to find their “sole mate.” They looked for someone with a similar shoe style or color and greeted each other in an odd voice.
The restorative practices approach is loosely divided into proactive, which is mostly to help teachers create healthier classroom environments, and responsive, which is mostly for administrators to deal with problem behaviors.
Repeated undifferentiated disciplines, such as suspensions or being sent to the office, do not tend to change behavior, according to research. Education advocates say exclusionary disciplines are counterproductive, especially for students who have faced trauma and may have trouble forming relationships with teachers.
Restorative practices try to get to the root of the problems, instead, and influence behaviors. The practice teaches that educators who make personal connections have credibility with their students: “Connect before you correct.”
The practices grew out of the restorative justice movement. Restorative justice started in the prison system, bringing convicts and their victims together to repair harm. Restorative practices advocates believe you can’t repair a relationship, though, if there isn’t a relationship there to start with.
Restorative practices are meant to build and sustain relationships. Training materials say restorative practices are not just for “bad” kids, nor do they mean there are no consequences. Instead, consequences are differentiated for the needs of individuals. A student might have to write a letter to the class or learn about relationship practices during a detention.
Differentiated discipline takes more time, but districts that use restorative practices report significant reductions in referrals, according to Doug Overton, a trainer with National Educators for Restorative Practices. The organization offers training, resources and support for educators interested in restorative practices.
David Douglas leaders had already decided to implement restorative practices before they applied for the grant in July.
The grant, spread over five years, will allow the district to do more. David Douglas wants to certify teachers to set up model classrooms and be lead teachers in their schools. There will be half-day trainings specifically for bus drivers and cafeteria staff.
David Douglas leaders want the training to be ongoing, with coaching and feedback. The district plan includes sending staff to national conferences each of the five years.
The types of activities introduced Friday give teachers and students a license to have some fun and get to know each other as fellow humans. They promote student-to-teacher, teacher-to-student and student-to-student relationships.
Teachers and staff at the training said that building relationships was hardly a new concept but the training offered some helpful tips as well as encouragement, affirmation and a game plan.
“We do so much of this,” said Fir Ridge Principal Amy Straw. “It’s just not formalized.”
The training group was chosen as likely good early adopters. Straw said she looked forward to the skills spreading to educators who are not as engaged.
Even among engaged teachers there was some trepidation. Teachers worry about losing learning time or control of the classroom.
“If you don’t have a relationship, you’ve already lost control,” Overton said. He said that when teachers build strong relationships, they can get students to do things they wouldn’t have done in the past. He said power struggles are already a loss of control.
He said he absolutely doesn’t want teachers to lose already too-scarce content time. He encouraged teachers to find dead zones in their day, such as transition times at the beginning or end of a period, and use those for quick connection efforts.
Student services administrator Florence Protopapas, one of the grant’s co-writers, said the trainings demonstrate real administrative support for building relationships.
“This brings the permission to take the time to get to know the kids,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA