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Behavior Transformation with Restorative Circles

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

“Restorative circles” can make an amazing difference in classroom management, according to a success story recently published by a Wisconsin school district.

A veteran teacher at Madison East High School is profiled in the opening of the article, shared by the Madison district via its website and newsletter.

After 25 years of teaching, this teacher was having unprecedented challenges with behavior, and was amazed at the impact of restorative circles, an idea brought to his classroom by Rob Mueller-Owens, the school’s coach for Positive Behavior Support (PBS, also known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, PBIS).

Picture of Rob Mueller-Owens
In his coaching role, Mueller-Owens came to the classroom to lead the circle. Photo: Madison Metropolitan School District

The chairs were circled, and after some warm-up questions, he posed his two standard queries:

“One, what do you need for this classroom to be the kind of environment where you can be the most productive and effective learner possible?” ...

“Two, what are you willing to commit to doing to making those things happen?”

The word "Commitments" hand-written on a white board
Notes were taken on the whiteboard, a photo of which was emailed to the teacher. Photo: Madison Metropolitan School District

Toward the end of first semester, the district reports, the teacher told Mueller-Owens, “’I can’t believe it. It’s totally different. We haven’t had a single behavior issue since September.’”

Mueller-Owens finds that in problem-solving circles, students “usually own up” to behaviors like truancy or inattentiveness. And, once they are given power and “buy-in,” they tend to do better in following through on their part.

In another example, students refusing to suit up for gym class turned around after participating in a decision making process which ended up softening the school’s policy on this noncooperation in return for an authentic “unpacking” of their dissent through a restorative circle.

And sometimes, circles help teachers learn what’s going on with students. After Mueller-Owens heard the back story of a student whose behavior could present challenges, “Now,” the district’s article reports, “if an outburst occurs, his first instinct isn’t to remove her from class. ‘I just want to give her a hug.’”

More information on restorative practices in the Madison school district will be released as part of a group of success stories from the Safe and Successful Schools project run by the DPI. A future issue of DPI-ConnectEd will highlight that report.