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Talking in circles can help students in conflict restore relationships

In the conference center at the LSSND building in Fargo, around 25 people sat in a comfortable circle. One woman held a stone in her hand. While she spoke, the others listened carefully. When she finished what she had to say, she passed the stone—deemed “the talking piece”—on to the person sitting beside her. This was circle practice at work.

            LSSND hosted a two-part series of Restorative Practices Trainings June 5-7. Led by LSSND Restorative Justice Program teammembers Joel Friesz of Fargo and Kelli Adams of Grand Forks, the trainings consisted of “Establishing a Circle Practice in the Classroom” on June 5 and “Restorative Conferencing Facilitator Training” from June 6-7. Restorative Practices, used to “build healthy communities, improve school climate, repair harm and restore relationships,” advocate for addressing issues while building relationships rather than only punishing people. These sessions sought to teach some of these practices to those interested in learning about and using them. The circle is one of the most widely used and effective of those.

            The first session focused on familiarizing participants with the circle practice, a communication process aimed to foster authentic discussion and relationships. When using this method in the classroom, students sit in a circle and the facilitator—often a teacher—guides discussion, making sure to ask guiding questions that everyone in the circle can answer. Other important aspects of the circle include the talking piece, which may be any object that students pass around, and whoever holds the talking piece is able to speak without being interrupted. Friesz noted during the training that students will have more respect for a talking piece if it has a symbolic meaning to them, or a story behind it. Examples of talking pieces include stones, feathers and shells. Adams brought in a few of her favorite talking pieces, sea hearts—a type of bean—collected from trips to the beach. The facilitator can also set the talking piece down at any point and have open discussion.

            Many of the participants in the session were teachers or educators, and during the training, these teachers became the students. Adams and Friesz had them sit in a circle and experience for themselves how conversing in such a space felt. Attendees also participated in activities they might have their students do and discussed it afterward.

            The circle practice can be used in a variety of situations. While it can help to resolve conflict, it is also often used for class purposes such as welcoming new and returning students, regrouping after a weekend or a school break or just structuring a classroom conversation. The circle is not just restricted to classroom use; a Restorative Practices Trainings participant who often visits jails and teaches there told the group that she was looking forward to using the circle during those visits. Other places to use the circle can be anywhere from workplaces to sports teams, group therapy sessions to a college dorm floor.

            Above all, the circle practice is, as Friesz put it, “a tool to build relationships.” He explained that the circle allows participants to gain a better understanding of others and how they feel about a situation, or why someone acted in a particular way. It builds a more open, honest and empathetic environment. The Restorative Justice Program at LSSND has existed since 1999, and the program has been developing restorative practices programming with schools since 2009. More and more schools are adopting restorative practices, Friesz said, and what they have found is that it improves school culture and facilitates a positive relationship with students.

•According to the National Education Association, restorative practices such as the circle are also effective in keeping kids in school and resolving conflicts rather than suspending kids before they have the chance to make amends for any hurtful behavior.

•In states that restrict use of suspensions and expulsions and promote restorative practices, school attendance and punctuality has improved.

•In Colorado, one of those states, attendance has improved by 30 percent.

•At Ypsilanti High School in Michigan, restorative practices prevented 98 days of suspension in 2013, and 87 percent of students there said they had learned how to better resolve conflicts.

            By the time the circle training drew to a close, participants had created a collaborative atmosphere that encouraged listening, empathy and effective communication. Before departing, they went around the circle and shared anecdotes of youth who inspired them, keeping in mind how great the circle practice could be for these youth. Some participants admitted they weren’t entirely confident about understanding circles, but with the training under their belts, they now can offer another option for their classrooms. The remaining two days of the training focused more on a restorative practice known as "conferencing," which is a structured process used to repair harm and relationships in schools.

            For more information regarding LSSND’s Restorative Justice Program visit http://www.lssnd.org/what-we-do/children-families/justice/restorative-justice.html

– Compiled by Michelle Foster, LSSND Communications.

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