“Breathe in. Breathe out,” Damien says five times, exaggerating the inhale and exhale as three peers and two teachers follow his lead. They’re all sitting in a tight circle at the back of an eighth-grade special education classroom at Farnsworth Aerospace in St. Paul.
The only other person in the room is a petite boy with glasses. He’s opted out of the circle for today. Something’s got him upset — an unrequited love, his teacher suspects — and he’s all clammed up: head down, eyes watering. The others don’t let this distract them, though. They’ve got other things on their minds, other emotions to control and urges to suppress.
The calm inherent in the scene is striking. At the start of today’s class, Damien — a 14-year-old dressed in a black graphic T-shirt, khaki pants and worn Air Jordans — couldn’t stay seated at his table. He had energy to burn and, without a clearly defined task, was drawn to any number of distractions, including an open space in the middle of the classroom wide enough to practice a dance move. Now, thanks to the circle, he’s settled down to a simmer.
Following the breathing exercise, Damien asks the teacher for his preferred talking stick — the one he decorated with green and yellow yarn in tribute to his favorite football team — which will be passed around the circle to designate whose turn it is to speak as they share how they’re feeling, reflect on the past few days, and discuss their weekend plans. At the front of the classroom, a color-coded chart of emotional zones — happy, sad, tired, bored, etc. — is projected on a whiteboard to help guide the discussion.
“I’m green and blue because I’m happy today and I’m thinking about my grandpa,” says Damien, who is the eldest of three boys in a single-parent household.
Most students know the chart by heart, but it serves as a good reference for two girls who come late to the classroom and join the circle mid-way through. They bring a “yellow” (silly or goofy) energy to the group. One is crunching on a hard piece of candy and struggling to hold back a fit of laugher. When her even more assertive friend gets ahold of the talking stick, she declares with a mischievous smile, “I don’t like school.”
As they move on to discussing their weekend plans, which include events at the Cinco de Mayo celebration, the circle’s first principle — no interrupting, even if it’s out of sheer enthusiasm — begins to break down. That’s the teacher’s cue to wrap things up. (This pre-class circle exercise had already served its purpose, since everyone has had an opportunity to express themself.)
This proactive, relationship-building circle is part of a larger behavioral management model called restorative practices, which uses various circle conversations to help follow-up on disciplinary episodes, resolve conflicts and manage emotions. The overall goal is to help students and teachers participate in guided exercises to reach a place of common ground, anticipate future outbursts, and create strategies for altering a student’s emotional trajectory.
On May 16, St. Paul Public School officials awarded $150,000 in dedicated restorative practices funding to Farnsworth Aerospace’s middle school campus (grades 5-8), along with five other schools, for the 2016-17 school year. While the district will be pouring $4.4 million into this initiative over the course of the next three years, success largely depends on the willingness of teachers and students to step outside of their comfort zones and be real with each other. Damien’s transformation speaks to the growth that can take place when all of the right pieces are in place.
Upon entering middle school, Damien (not his real name) quickly developed a reputation as an explosive student. He didn’t have any close friends because his outbursts were so unpredictable, and he began racking up suspensions at an alarming rate.
Worried about her son’s behavior patterns, Damien’s mother approached his teachers early on, questioning whether Farnsworth was a good fit. They convinced her to stick it out and see if he might benefit from participating in restorative circles.
Over time, Damien — who has trouble processing information as quickly as his peers — has developed the ability to reflect on his own bad habits. In the past, when someone aggravated him, he says he’d “snap and cuss them out and maybe fight.”
Since he started participating in the circles, he’s developed the ability to exercise more self-restraint. He’ll be the first to admit he’s still not perfect; he still reaches a breaking point every now and again. But the mere fact that he’s able to recognize his limitations is a huge sign of growth.
A few months ago, for instance, he and another boy got into a physical altercation over some name-calling during gym class. The slurs weren’t directed at Damien, but he’s constantly grappling with the compulsion to gravitate toward conflict — an internal battle he doesn’t always win.
“I ended up getting into it with them,” Damien says, avoiding eye contact as he recounts the incident. “We ran up and punched them.”
For every difficult lesson learned, Dameon’s teachers can cite an increasingly lengthy list of incidents where he used his new coping skills to deescalate and leave a situation unscathed.
Susan Girouard, a special education teacher who’s worked with Damien since his sixth grade year, says he used to be “very explosive,” cussing her out, tipping over classroom furniture, slamming doors so hard the hinges would come loose, and wandering the hallways without permission.
“He still gets angry, but now he’ll say, ‘Don’t talk to me. You’re irritating me,’” she says. And then he’ll walk away from the situation and focus on breathing deeply three times to relax, just like he learned to do during the circle exercise.
Part of his growth may be attributed to maturation, Girouard says. Ultimately, though, Damien’s ability to understand how his words and actions impact other people took practice. It’s a learned skill he’s developed by participating in countless restorative circles — both those designed to help students get to know one another and those designed to facilitate peer mediation.
These two objectives — community building and conflict resolution — are at the heart of restorative circles. Face-to-face conversations may involve an entire classroom, or a select group of individuals when more sensitive information and emotional baggage needs to be hashed out.
To get a sense of how effective the circles can be, one need only spend a day with Damien.
During a third-period science lesson, for instance, Girouard asks students to pay close attention to a video on the thorny devil, an Australian lizard covered in spikes. They are encouraged to follow along in their reading packet, but Damien keeps switching seats.
Across the center aisle, a girl at the front starts snapping her gum.
Sitting nearby, another girl takes out her cell phone and plugs in her headphones, baiting her teacher into a battle of wills.
Damien’s already clued into the rising tension in the room. And as soon as the girl starts cussing out the teacher, he erupts as well. He stands up and starts yelling across the projector, matching the intensity of his classmate, who is laughing and singing lyrics out loud.
Thanks to the brief trust-building exercise they all participated in at the start of the day, however, Damien responds well to a cue from Girouard, asking him to go cool off.
Without hesitation, he peels out of the classroom, not bothering to slam the door on his way out. After a five-minute walk to the main office and back, he’s calmed down to the point where he’s ready to go back into class. He stops at his locker to grab a sweatshirt, pulls the hood over his head, and rejoins his peers.
Circle etiquette doesn’t always follow students into the hallway or the cafeteria or wherever else they’re left to mingle on their own. Fights are still bound to happen. And when they do, teachers can use another type of restorative circle to help facilitate sincere apologies and rebuild trust. Damien is no stranger to this process.
Earlier this school year, he and his brother physically assaulted two girls in the hallway. He had been doing his best to ignore all of the mean things they had been saying about him on Facebook. The harassment had reached a tipping point, however, and Damien just snapped.
He ended up getting suspended (notably, the only time he’s been suspended this school year, as opposed to numerous suspensions years prior) because his teachers felt that, in this instance, he needed some time to decompress off school grounds.
When he came back, he participated in a number of restorative circles with those impacted by the incident, including onlookers who were traumatized by the fight.
Revisiting the incident, Damien says he felt bad for what he had done.
“I learned not to take my anger out on girls,” he says with his head hanging low.
It’s not something he’s proud of, so he offers up little detail.
“It was a good life lesson for him because he didn’t realize the ripple effects of his actions,” says Sue Bofferding, the school’s special education lead. “We were able to make things better in our community through circles and Damien was able to stay with us and not leave [the school].”
‘Our X factor’
Damien may speak quietly and fixate on the floor while recounting past behavior incidents and lesson learned, but there’s one topic that’s bound to get him to sit up tall and put a smile on his face: basketball.
As a sixth-grader, he tried out for the team, but didn’t make the cut due to his lack of self-control. The following year, he made the B team, but was eventually kicked off for bad behavior. That didn’t dissuade Damien from pursuing a spot on the team again the following year, however.
This time around, he took it upon himself to repair relations with his coach. He knew he had to control his emotions if he wanted to be on the team. That meant staying composed even when things get intense on the court.
“If you get fouled, you’ve got to control stuff,” Damien says.
And to the surprise of many, including his coach, that’s exactly what he did: control himself.
Damien ended up playing the entire season this year, shutting down opponents on defense, and knocking down three pointers. He also made a best friend on the team — a first for the boy who formerly had unpredictable anger issues.
“Damien was a huge asset to the team,” head coach Devon Smith says. “He was our X factor. He was our energy. The whole game, he’s at the same intensity level.”
For Damien, it seems the intensity level was always there. It was just a matter of having the right tools in place to harness it for good.