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Reintegrative Shame: The Dynamic of Harm and Repair

David Bulley

History teacher, high school administrator Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School
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Mary, a senior, sits across from me in the Justice Center, our school's version of an in-school suspension room. Other schools call them "care rooms," but the idea is the same: a quiet place to talk deeply and meaningfully to students about behavior, and to listen. Mary describes her conflict with a freshman girl, which started over a jealous love interest and then opened up deeper resentments. Mary talks and I listen. Frustrated and angry, she believes the other girl is spreading rumors and making faces behind her back. I listen until she's done, until it's all out. Then it's my turn to talk.

A Profound and Cathartic Outcome

I start slowly by finding everything I can to support her feelings and honor the things she said. I build as much trust as possible before I slowly and quite deliberately describe to Mary in calm, non-judgmental, but unflinching terms how she has been targeting, humiliating, and bullying a student much younger than herself. Mary has done simply awful things, including taking, altering, and posting humiliating pictures of the freshman; threats of physical violence; demeaning insults in front of groups; and vicious slut-shaming in person and through social media. As I talk, Mary begins crying. She was once the victim of similar behavior. She even chose our district to escape a bully from her hometown. As she realizes what she's really been doing, she breaks down and sobs. I let her.

Another teacher and a counselor come into the room, see Mary crying, and step over to comfort her. I wave them away. The guilt, shame, and remorse that Mary is feeling in the moment are entirely appropriate for her actions. She should feel this way. What she did was awful. When Mary finally cries herself out, we begin prepping for the restorative conference that she'll have with the other girl, with parents, and with a few friends.

I helped Mary feel reintegrative shame -- shame that's appropriate to the circumstances and serves to help the person find a way back into positive social relationships. Schools have long understood the power of shame as a tool for managing student behavior, but have misused it profoundly. Think dunce caps and other forms of public humiliation. They used stigmatizing shame. But somewhere along the line, we managed to throw the baby out with the bathwater, protecting our children from all shame and, in the process, denying them the very tools that they need for healthy, productive relationships.

It's like cholesterol. For a while, we didn't know about it at all, and then as we became aware, we tried to get rid of it entirely. But new research and evolving thought have now determined that there is good and bad cholesterol. Some kinds are healthy -- just as some kinds of shame are healthy and appropriate.

Mary's restorative circle was profound and cathartic. She went a long way toward repairing the harm she had caused. She apologized profusely, took down all social media, and even posted apologies online. Because she worked so hard, the other girl offered her forgiveness and eventually her friendship. After working to repair the harm, Mary felt good about her actions and was able to reestablish friendships with people who had begun moving away from her while she was engaged in such negative behaviors.

Classroom Adaptations

As the restorative justice coordinator in a school committed to these ideas, I've found that it's often easy to use reintegrative shame in one-on-one talks and circles, but these ideas translate well to the classroom. Below are a few ideas for implementing and using reintegrative shame as part of a classroom with restorative values.

Avoid the "talk in the hall."

We do this to avoid shaming students, but if we need to talk to them in the hall, it's a good bet that shame is an appropriate emotion. Instead, use the language of restorative justice to talk about what's happening in terms of who is harmed instead of who "broke the rules," who is lazy or disrespectful, or other judgmental language. Instead of saying, "You were disrespectful," say, "When you said _______, it hurt my feelings." In reality, talks in the hall represent secrets, and secrets are shaming in and of themselves. Say things like, "Joe, your talking has gotten to the point where it's really distracting. Can you please help us stay on task and limit your off-task remarks?" Make Joe agree to do it, out loud and in front of people.

Check in frequently with your classroom about behavior.

Ask students how they think it's going. Ask if they're learning enough. If there is a problem, ask each student if they're part of the problem and how they can help fix it. Teachers are often shocked at the results when I hold a circle in their classrooms and use a talking piece to ensure that every student gets his or her say, that the very students who seem to be causing a problem are the ones to express dissatisfaction with how the class is going. And when those students feel like they're part of a team working toward a solution, they work hard at it.

Ask for help instead of assigning blame.

When harm has been caused, ask the student to repair the harm in a way that's actually helpful and imparts dignity. For example, if talking has taken too much time away from a lesson, ask that student to help give that time back by taking over a few menial tasks that you would otherwise have to do, such as passing out papers. Just make sure to frame your requests in terms of harm and repair instead of crime and punishment.

Welcome students back.

The welcome back is the final, critical piece -- it's not reintegrative if there's no reintegration. After an incident and a repair, there must be a warm, meaningful welcome back to the classroom community. Positive behavior must be taught, just like math must be taught, before we can expect students to act in a certain way. And after it's taught, it must be positively reinforced. A warm welcome back into the community will result in that pang of guilt and shame the next time the student feels compelled to act out. That pang will control more behavior issues than all the detentions in the world.

Have you used restorative justice and reintegrative shame in your classroom management toolkit? Please share your experiences below.

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I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

What I love about what you've shared here is the logic. I am often sent 'bad" boys and girls. Afterwards, I'm asked, "What in the world did you SAY? They actually listen to you!" Well, I kind of said what you say :-)
I too have discovered that, when kids can connect the dots, they learn to shine and not sulk. This is wonderful. Thank you for your wisdom.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I'd never really thought about the conversation in the hall as being a shameful thing. As you said, I was attempting to protect the kid from embarrassment (and avoid a power struggle). How do you keep from escalating the behavior or pushing students towards status-protecting behaviors? (I taught high school, so maybe it's different at that level?)

David Bulley's picture
David Bulley
History teacher, high school administrator Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School

This is a great question. I think the "trick" to avoiding escalation is as you said, avoiding the power struggle. we do this by re-framing the expectation. Instead of demanding compliance, its often useful to request assistance. "Tommy, i really need this room a few decibels quieter. can you help me with that please? "Susan, when i start the lesson, and then you start talking it distracts me and throws me off my game. can you please help me get through this material?"

Mark Bracey's picture
Mark Bracey
Teacher of new entrants (5-6 year olds) at a public school in Auckland, New Zealand.

I love this. It has validated my experience. I have dabbled with what you describe as a 'restorative approach' and felt that it was powerful and effective. But it contradicted the 'do not shame' approach.
This approach is transparent and is based on a systemic change in the way I now 'manage' the classroom. I am not looking for 'compliance' anymore. I am looking to create a learning environment that is...what we want it to be...calm, caring, responsive. It's brilliant. I have started documenting my experiences here... Please check it out.

RJFacilitator's picture

"reintegrative shame" is from old research and papers about RJ. I suggest everyone read Brene Brown's work on shame and empathy and how it supports isolation or connection respectively.
Read this written by me a long time ago

Shame disconnects kids from school. RJ is a way to engage in healthy conflict and create the space for understanding and amends. The more youth feel shame the more likely they will leave school.

Subash's picture

I liked your article as it is more about correcting an incorrect student but through empathy and care rather than shaming. I would love to hear more cases about various instances like this and the measures taken by teachers to ensure the student is not embarrassed at all.

jkhbeattie's picture
Arts Educator and some-times-guidance-counsellor for K-8 students in Canada

I love the collaborative language in your suggestion! Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Ross Greene?

Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman's picture
Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman
Adjunct Professor of Education

Wow! You taught me a new concept: re integrative shame! You gave also made me think about "talks in the hall" differently. I often ask students on campus to stay after class to discuss things and I'm thinking this may make them feel shamed/embarrassed. Now the hard part is using the concept appropriately...

Thank you for your post!

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