Classroom Management

Reintegrative Shame: The Dynamic of Harm and Repair

A critical piece of restorative justice, reintegrative shame looks at the behavioral issues of crime and punishment through a lens of harm and repair.
October 14, 2015
A lot of young students are sitting outside on a blacktop, with teachers standing behind them, all facing the same direction.
Photo credit: USAG- Humphreys via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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.