Have you ever felt judged? Have you ever felt physically threatened? Have you ever been teased? We don't want any of our children to experience these things ever, not at school, not anywhere. But we know they do sometimes and for the San Francisco Unified School District, we know it is our job to teach children how to get along and what to do when they feel mistreated.
How are we doing it? One thing we've done is shift how we approach discipline in general. We emphasize the importance of positive relationships in building school community, and work to strengthen individual and community relationships by repairing harm when conflict and misbehavior happens. It's called restorative practices.
What that means is, when a student does something in a way that harms someone else, we ask that student some very specific questions, starting with, “What happened, and what were you thinking at the time?” We also ask the student to talk about what has been hard for him or her in this situation, and require the student to come up with ways to make things right. It's not a simple process, but it teaches our young people to think about what's really going on inside them, describe their role in the problem and find ways to repair the relationship.
Learning to be a better neighbor
There's another way students are learning to get along and solve problems together. Through the program Second Step, we are teaching social emotional learning, which are skills that ensure students are good neighbors, citizens, employees or managers. In short, team players.
These really are teachable skills. We all can learn them. For children it's crucial to learn at home and at school. I spend a lot of time talking to San Francisco employers these days, and they tell me they of course need smart employees, but they're looking for team players.
To the BAT Team!
When students don't feel safe and cared for, they won't be able to learn in school. And disruptive behavior at school not only makes others feel unsafe, but as importantly, kids who get suspended for misbehavior miss valuable school time and don't usually change their behavior when they return to school.
So we organized our Student, Family and Community Support staff and created Behavioral Action Teams for all schools to help them as they began to use new, more effective ways of helping students who are struggling to get along with their peers and staff.
It's all under the umbrella of something important we call Behavioral Response to Intervention, which is an academic way of saying we will pay closer attention to problems students are having before they become big.
Is it working?
We're seeing results. In some of our student groups, suspensions dropped 50 percent last school year. All our students are gaining useful tools for getting along, using those tools, and making things better. As a result, more kids feel safe at school and get to stay in school.
Richard A. Carranza is the superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.