Restorative Justice is a form of reconciliation that relies on restoration rather than punishment. It has been practiced in many forms throughout history all around the world. At its core, it involves a facilitator to help both parties to present their experience and arrive at an acceptable solution. The person who has committed the harm, is held accountable and the person who has been harmed is given a voice about how the event affected them as well, influencing possible restitution or future actions. Restorative Justice not only helps the person who has been harmed feel heard and valued, but helps the person who committed the harm to see the full impact of their actions. This in turn, often helps motivate them to change their behavior because people who are simply punished for their actions often feel like they are the victims of a punitive system.
Montessori schools follow a system of conflict resolution that is very similar to Restorative Justice. We regularly teach skills to help children deal with conflict. For example, we teach children how to give an “I-message”, where the child who has been bothered or hurt in some way by another, communicates their feelings following the template of “I feel ____ when you do ____” All parties are expected to treat the other person with respect and value their feelings. The response to the “I-message” can include an apology but usually focuses on what will set the situation right. For example, if one child tells another that he is bothered by another child bumping into his table every time he walks by, the other child can respond “I hear you and will make sure to walk carefully around your table next time.” Facilitators will often ask both parties if they are satisfied by this outcome and if they are, then the discussion is complete. If an issue becomes repeated, then a longer conference may involve exploring why the child continues to do the behavior and what can be done to help prevent it or any alternatives that can be found.
Most Montessori classrooms also have a Peace area where children can have a space to begin the process themselves. The Peace area is usually a table or tray where there are a few objects to help facilitate the process. It usually contains a “talking stick” or a fabric rose, and a small book that has been read in class about restoring peace. This area might also contain items to help children calm down such as a gel timer with colorful drops slowly falling down, or a finger labyrinth that a child can slowly trace a path with the finger. The child who feels wronged in some way can invite the other child to talk with them in the Peace area. They use the talking stick/rose to take turns telling their side of the event and what they can do to restore peace between them. If they are not able to find an acceptable solution, then they can invite the teacher or even another child to help facilitate.
This kind of conflict resolution cannot be simply a “band-aid” but must be a part of the fabric of everyday activities. Children must first learn how to identify their feelings and develop a language to express that. Everyone must be held accountable to listen to others. It’s not OK to dismiss someone’s concern and walk away without making some kind of amends or future action plan. The goal is to give children the tools to begin to resolve their own disputes, but it requires a facilitator for quite a while in order to become a developed skill. The teacher or adult must facilitate this process until it becomes natural for the children to do on their own.
Maria Montessori viewed education as a means for creating future generations. Her vision was that when Montessori children become adults, they will carry this model of interaction with them into the world, changing the societies they live in, making our future a better place!
Marla Nargundkar, AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta, Georgia USA