Strong Relationships, High Expectations and Wrap-Around Support: Addressing Student Needs Through Restorative Practices

Submitted by Northwest Local School District  / 

The adverse experiences children have outside of school are not left behind when students arrive at the school door. Kids bring toxic life experiences with them into the classroom — where they may show up as disruptive behavior, depression, anger, aggression, fear and other obstacles to academic success.

Increasingly, educators are recognizing that to help their students succeed, they must first address the intensive emotional needs of children affected by poverty, abuse, neglect, neighborhood violence, drugs and other traumatic experiences.

Members of Joining Forces for Children are working individually and collectively to develop innovative methods for reducing the harmful effects of adverse childhood experiences.

Restorative Practices

The approach adopted by Northwest Local School District (NWLSD) focuses on building strong relationships, setting high expectations and providing wrap-around support.

“Our first step was recognizing that in order to help kids be ready for school and be more academically focused, we needed to develop the relationship with kids and families,” says Darrell Yater, Assistant Superintendent.

The district chose a framework known as “restorative practices,” which Mr. Yater explains is based on “the hypothesis that people are happier, more productive and more willing to make positive change when people in positions of authority do things with them, not to them or for them.”

To begin the process, NWLSD staff had training in the tenets of restorative practices, and they have had follow-up training every six months. Ongoing training gives staff across all disciplines a common language, as well as tools for building stronger relationships with students and their families. Each school has developed its own way of applying restorative practices within its building, but all have focused on strong, supportive relationships.

“We truly believe that whether it be an instructional issue, a behavioral issue, a social/emotional issue — none of these issues will ever be addressed unless there is a strong supportive relationship and a sense of community that people feel part of,” Mr. Yater says.

Several years after introducing restorative practices, the school district’s Culture and Climate Survey showed improved scores for people feeling listened to and welcomed. The district also is tracking discipline data, hoping to see improvements over time.

Building on a Strong Foundation

Implementing restorative practices was the beginning, not the end, of the school district’s efforts to build wrap-around services to support children and families. “Once you start developing the relationships,” Mr. Yater says, “you learn more about kids and families, and then you start to learn what gaps you have. . . . We keep building more and more supports.”

NWLSD has established partnerships to expand its ability to address children’s needs. For example, through a partnership with the Children’s Home, district schools now have access to professionals who provide individual therapy and case management services. Children’s Home also provides a doctor once a week, improving families’ access to medical care.

Participating in Joining Forces for Children has allowed the Northwest Local School District to learn from and collaborate with other organizations focused on strategies to ameliorate the impact of adverse childhood experiences. Mr. Yater now sees restorative practices as a foundation for other trauma informed work.

“Joining Forces for Children has allowed us to be part of the conversation,” Mr. Yater says, and has helped us “figure out which solution out there is best for us that may not be one we would have thought of on our own.”

By Bea Katz and Kaitlyn Gronauer