There's one question that has consistently stumped me since I started into this RP thing. It's stumped me with with my residential childcare work, it's stumped me with rearing my own children and, recently, it's stumped me with my work with teachers in schools. It's been my Achilles heal to-date, my nemesis, the Joker to my Batman, the krypton to my Superman (ok I'll stop with the analogies now). It's been the one thing to make even me question the use of RP. It is also quite likely that you will have also come across this at some point or other? What is this question you ask? Well it comes in a couple of varieties or variations but the essence is always the same: what do you do with the repeat offender? What happens when it just doesn't work with some people? By offender here I don't necessarily mean at a criminal level, although the same question can and is asked here too. No, I'm talking here about the student who has been through a restorative intervention and does the same thing again, and again, or the child at home who you correct for something, but then does the same thing all over the next day, or whatever the situation may be. So, this week I said I'd do the only logical thing that someone can do. After eighteen months of hoping it would go away, I decided to face this head on. I mean either RP has a design flaw beneath the surface, or else there was an answer I was missing. Here's what I came up with (along with some help from a few friends in Waterford).
1. Frustration = Expectation - Reality
I love maths and I love this frustration equation, which puts it in a really simple fashion. Basically, if we expect RP to be a "magic wand" we are setting ourselves (and by extension the people around us up for failure and, as a result, frustration). If it was that easy to solve people's problems, someone would have done it by now. People are complex and change is hard. Try changing the habit of a lifetime, e.g. the hand you stir your tea with, or the radio station you listen to. Then imagine how much harder it is if you're 6, or have a lifetime of trauma, or a learning difficulty. Not easy. Remember, RP doesn't have to be perfect - it just needs to be better than the alternative. And it is. As a tip here, ask someone what they expect, or what they'd like to see happen. This can be a grounding experience in terms of getting to more realistic expectations.
2. How do you know it's not working?
It can be hard to see progress when you're in the middle of a difficult situation (wood, trees and all that). I remember working with one kid one time. He would literally throw himself down the stairs when faced with his homework. You might think I'm exaggerating here but I'm not. He would actually roll down the stairs, albeit pretty slowly, but that's what he'd do. We thought we were getting nowhere. This went on most of the year. Then one day, his social worker took him on a home visit and later reported she couldn't believe the progress he's made. We were amazed. The seeds we plant can take a looonnnngggg time to come to fruition. And we may not get a lot of feedback, or thanks, along the way. But, if we lose connection with the people we work with and become overly punitive in the meantime, those seeds can bear fruit surprisingly quickly - and in the wrong way.
3. Is what you are doing working?
This is not meant as a smart retort but it is worth looking at. Most likely it's not working (otherwise there wouldn't be a problem in the first place). At times like this you are probably dealing with staff who have been struggling for some time with a difficult situation, and all the emotions that that can arouse (frustration, pain, hurt). Oddly enough, it can be difficult to then imagine another approach bearing fruit where what you've been doing hasn't. Again this is not to dismiss anyone's efforts. We all do the best we can at the time with what resources we have. You definitely need to show a lot of patience and understanding here, as people won't like any (perceived) failures pointed out, especially when you're adding in the extra prospect of learning a new way of intervening.
4. See it as a test
Young people, or any people for that matter, have a whole life experience that they bring to their interaction with us, that we can never be fully aware of. They've been let down, neglected, disbelieved or worse, more than we can imagine. Add to that the fact that maybe, up until now, they've been seeing you in a particular light - hopefully a good person, but maybe someone who has been going with the prevailing punitive culture where you work. Now you've just done a day's training in RP and are coming to them with a whole new approach. And, what's worse, you're expecting them to change as a result of your change. Are you with me? We may have seen the light, but not everyone else has yet. Ever think that maybe the other person is testing you? Are you really different? Will you see this through, or will you go back to being the same Sheriff you were only last week?
5. Maybe the person is right - maybe it doesn't always work
It would be naive, and probably a little arrogant, to imagine RP always works and with everyone. Realistically nothing can do this. Some people, for whatever reason, will resist even the most restorative of approaches. Maybe they are just not used to it? Maybe they want/need actual punishment before they can forgive themselves (people can live by some peculiar scripts)? Maybe nothing will work (although I really don't like to consider this)? If this is so, is this enough of a reason to dismiss the rest of the work that RP successfully does with the other 95% of people? I suggest not. Final analogy of the day - don't throw the baby out with the bath water.
So that my defense of RP or as they say in Waterford, "das de why".
My name is Joe Power and I am the RP development officer for Limerick. I thought I would write about my experiences in developing my own understanding of RP, as well as in trying to spread it across Limerick. The reason for this is that I find that both my own and other people's experiences are remarkably similar and there could well be some opportunity for others to benefit from these thoughts (or ramblings!!). Anyway I hope you gain something from it.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.