RESTORE – a lens through which to look at what children in care, and those supporting them, may need in this time of crisis
How has the experience of lockdown affected children and young people in care, unable to make or receive visits from family or friends? How have those adults who support them been? Have some people had to choose between staying with the children they care for or staying at home with their own families? Have others had to keep working come what may – trying hard to keep themselves, their charges and their families safe? There is no doubt that lockdown and indeed since has been, and remains, a stressful time for many.
Several months ago a group of people in the field of Restorative Practice came together online to think about what schools would need as they re-opened after lockdown. We reflected on the challenges that children and young people had been through being confined to their homes with only their family or their carers for company – and how that option would be different for every child. We considered the different experiences each member of staff had had. We considered how many people, of all ages, had experienced a range of emotions and that coming back to school would be a very strange and possibly frightening experience for many.
The outcome of all these reflections and questions was a package of resources which we now believe might be of use not just in schools but in other settings as well, such as residential care and foster care. The package is called RESTORE and can be found on the website www.restoreourschools.com. Everything there can be downloaded at no cost and adapted to suit any setting. Each letter in the word RESTORE stands for an issue we believe is especially important to consider at this time and the word itself was also inspired by the philosophy that our group is all very passionate about – that of Restorative Practice (which has developed from Restorative Justice).
On behalf of our group I offer this resource to those of you working in care settings and hope you find it useful. Our website might appear only directed at schools as it is called www.restoreourschools.com but we invite you to visit it with an open mind and willing to think laterally. But before I explain a bit more about RESTORE I would like to explain why I am hopeful that this resource, initially developed for schools, may nevertheless be of value in care settings.
Years ago I wrote a book about restorative approaches in schools called Just Schools (JKP 2004). Some years later I was talking about this approach at a conference and the manager of a care home who was also speaking at the conference said to me, just after my talk, ‘If you take out the word ‘school’ and add the word ‘care setting’ in every one of your sentences then all you say would directly apply to those settings’. Inspired by her conviction that I may have something worth saying to residential care workers I did some research, visiting many care homes that were already working restoratively. The result was a book called ‘Just Care’ (JKP 2009). It remains the only practical book about how to implement a restorative approach in a care home and in foster care settings and has been well received in the UK and around the world. If you like what you read about RESTORE you may well want to check the book out as it goes into much more depth about restorative practice in residential settings.
So – back to RESTORE. Why might this new resource be useful to those of you who support young people in care? RESTORE is an acronym – each letter stands for an issue which we believe is important at this time of crisis. On our website we have written a longer piece about each issue and asked questions to school leaders, staff and young people to help them think more about the issue and offered some methodologies for actually putting into practice what they choose to do. In this article I will explain the key ideas and attempt to make links between the issues and life in a care home.
R is for recognition – recognising that everyone in your care setting will have had a different experience of the lockdown even though they may have shared the same space over this time – and are experiencing the gradual loosening of the ‘rules’ in very different ways. It is not that some people are right and others wrong in their responses or interpretations – it is simply that we all bring our own uniqueness to any given situation. Our life’s journey has made us more or less resilient, more or less optimistic, more or less able to cope with uncertainty, change, external authority and so on. Even though people may be in the same space their own network of connections outside of the space will also impact on how well people can cope with the volatile situation we all find ourselves in.
And so what may well be needed is recognising that people need an opportunity to share their experiences, either as a group or one-to-one with someone who will listen without judgement, without giving unasked-for advice but with empathy, patience and compassion.
The other aspect of recognition, and something that restorative practice is perhaps better known for, is the insight that all behaviour is motivated by unmet needs. (Those of you familiar with the work of Marshall Rosenberg, who developed Nonviolent Communication, will be familiar with this idea.) In these worrying times people may well behave in very distressed ways – more so than usual. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, and a Holocaust survivor, reminds us that in abnormal situations people behave in abnormal ways – and that this is in fact completely normal. This insight enables those of us caring for children and young people to become more tolerant, and less judgmental. It encourages us to take time to listen and understand, to seek for the underlying reasons that led a person to behave in certain ways or say certain things. Restorative practice involves listening with empathy and patience, giving a person time to share what was happening, and what their underlying thoughts and feelings had been in that moment. It can be extraordinary how, when someone is listened to in this way, rather than being reprimanded or punished, they get to the point of being able to think about more than just themselves, and identify what needs to happen to put things right.
E is for empathy – already mentioned above. Listening without judgement, but with genuine curiosity, is so much needed at this present time. Children and young people often say that no-one really listens to them and I imagine that in a care home staff often feel the same about their own needs for a listening ear. The worry of infection, the anxiety about loved ones not seen recently, the fear from reading or watching daily reports in the media about the situation – all of these need to be given a chance to be aired and accepted. Bottling them up is likely to lead to more of those abnormally distressed behaviours referred to above – patience becomes in shorter supply, tempers will fray more easily, anger can flare up seemingly out of nowhere. As we know anger is often the expression of unmet need and especially fear.
S is for safety. This is a constant concern in settings like a care home, and in families too, where many people may be living together, but where also there are comings and goings to the outside world, where the threat of infection comes from. People vary in the degree to which they take the guidelines seriously. There are even people who still believe the whole thing is either a hoax or being blown out of proportion. These people will inevitably pose a greater risk to everyone else with whom they come into contact.
Restorative practice offers ways to communicate about the feelings of safety in ways that avoid disagreements about what is the right or wrong way to behave. People are invited to express how they feel, and within a community if some people feel unsafe then, whether there is an accepted basis for this feeling or not, discussions can still be held about how to help everyone feel safer. It is a mark of respect to decide that as a community everyone will do their best to increase the sense of safety by agreeing to some shared norms. On our methodology page we share ideas on how to run circle meetings that give everyone a voice – a space to share experiences, thoughts, feelings and needs in a group. This practice can be of immense value in coming to a shared agreement about how to keep everyone safe – and to re-visit this often as the situation changes or if someone is worried about others’ disregard for the agreements.
T stands for trauma. However well people in a care setting protect those who live in it there is still the outside world – and the families of everyone in the care community may be affected by trauma. This could be due to the sickness or even the death of loved ones, the shock of job loss, the fear of food shortages, the news of family breakup due to heightened violence. Lockdown itself is being experienced as traumatic by many – and mental health problems have risen hugely, especially amongst young people. Care staff may well have had training in trauma-informed practice and restorative skills will simply add to their repertoire of approaches.
One thing that is perhaps new is the concept of collective trauma. In some ways every single member of any given care community will be experiencing trauma. The world has changed dramatically. No-one knows when things will improve. There is probably no ‘normal’ to go back to as it is likely that even after the worst is over (and how many more deaths will there be before that happens?) the virus will always be with us in some form. So everyone is feeling not just shock but also grief. We long for what things were like, knowing that they may never be like that again. This is very hard for many of us to even bear to think about – and the deep pain inside can traumatize us. So again I return to the restorative practice of the circle – sharing these thoughts and feelings as a group, in an atmosphere of trust – can help to reduce the impact of the feelings that threaten to overwhelm us.
O stands for opportunity. Many care staff already have some excellent skills for handling unexpected situations and the ripple effects these have cross the whole of the residential community or the foster family. However this crisis has also presented some unexpected opportunities for people to do things differently. Online meetings, events, courses and so on have enriched the lives of those people lucky enough to have access to wi-fi and a computer for example. Life in care may have changed in positive ways as people learn new ways to do things.
Restorative practice offers ways to think differently about other people’s behaviour, about our own responses to this behaviour, about how to listen to people in more effective ways, about how to respond when things go wrong, or if there is something that needs addressing collectively. Indeed restorative practice encourages greater cooperation and involvement in decision-making and problem-solving. A core belief is that people with a problem are those best placed to find a way forward for themselves. This applies to the staff team but even more so to the young residents. After all the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 12 states:
‘Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.’
The second R stands for relationships. Of course healthy relationships are the key to a happy safe harmonious care community or foster family , between management and staff, between the staff, between the young residents and between staff and young people (and between foster parents and their charges) . However in these troubled times relationships can become strained for all the reasons already mentioned above. The stress of the worry can creep up on all of us, even when we think we are doing OK. It is not for nothing that we hear about the increase in domestic violence all around the world during lockdown. It would almost be surprising if there were NOT more arguments, conflicts and maybe even violent encounters in care settings at this time.
The restorative practices we offer on the website give a taste of different ways in which relationships can be nurtured and, when strained, repaired. There is far more on this on our various websites (links can be found on the main www.restoreourschools.comwebsite) and in my book Just Care.
E stands for engagement. This article is part of our group’s wish to engage with people who may not otherwise have come across restorative practice. Many years ago there was a big surge of interest in the care sector for restorative practice. It was shown to be extremely helpful in giving staff tools to address behaviours that might otherwise have involved police intervention. No-one wanted to criminalise young people in care, reducing their life chances even more than they had already been reduced by their circumstance. I can remember writing a piece for the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) about it all, even before my book was published, and there were many conferences promoting both restorative practice and social pedagogy. These two approaches are very closely linked – restorative practice operationalising many of the ideas of social pedagogy.
However in recent years I believe the interest in, and enthusiasm for, restorative practice has waned a little – even though the challenges facing young people in care have not gone way. Perhaps this article will inspire you to find out more – certainly to embrace some of the practices right now, when they are most needed. Restorative practice can help transform the culture of a care home for the long term as well – especially if it is a place where there are conflicts and rifts between the staff team, or the young residents or if relationships between staff and young people get strained at times.
Visit our website www.restoreourschools.com and see if the longer pieces give you some further food for thought. Visit the methodology section and see whether some of the suggestions may be of use. And do look out for Just Care – I believe it may offer you lots to think about and try out.
I want to finish by offering gratitude to all staff working in the care sector during this difficult time. You are having to work in an already challenging situation, with young people for whom life has already been extremely difficult. This new situation must have made the daily challenges you face even more acute and yet you carry on, doing the best you can. The phrase ‘unsung heroes’ comes to mind. Thank you – and well done.
July 21st 2020
Dr Belinda Hopkins