Building a Trauma-Informed Restorative School author Joe Brummer provides advice and insight to educators on the path of restorative justice.

Can you briefly outline your background?

As a survivor of both childhood trauma and violent crime with some background in mental health, I have a strong interest in conflict resolution and violence prevention. In 2008, a local mediation center asked me to be a victim advocate for a juvenile restorative justice advisory committee. As part of the program, I trained with the Victim Offender Mediation Association in Restorative Justice.

Then, in 2010, I worked as the associate director of a community mediation center in Connecticut. I began working in schools to set up peer mediation initiatives, as well as running a criminal mediation program. While here, I became highly uncomfortable with how I witnessed some educators talking down to children in ways that escalated what were clearly dysregulated nervous systems. I then convinced the principal to allow me to do a few trainings in Nonviolent Communication with staff. She agreed and that began my path of working in schools.

With each training I did, more schools asked me to come and provide more training, consult in classrooms, and help set up restorative systems. Now, 10 years later, I have consulted with dozens of schools and districts around the US and spent hundreds of hours in classrooms. Then, in 2015, I began my full-time consulting practice. Through this, I introduce trauma-informed and integrated approaches to implementing restorative justice in schools including mindfulness, Collaborative and Proactive Solutions, Nonviolent Communication, and equity.

What was the initial inspiration behind Building a Trauma-Informed Restorative School?

This book started as a training manual for a Training of Trainers in Trauma-informed Restorative Practices for mediation centers in California back in 2015.  While that training never came to fruition, I kept working on the manual and used the draft of it when I did other intensive trainings.  I had met Marg Thorsborne at a conference through a mutual friend. She introduced me to Jessica Kingsley Publishers who invited me to submit the manuscript.  I spent the next year or more under Marg’s supportive eye, polishing up the work to what it is now.

With Covid-19 still causing a lot of uncertainty in schooling, how can parents and professionals use Building a Trauma-Informed Restorative School?

When we are stressed, including the stress of a pandemic, the nervous systems of those around us may also become stressed in response to us.  This is sometimes referred to as “flock” in the fight-flight stress responses. Our emotions are contagious (see page 56 of the book), and we therefore react to each other’s emotional states. Some children in particular are highly attuned to the feelings of those around them. This is why it is so important for adults to learn to share their calm in moments like this rather than sharing their stress.  That is a skill that takes practice.

This book challenges adults to change the lens with which they view children’s behavior, especially when that child is under stress.  When we begin to see a child’s behavior as a signal that human needs are unmet and that a child’s nervous system may be dysregulated, we also begin to see behavior as communication rather than defiance. It moves us from seeing them “in-trouble” to seeing them “in-struggle.”. This book offers five skills that are vital to responding rather than reacting to children’s behavior. Quarantines and lockdowns are pushing children’s nervous systems to the edge. Therefore, adults will need a new lens and a new set of skills to respond with supportive calm.  This book has both of those.

Restorative justice is gaining ground in US schools. In your opinion, why is restorative justice crucial to education?

Our current educational systems are built off out-dated ideas about what fosters discipline in developing minds. We have systems built on the idea that challenging behavior is due to a motivation problem. If little Billy isn’t behaving, for example, they simply are not trying hard enough and may require a reward or a threat of harm to motivate them. Current science is showing, however, that children’s behavior is more a matter of self-regulation and cognitive skill, not motivation. Punishments and rewards only motivate children to use skills they already have. They won’t teach new skills. 

Unfortunately, Restorative Justice, as the education world currently defines it, is simply not enough to create a school climate where students can learn, and adults want to work.  Instead, we need a complete paradigm shift that includes an understanding of how adverse childhood experiences, including the trauma from racism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression, can change the development of a growing brain.  Restorative Justice is not inherently trauma-informed.  On the other hand, trauma-informed is inherently restorative. How would we prevent re-traumatization of students or teachers in circle if we didn’t have this on the radar? How would we approach those harmed or those responsible for the harm without understanding how their past traumatic experiences might influence the current situation we were trying to resolve?

Beginning the journey of a more restorative-focused school can seem daunting. Do you have any advice for teachers, administrators, or parents who are just starting out?

A trauma-informed restorative school is also a relationship-based school. Therefore relationships are the secret to making this less daunting.  Don’t go it alone! For schools to truly make this paradigm shift, there needs to be an infrastructure to support and sustain the change.  For individuals wanting to bring this change to your school, find your allies and start a group, committee, even an informal gathering of interested minds and begin the journey of learning about trauma, restorative justice, and relational approaches to learning.  This work requires training and planning to be successful and that is where people need to start.  Book clubs are a great way to garner interest, for instance, or movie nights to show films like Circles or the movie Resilience.

Are there any additional resources you recommend for creating a more trauma-informed and restorative educational environment?

This book introduces readers to the ideas of trauma-informed principles and restorative justice.  It also introduces Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) and the work of Ross Greene.  The website offers many free resources on CPS.  Readers can also learn more about Nonviolent Communication by visiting the International Center for Nonviolent Communication at   Facebook has become an unlikely yet useful resource for educators on an international level.  There is a Restorative Justice in Education group and the Trauma-informed Educators Network group which are amazing resources for educators to not only find information.  There is also a full network of community wisdom willing to share the lived experiences of doing this work.

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