Restorative justice and other restorative processes are increasingly being offered to children and young people across the world (see, for example, Chapman and Welzenis, 2020; Terre des Hommes, 2020). They can offer children a justice process that meets their needs and prevents the retraumatisation that existing legal systems often inflict (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2020).
While restorative justice can be beneficial for children, children who come into contact with the legal system (either as victims or perpetrators) can also benefit from other restorative processes. These include restorative circles for children in custodial homes or in protective shelter as well as restorative dialogues or circles with their adult carers (see, for example, Hopkins, 2009; Wachtel, 2016).
Working with children involves adapting restorative skills to work with children (Terre des Hommes, 2020, recommendation 5b) and remembering that children, whether victims or perpetrators, are first and foremost, children (International Juvenile Justice Observatory, 2018; Terre des Hommes, 2020). While offering restorative processes to children, we must remember that children are unique in terms of their levels of physical, cognitive and emotional development, and, as a result, their needs. Garbett (2016, citing Shapland (2006)) speaks about how restorative processes’ ability to respond to individual needs is what renders them unique. Apart from honouring and fulfilling children’s rights, restorative work has the potential to cater to the distinct needs of children, including recognising and catering to their evolving stages of physical, cognitive and emotional development.
This piece discusses tools that can be used with children to cater to children’s evolving needs, based on learning from designing and holding restorative circles for children in conflict with the law or children who’ve experienced harm and their families, while working towards holding restorative justice processes.
To cater to children’s differing and evolving needs, the processes must be tailor-made, creative and flexible (Terre des Hommes, 2020). This means that instead of creating specific models, practitioners offer restorative interventions based on the needs of the child they’re working with. We’ve offered a range of restorative interventions to the children we work with while recognising that not every child may need a restorative justice process but may benefit from another restorative intervention such as a process with their own families.
Several international instruments outline safeguards for offering restorative justice (for example, United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2002; Council of Europe, 2018). Specific to children, the International Juvenile Justice Observatory (IJJO) has published Practical guide: implementing restorative justice with children which recommends that safety must be ensured during the restorative process (International Juvenile Justice Observatory, 2018). They emphasise that restorative justice programmes must ensure that they are designed and delivered in the best interests of the child, so that all the processes, whether restorative justice or not, comply with international child rights standards and procedural safeguards, including voluntary participation, informed consent and the right of the child to be heard, and take all necessary steps to protect the child from further harm.
It is helpful to tell children the purpose of the meeting at the beginning and to explain the facilitator’s role, including what they can do and what they can’t do (Hopkins, 2009). Fostering a sense of safety involves offering choice and predictability (Pali and Randazzo, 2018). At all our preparatory sessions and restorative processes, we share the structure, purpose and duration and ensure that we talk about how the space is optional for everyone present, including the extent to which they engage with the process. Mandating participation or conversation or suddenly being put on the spot can cause the limbic brain to kick in (the fight, flight freeze brain) and result in a reduced ability to think (Davis, 2008).
While asking prompts during circles, we remind everyone that we can pass without answering and silence is welcome in the circle. Safety also involves ensuring the well-being of the child and looking out for any signs of distress and often checking-in with the child to see how they’re doing and taking their opinions regularly (Pali and Randazzo, 2018).
Restorative practices are premised on the principle that each one of us has a unique perspective (Hopkins, 2011) and aim to create space to share this perspective. Restorative work is communication-intensive and requires verbal skills (Hayes and Snow, 2013) for sharing this perspective including a narration of the incident, the emotional impact and the ensuing needs. Children may not always be comfortable using verbal means of communication or may not yet be equipped with the vocabulary to express themselves. Research shows that many young people have difficulty expressing themselves and in conveying basic information related to the harm (Beckett et al., 2004; Riley and Hayes, 2018). In addition to age, traumatic experiences also affect the ability to provide a verbal narrative owing to the impact on memory.
The Practical guide: implementing restorative justice with children recommends that restorative processes use a child-sensitive approach which involves catering to the child’s unique needs including their need for communicating through a means they are comfortable with (Terre des Hommes, 2020). Instead of solely relying on direct verbal communication, facilitators can offer indirect communication as well as art and play tools for children to express themselves, to work towards their meaningful participation.
Storyboarding is one such tool that can help children to share their perspective (Vansereven and Hopkins, 2019). It offers children the opportunity to draw out different aspects of what happened in stages, similar to different parts of a comic strip, and dispense with the need for verbal communication.
Play dolls can also be an effective tool for children to tell their stories (Vansereven and Hopkins, 2019). Children can choose different dolls/characters to represent different people involved in the incident and then talk about the incident using the dolls while maintaining a distance from it. This creates the perception that they’re not talking about themselves and can help them feel safer (Camilleri, 2007). Children may also visually re-create the incident more effectively while using such toys.
For children who do choose to tell their story verbally and share this perspective during preparation sessions with the facilitator, it is effective to use a language with which the child is comfortable, ask open-ended questions and give them space to tell their story on their terms, without asking questions as they speak. Hopkins (2009) offers a set of encouragers that can help convey that facilitators are listening and are interested, without taking them away from the course of their story or from sharing what’s important to them. She also talks about the ‘echo tool,’ which involves repeating some words said by the child and which often helps the child to feel heard and even to share more deeply (Hopkins, 2009).
While the above tools are effective in one on one conversations with children, the format of the circle process itself creates space for children to share their story on their own terms, without being interrupted or asked questions which may take them off course. In addition, we’ve also offered art tools during circles for children to communicate more comfortably.
The restorative lens recognises that thoughts and emotions influence behaviour (Hopkins, 2011). Restorative work involves equipping children to identify, understand and express their emotions, whether they’re victims or perpetrators. Often, when we began working with a child and ask them how they’re feeling, they use vocabulary limited to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and, perhaps, ‘angry.’
During circles and in individual interactions, we’ve used varied tools for equipping children to identify emotions. Emotion or feeling charts provide pictorial representations of different emotions and children can identify different emotions from such emoticons (Oleszkiewicz et al., 2017). Over time, these charts have also helped children to learn the vocabulary for their feelings and informed their understanding of their experience of the incident.
Along with using tools for identifying emotions, we’ve also used tools for children to express varying levels of intensity in emotional experiences, including emotional temperature scales (Vansereven and Hopkins, 2019), emotional rulers or traffic signals (Friedberg et al., 2009).
Analogy-based prompts can also create space for them to talk about their emotions. Questions such as ‘If your feelings right now were a weather report, what would that weather report be?’ Hopkins (2009) helps children to express themselves in terms of whether they are feeling ‘sunny,’ ‘cloudy,’ ‘stormy’ etc. Using metaphors and/or pictorial representations of questions is also helpful with older children. For instance, we can use a prompt such as, ‘Imagine you could save your laughter in a jar for a time when you need it. When do you want to have heard it?’ along with a picture of laughter bottled in a jar (see Make Beliefs Comix).
The restorative lens recognises that unmet needs can result in harmful behaviour and being harmed also gives rise to unmet needs. Working with children requires perceiving their behaviours as expressions of dealing with unmet needs. In addition, using creative art tools or needs cards to guide children to work through exploring what they needed at the time they behaved in the way they did or what they have needed since they’ve been harmed is also important for restorative work.
The restorative lens recognises the importance of relationships for one’s well-being. For institutionalised children effectively to reintegrate post-release, it is imperative that they have social support, as this plays an important protective role (Culpepper, 2014). However, the experience of institutionalisation adversely impacts children’s social support networks and hampers relationships. One child we were working with said that, since he has come into the custodial setting, no one has talked to him. Others spoke about how their family members were very angry at them.
We’ve worked with children on identifying who ‘their people’ are and, in some instances and after consulting with them, contacted the grown-ups and created space for a restorative dialogue for all of them. This can pave the way for children to have conversations with their grown-ups to address the impact of the child being involved in the legal system and can help plan for the future.
In addition, during circles, we’ve created space for children to reflect on their relationships and ways in which their behaviour has ripple effects in these relationships, beneficially and otherwise. The analogy of a stone thrown into water which creates ripples in the environment around it and how human behaviour is similar to that (Hopkins, 2009) can create space for children to think through how they impact others. This can help children with reflecting on their relationships and can empower them to address conflict in ways that build relationships.
Restorative spaces also enable practising relationship building skills. During circles, we’ve played games such as ‘feeling charades’ (one person acts out a feeling and the others guess) (Feuerborn and Tyre, 2009) which help children understand others’ emotions more effectively. These techniques can help to practise the ability to read body language, facial expressions and other cues exhibited in personal interactions, increasing their ability to be socially aware and to empathise with others, as well as improving relationships.
Apart from expressing themselves, practising tools for identifying emotions over time in restorative circles or prep sessions helps children to work on better self-awareness and management and to develop an ability to then regulate emotions, thoughts and behaviours in different situations.
We often bring in child-friendly mindfulness to the circle including animal breathing where children imagine themselves to be different animals and take deep breaths imitating flapping wings or growling or where they imagine blowing out candles while breathing. Self-calming tools like progressive muscle relaxation (Friedberg et al., 2009) can also be collectively practised within a circle.
Tools for dealing with anger in circles include practising the pause and breathe strategy, using the analogy of a tortoise going into its shell, crinkling paper or offering children varied coping cards to pick one strategy they’ll try using the next time they’re angry. We often bring in grounding exercises within the circle and drop in a line about how we can all try these out the next time we feel overwhelmed.
Restorative work with children involves ensuring that children’s rights are fulfilled at all times, procedural safeguards followed (see, Eliaerts and Dumortier, 2014) and that we work to catering to their needs to the best possible extent. Children are children first and we engage with them as children in ways that meet their age-based and individualised needs. When we offer tailor-made processes and creative tools while interweaving an understanding of child development, trauma and social-emotional learning, we create spaces for healing for children through the restorative lens and restorative spaces.
Tali Gal’s work on the needs-rights of child victims in the context of restorative justice (Gal, 2011) and Belinda Hopkins’s book on restorative work with children (Hopkins, 2009) have significantly informed my learning. Dr Frida Rundell from the International Institute of Restorative Practices extensively mentored me on the use of trauma-informed tools, crisis interventions for children and social emotional learnings, tools which I’ve since interwoven in the design and facilitation of our circles. More recently, the European Forum for Restorative Justice’s Summer School on Child-Friendly Restorative Justice facilitated by Belinda Hopkins and Bie Vanseveren was an incredible learning experience of using tools to work with children during preparatory sessions with children (Vansereven and Hopkins, 2019).
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