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This California Dean Dropped His Suspension Rate to Practically Zero (Here’s How You Can Too)

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Imagine dropping your suspension rate to practically zero.

That’s what Carlos Alvarez, Dean of Culture at Alliance Neuwirth Leadership Academy in Los Angeles was able to accomplish at his previous school, Bright Star Secondary Charter located in Los Angeles.

At the beginning of the 2011-2012 academic year, the school’s historical suspension rate was 27.6%. Through data observation and a practice he calls “Right-Brain Restorative Justice”, he was able to drop the suspension rate to 0.02%.  

Now Carlos is out to change the dynamic of discipline to helping students process their emotions.

He travels around the U.S. and Latin America to teach other educators how to use right-brain restorative justice to dramatically change disciplinary outcomes.

When asked why he is so passionate about this, Carlos says, “We’re so used to getting our kids out of our school, and sending them to different places when that doesn’t do anything for them.” He’s resolved to empower students to master their behavior in order to become successful inside and outside of the classroom.

We sat down with Carlos to learn more about how he used DeansList to track behavior data and make the process work to keep students in school.

In this interview, you’ll learn the 4-step Right-Brain Restorative Justice Process Carlos uses to:

  • Empower students with the tools to process their emotions after a behavior incident and learn how to better handle situations in the future
  • Help teachers and administrators use effective language to keep positive relationships with their students, even after a referral has been made
  • Show students how to gain mastery over their decisions inside and outside the classroom

Read on to learn how you can put this in action at your school.‍

What is the Right-Brain Restorative Justice Process?

This process is designed to help students reflect on conflicts they experience so they can take control of their reactions in the future. That emotional reflection takes place in the right brain, hence the name. It has four different angles:

(1) Self Regulation refers to how a student processes emotions and absorbs restorative agreements.

(2) Emotional Processing is where we as staff members help students come back to homeostasis.

(3) Right Brain Priming is where the student speaks about the incident with an administrator and feels comfortable with what happened.

(4) Re-entry is where we work on building the student’s capacity to make a different decision in the future.

Time is of the essence, and this whole process doesn’t take more than an hour. We don’t want students to miss more class time than they have to.‍

What’s the student experience like in this process?

First, the students gets sent out of the classroom, and there’s a referral that’s generated by the teacher in DeansList. The student has some time to self-regulate and get their breathing back to normal.

When the student arrives at the Dean’s office, a staff member will greet them and give them two worksheets designed to help them process their emotions. We ask questions like:

What happened?

What did you say?

What were you thinking at the time?

Who do you think has been hurt by this situation?

What might be some of the underlying issues?

How would you like to repair the situation?

The wording of these questions is important because they’re not shameful – they’re abstract. It’s more affective language. At this point, the student will write down what happened, how they reacted, and how their actions affected others.

Once that happens, the staff member asks with unconditional warmth: “Are you ready to take care of the situation?” Most of the time, the student will say yes. Now the student is ready to talk about what happened.

This is important!

When you ask the student for permission to move through their conflict, they gain these small increments of being empowered.

Then the student sees the Dean to debrief the situation together. (This is the right brain priming.) Here, we’re really deconstructing negative thought patterns like “The teacher hates me. He keeps sending me out.” And using different language like, “No, it’s not that the teacher hates you. It’s that you were asked at times to stop talking and you kept on talking. ”‍

The last component of the process is to work on building the student’s capacity to react differently in the future.

The conversation often goes something like:  

“What were the triggers that got you here?”

“Well, when Mr. A said put my phone away, I just, I just said, ‘No’.”

“Why?”

“Well, he said…”

“What should have happened?’

“Oh, I should’ve just… I should’ve just put it away.”

From there we’ll come to an agreement before the student can re-enter the classroom.

I’ll ask, “Would you like to repair the situation?

And they’ll say, “Yes, I would like to repair it.” OR “No, I don’t want to repair it.

Why wouldn’t you want to repair it? These are the consequences if you don’t repair it…

Most of the time, students choose a restorative opportunity because they don’t want the punitive option. This is where it’s very important for us as disciplinarians to really start helping the students fall in love with this notion of restorative justice.

This is what helped us get the school to a 0.02% suspension rate!‍

Makes sense! How do you keep track of each step of the process?

All these elements need to happen in order for us to say that this referral was dealt with.

If the right brain conversation with the Dean did not happen, the referral was not completed. If the worksheets were not filled out, the referral was not completed. After each step of the process is completed, it gets entered into DeansList.  ‍

How did you know this process would work?

I knew that the process works, but for me to sing its praises to everyone, I needed evidence.

We’re not expelling –  we’re rendering social emotional factors. And that creates a direct correlation with reduced suspensions.

That’s how DeansList helped me really bring clinical or neuro research to the world of discipline and education.

The majority of the time, the language used is about logical consequences. The logical consequence comes when a practitioner finds some logical perspective on what happened.

But see, this process is not based on the practitioner’s experience. It’s the student’s experience. So the consequence might not be logical for the student.

What we need to understand is: what do the students have in their emotional capacity in order to navigate and process directives, agreements, outcome?‍

But how do you close the gap between what teachers and students think are logical consequences?

Sometimes what the student needs is space to process. That is very different than what the practitioner does the majority of the time, which is to deliver or render a decision. Sometimes you need to just walk with a person to help them gain their perspective versus telling them what to do.

This idea is fundamental in therapy. It’s how a therapist establishes a relationship with a client. And that’s what allows the client to take a risk and try again.

A lot of our kids are so defeated and their confidence is so destroyed.

When you’re really seeing them in this state, they’re more likely to take risks like:

“I might answer that question in front of everyone.”

“I might do good.”

“I might wear my uniform today.”

The little things like that change the tone of discipline.‍

You’re really giving students the tools to manage their emotions and process life generally. Especially when you think about situations they might be dealing with outside of the classroom.

Absolutely. If you give them a weekly report of their behavior through DeansList, now they’re seeing how much they had mastery over their event.‍

What’s your advice to other administrators who want to try Right-Brain Restorative Justice at their school?

I was just hired for Neuwirth Leadership Academy and Neuwirth became a “right brain school” within six months.

We were very intentional in how we rolled this out. We trained teachers and administrators.

We treated it like a retreat. We took everyone to a campground in Los Angeles National Forest and took one day out of work to train in the mountains and then came back.

It’s possible, but you need to do the work. And you need to focus on the teachers that are not as restorative and help them be restorative. That means sitting down with them  and understanding why they’re not restorative. Because a lot of the time, no one had been restorative with them.

We really started understanding that this other side could flower, but this person wasn’t ever watered. So we start by watering the teacher too. And you as the adult, as the principal, as administrators, we need to be responsible to do that.

Thank you for taking the time, Carlos!

Thank you.

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