By Louise Brown – November 2019
Once a week Finn Clancy does playground duty at Ogden Public School. He listens for arguments, watches for tears and scans for children left out of the fun.
A card around his neck lets kids know he’s there to help. It has a list of tips for Finn to use to resolve small conflicts, by helping both sides talk about how they feel, and brainstorm how they could put things right. In this inner-city schoolyard near Queen and Spadina, he’s a peacemaker, not enforcer – and the diplomatic approach he uses has led more students to say they feel safe here, and welcome.
Finn is just 10 years old.
He’s one of 28 “Recess Rangers” in Grades 5 and 6 at Ogden who have been trained to use an approach called Restorative Practice to settle small disputes in the schoolyard. It’s a way of helping students hammer a solution together, instead of having an adult sort it out for them.
“We never take sides! You’ve got to hear both sides, and we have to spread the message that we aren’t here to get you into trouble,” said Finn, who is in Grade 5. “There was one kid who was sad because he was being excluded from playing soccer, so we all talked about how it doesn’t feel good to be excluded, and then they let him play.”
Another boy told Recess Ranger Alex Abdel Fatah that a group wouldn’t let him play tag. “So we talked to them all, and found out it was because he refused to be IT,” a concept the boy didn’t quite understand, according to Alex, 11, who is in Grade 6. “After we talked to him, he agreed to take a turn being IT and then they let him play.”
These young peer mediators are putting out the brush fires of bullying before they blow out of control, using Restorative Practice, a strategy that’s based on the belief “when something goes wrong in a community, it’s not about who’s to blame, but what harm has been done and how can we make it right,” said Ogden Principal Miriam Zachariah. It’s a form of progressive, positive discipline that lets each person have their say and be heard by the other parties, then talk together about how to restore their relationship. It holds students accountable for their actions, and gives a voice to those students who are victims.
The discussion is usually held in a circle, and is guided by a set of basic questions:
- What happened?
- What were you thinking at the time?
- Who has been affected by what you have done?
- What do you think you need to do to make things right?
While Restorative Practice is being embraced in a growing number of classrooms across the Toronto District School Board, Ogden Public School is somewhat unusual in taking it outside.
Zachariah got the idea last year after a survey showed a worrying 15 to 20 per cent of her school’s 230 students said they didn’t feel safe at school outside their classroom – in the halls, and on the playground.
“Almost everyone felt they had a caring adult at school, and they felt safe in classrooms, but they didn’t necessarily feel safe in the in-between, less supervised spaces – including the yard.”
Part of the challenge, she said, is the neighbourhood includes settlement areas for new Canadians, including some parents here on temporary work permits, which means there’s an unusually high rate of student turnover every year – a full 30 per cent. When combined with children from the new condo boom south of Queen St., most of Ogden’s students live in high-rises. All of these factors slow down social connection.
“We found we had a lot of kids who said they don’t have any friends or any kind of social connections in the community,” said Zachariah. “We have a lot of kids coming and leaving, and a lot of our kids live in vertical communities downtown, so they don’t necessarily know how to play in a schoolyard. Part of what we do is help them figure out how to play with each other; and the Recess Rangers help manage that.”
While the school had long used older students to help lead younger kids in games during lunch and recess – they were trained as Playground Activity Leaders by Toronto’s public health department – Zachariah felt these student leaders needed deeper help in managing relationships outside; especially small conflicts, bullying and loneliness. She asked teacher Hilary Hahn to spend half a day training the Recess Rangers to transfer the Restorative Practice techniques they know from class – often done through discussion circles – to the playground.
“I asked them what they would usually do if a student comes up and said ‘My friend called me a name!’ – and immediately their first response was, ‘We would send them to the office,’” Hahn explained in an instructional video she recorded for an international Restorative Practice conference last year in Belgium.
Hahn asked the students to imagine using the Restorative Practice circle approach instead to a playground dispute.
“When I reframed conflict resolution like that for them, they were like, ‘Ahh! So when someone comes up and said someone called me a name, it’s not my role to get them in trouble; it’s actually my role to facilitate discussion,” Hahn recalled. “So you go up to them and ask ‘What happened here?’ Then we can hear from all the different people who were involved in the conflict. And the lightbulb just went off.”
Hahn meets weekly with the Recess Rangers to talk about issues that have come up; a level of support that Zachariah credits with the success of this program, compared to anti-bullying programs based on a one-time pep rally with no ongoing follow-up.
Recess Rangers don’t try to resolve bigger problems such as physical altercations, which they’re trained to refer to an adult. But they are given a range of suggestions to offer students for handling smaller conflicts, including:Ignore it. Walk away. Wait and cool off. Tell the person to stop. Find someone else to play with. Go to another game. Make a deal. Share and take turns. Talk it out.
Recess Ranger Chloe Tse, 11, said loneliness and exclusion in the yard is common, so her group painted a playground bench in rainbow colours and dubbed it the Friendship Bench, where students can sit if they’re alone and looking for company.
“Sometimes they sit on the Friendship Bench and we play with them,” said the Grade 6 student. “We can bring out the skipping ropes, or sometimes play dodgeball.” They also have taught kids the games of hopscotch and 4-square, notes Grade 6 Recess Ranger Sakura Cheung.
The most common dispute seems to involve name-calling, said 11-year-old Recess Ranger Aaqib Roshan. “Sometimes kids get into an argument and someone calls another kid a name – and usually it’s something like Idiot.”
How these young mediators now handle such incidents has led to a more positive school climate, said Zachariah.
“We’ve seen a huge reduction in office referrals (students sent to the office for behavior issues). The number of conflicts that come to the office is very, very reduced from what it was.”
Zachariah took questions from the student survey the TDSB does every few years across all its schools, and surveyed Ogden students to see whether her initiatives are paying off. She has polled students three times in two years, and is encouraged by the results.
“Before, there were a number of kids who said they didn’t have even one good friend – and now we’re finding fewer students saying that. Most students feel like they have at least one or more friends.”
There was also was a significant cohort of students who said they didn’t feel comfortable participating in class, answering questions or expressing their opinion. But since Ogden has embraced Restorative Practice in class and outside, Zachariah said there has been “a pretty steady increase in students saying they feel safe voicing their opinion in class, and they feel comfortable disagreeing with classmates. So there is definitely an increase in students feeling safe.”
Let the playground fun begin.