Relay graduate student John Sharkey had a hunch: In his second year teaching seventh graders at Harlem Village Academies HVA East Middle school, Sharkey had a nagging feeling that the school’s go-to response to addressing students’ bad behavior — removing them from classrooms, also known as “send-outs” — might need rethinking. So he decided to do something about it. Then, he documented the results and earned a top research award from Yale University.
To some researchers and practitioners, Sharkey’s school employed a punitive, “no-excuses” approach to discipline that encourages teachers to attach consequences to even minor infractions. But as he reflected on his progress with his own students, he realized that the punitive model wasn’t working well enough in his classroom.
Around the same time, Sharkey heard a piece on the public radio program This American Life that examined a different approach, known as restorative justice. The restorative model departs from the punitive approach and instead encourages conversations between students and teachers. One of its goals is to cut down on class removals and suspensions.
The story got Sharkey thinking: Perhaps it was worth trying in his classroom. What, he wondered, were the academic ramifications of all of that missed class time? Was there a way to improve student behavior, classroom culture, and academic achievement without dismissing students from his classroom? What if he scheduled time to meet one-on-one with students who struggled behaviorally in the classroom? Not only would it keep students in class — learning — but it would also give Sharkey the chance to provide extra academic and emotional support.
After reviewing the research literature on the approach and speaking with his principal, he tested restorative justice over a two-month period in his own school. To prepare, he aggregated data of send-outs across the school during the four weeks prior to Thanksgiving and worked with school officials to create a framework for what restorative discipline would look like at HVA East Middle. Then, during the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Sharkey and his fellow teachers committed to using the new method.
“In almost every measure we could account for, things got better,” Sharkey says. Both behavior and academic performance improved.
“Students became less combative to correction and seemed to earnestly work harder to change [their] subsequent actions,” Sharkey writes in his award-winning paper. “They built better relationships with teachers,” and “performed better on assessments.”
Send-outs decreased by nearly 50 percent, and academic performance, as measured by course grades, rose 6 percent.
Sharkey chronicled his findings in The Shift from Punitive to Restorative: The Impact of School Disciplinary Policy on Student Behavior and Academics in an Urban Charter School. The paper earned him the Yale-Lynn Hall Teacher Action Research Prize, which “recognizes and supports the leadership of teachers who continually work to improve their practice through action research.” The award gave Sharkey the opportunity to present his study at the Yale School of Management’s Education Leadership Conference in New Haven, Connecticut, this past March.
“There was a lot of intrigue,” Sharkey recalls. “The response was, ‘So, this actually works?’” He says the next question was nearly always, “OK, how would we go about doing this?”
Sharkey’s study size was small: 56 seventh-graders in one school over two months. But the results of his experiment are exciting, and we believe that they merit further research.
“When students feel that their emotions are respected and valued, it opens a door to an even greater conversation,” Sharkey says. “That allows you to come up with a way to improve things — together.”
Relay Assistant Professor Kimberly Austin says Sharkey’s work will allow others to benefit from his lessons.
“He identified a problem of practice,” Austin says, “and used his knowledge and skills to not only address that problem, but document that research so that others can learn.”