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  What Works - The Work Program

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Fraser Park CPC-7 School, Murray Bridge, South Australia

From birth through primary school

ContextThe learning focusRestorative Justice | A teacher’s viewLearning Together


Context

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Fraser Park is a community primary school of about 90 students, which includes a Child Parent Centre (CPC, now known as a school-based pre-school) attended by 20 students. There is also a ‘Learning Together’ centre on site, catering for the years from birth to three years.

More than half the students are Aboriginal, and a range of other cultural backgrounds is represented in the school. Transience is a feature of the population and about 50% of students have identified disabilities and are on negotiated education plans.



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The school values are ‘Care, Respect, Enthusiasm and Fun’ and the school believes in, and puts a lot of work into, developing positive relationships between students, families, staff and community support agencies. Restorative Justice approaches are a feature of the school but, at the same time, the focus is very definitely on student learning.

In 2010 a formal school-community partnership was signed after a lengthy process assisted by What Works facilitator Di Grigg.


The learning focus

Michelle Kamma is originally from Cooktown in Far North Queensland but has been at the school for 17 years, the last seven of those as Principal.

She begins by discussing the school’s focus:


Our school is absolutely about learning. When I meet a parent in the yard I don’t want to be talking about how well behaved their child has been, I want to say ‘Guess what, I saw Johnny today and he was reading very well’. We’re all really committed to that stress on learning. Even when parents are here to talk about something else I make a point of talking about the student’s learning as well. When kids are achieving I want to be able to celebrate that.

Our NAPLAN data shows progress and it’s on the main door to the school office. It’s there to stress to students and parents that we’re here to be learners, and so that they understand how amazing they are.


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Principal, Michelle Kamma with school NAPLAN data

This year our focus is on reading. We decided to put as much energy into that as possible, just because it’s so important for everything else. We’ve collected a lot of data about it. Every class has three reading sessions every day, using good resources, and we’re seeing big gains, with every student improving their reading outcomes as identified in running records. We’re also getting parents to read every day at home with kids.

In a way, NAPLAN represents the learning, although it doesn’t tell you everything. I tell the community its just one test that we do and it’s a really good opportunity for us to show that we can do as well as anybody else. That’s what I keep saying to parents.

We don’t teach for the test. Accelerated Literacy is embedded in our practice and it’s the way we deliver English, and we’re not going to suddenly try to teach to a test. We do show students and parents what the tests are like and we might go through last year’s test with them but it’s as much to demystify it as anything else. I just encourage the kids to do their best.

Some teachers can get stressed about it, and that’s understandable, but I tell them that they are definitely not being judged on it.

We make the day a kind of celebration, actually, starting with a breakfast together and ending with a party for the kids. If everyone has done their best and demonstrated the great work they’re doing I think they deserve it.


Restorative Justice and ‘Circle Time’

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Michelle Kamma with What Works facilitator Di Grigg

In the first week I was Principal I found I suspended about 15 children. The second week I suspended another 15 and in the third week I started feeling very sad, because then I was suspending the kids I had suspended in my first week again! I had thought when I became Principal it was going to be a lot of fun and we were going to be doing lots of learning but it wasn’t like that at all.

The community didn’t like it, teachers didn’t like it, kids didn’t like it and I definitely didn’t like it. Something had to be done. When we looked at our behaviour policy we saw that it was growing all the time, as if we felt that more punishment was the answer.

We trialled a lot of different programs but eventually about five years ago we came to a place of understanding that we needed more peaceful ways of dealing with violence, and that suspension itself is a kind of violence. We needed a less punitive way of dealing with things and resolving crises so that kids were at school more. That was the motivation for looking at Restorative Justice.

We embraced the program strongly and we let everyone in the community know what it was all about. That involved lots of training for teachers, and for parents as well.

The process is about resolving conflict through conversations. Children have ownership of their actions and Restorative Justice provides a process that can restore the relationships. Under the old system that never happened. It’s about having a yarn and talking about ‘How did you feel when this happened and how do you think the other person felt? What’s the thing that we can do to change this relationship and work together, because this is a school and we want to be learning here?’ At the beginning we had little cards in our pockets to remind us how to approach kids, but now its embedded in our practice.

In the classroom if there’s behaviour that’s against what the class has negotiated, a child will get three warnings, using ‘restorative’ language, such as saying ‘We’re about working together in this room. How does what you’re doing help us work together?’

If that doesn’t work, they go to the ‘Restorative Room’ where they can work with an adult to go through the incident. They write about the incident according to the kid, not the adult version, but they’re asked to focus on how they felt and eventually what they can do about getting themselves back to their classroom. Most students are really, really focused on getting back to their classroom. 

I suppose that’s another success we’ve had, because kids would much rather be in the classroom than out of it, and I’d put that down to the quality of the experiences they have there with our teachers. Kids might lack some social skills, but they love being part of a team and they love learning. If they’re really steamed up, though, they won’t be able to go back to the classroom until they’ve calmed down and can identify how they feel, how other people feel and what they can do to improve things.

In the case of violence of course, the kid just has to go home, and everyone knows that. It would only happen about 10 times a year now. But we still go through the Restorative Justice process when they come back. We’ll have a conference with the families concerned when everyone has calmed down and usually agrees that violence isn’t acceptable. For the kid who had been offended against, it can be quite powerful too, because they have an opportunity to forgive someone, rather than going after revenge.

The strategies are not just about being a nice person and parents understand that. Before we had Restorative Justice we probably thought our relationships were based on being nice, but now they’re more about passing on strategies that kids can use in their lives. That’s much more powerful.

There has been some criticism of our work about how it transfers when kids go on to high school, which might not have a Restorative Justice system. We recognise that it’s a different system and we have been putting a lot of energy into the upper primary groups in bringing home to those students how important it is to be following school processes but also to be respectful, to use your inner strengths to deal with your conflict and to make good choices. We’re seeing that students who have been with us for a number of years are really successful in the transition to the high school. They’re always very sad on the last day here, but they’re actually quite strengthened by Restorative Justice.

I think Restorative Justice is very powerful and I know it has changed me as a principal, probably because it’s a more caring way to operate. We do training every single year, and every year we pick up something different to bring on board. Last year for instance we started using sharing circles and ‘Circle Time’.


Restorative Justice: A teacher’s view

Russell Gilbert graduated in 2006 from Flinders University. His first appointment was to Fraser Park, where he worked for a year before spending eighteen months teaching in England. After returning to Australia he returned to Fraser Park.

He begins by talking about what happened after he graduated:


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Russell Gilbert and student

A phone call came, asking whether I was interested in working at a school with a high percentage of Indigenous kids in a low socio-economic area. I was interested, because I’ve always had an interest in Indigenous culture and I think it has a lot to say about sustainable practices. Then I spoke with Michelle and I was happy to come here.

At the beginning it was hard, though, as you’d expect. I was getting used to teaching and I hadn’t worked out the difference between being liked and being respected. But as the year went on I realised that it’s all about building mutual respect. Kids first respect you and then like you as well, not the other way around.

We used Restorative Justice as a school focus towards the end of 2007 and it was interesting to see how far we had come when I got back in 2009. Every year, we use some of our pupil free days for staff training.

Restorative Justice allows kids to verbalise their problems, and that’s the first step towards dealing with them. If they’re really angry, though, you let them go off and calm down. We’ve got a room with someone in there they can talk to and if it takes them an hour to calm down that’s fine because you can’t talk about your feelings when you’re angry. At that time you can only see red, so when the kids are like that it is important to give them a space they can go to calm down.

Let’s say a kid had a bit of a fight. First I’d ask them to go off to the Rethink Room and give them some time there. When they’re ready to talk someone is there to help.

She will talk them through a proforma: asking what happened and how did they feel when this was happening. For some of the younger kids it might be drawing a picture, or some of the older kids verbalise it. Then they might write it down themselves or get help to write it down. Then they talk about what they could do differently next time and other strategies they could use to solve the problem.

Some kids are better at thinking through that, but you only prompt them in terms of asking questions. If you ask ‘what could you do next time so that won’t happen again?’ and they say they don’t know, you can then ask ‘was there something you did that made the other person angry?’ and then ‘so if you did that again what would happen?’ and take it on from there.

When the kid is ready to come back to class, I look at the proforma so that I can see what happened, and I usually ask them to tell me about it in their own words. The I ask about strategies they’re going to use so that it won’t happen again, and I try to talk them through whether it’s practical or not. When it comes to ‘what can we do to make things better right now?’ if they want to apologise to someone they can, but only if it’s what they want to do. I wouldn’t suggest it. That would be meaningless.


Circle Time

A lot of kids don’t have the ability to verbalise how they are feeling, and that’s one of the reasons we have Circle Time after every break. Quite often we’ll have to do three or four other Circle Times a week to talk about various issues that arise such as bullying, play fighting and so on. What we’re doing is helping kids develop the skills they need so that they can talk about their feelings.

We have rules for Circle Time. There’s a ‘talking piece’, and only the person with the talking piece is allowed to speak. There are no put downs and no name-calling. What is said in Circle Time, stays in Circle Time. I always use the example that if I said I was feeling upset and started crying I wouldn’t want to go out to the yard and have someone from next door say ‘oh Mr Gilbert you’re a cry baby’, and the kids always find that funny.

It’s about respect as well, about improving relationships with the kids so that they do respect you. There are some kids who choose not to participate at Circle Time but we’ve got rules that say its okay to pass and eventually, as the year progresses more and more people talk, and kids will get quite upset if their turn is missed.

I try to change the approach regularly so it’s not just a boring, repetitive thing. Sometimes we might do ‘what I did, how I‘m feeling’. Or it might be ‘the best thing I did and the worst thing’ or ‘did I have a chance to use self-control at recess?’ We’re encouraging kids to recognise that they’re in control of what they do.

For serious incidents of violence there are still suspensions, of course, but afterwards we set up a meeting and talk through what happened in a similar way and then talk about what the kid could do differently next time and what they can do to make up for what they have done. Sometimes they can be very hard on themselves and we have to talk that through as well. Read on…


The early years: Learning Together

Learning Together’ is a DECS program which has seven sites across South Australia and ‘affirms the crucial importance of the very early years of life in laying the foundation for children’s learning and well-being’. It is a preventative approach to possible later difficulties for all children in vulnerable communities, rather than an approach where some children and families are targeted for intervention.

It focuses on:

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  • involving families in their children’s learning;
  • the development of children's strong dispositions to learning;
  • improving early learning opportunities for children;
  • supporting parents’ own learning;
  • strengthening communities through inter-agency collaboration and coordination in the provision of family-focused programs and services; and
  • promoting and supporting positive relationships between families and early childhood services and schools.

Michelle Kamma discusses the value of the ‘Learning Together’ program at Fraser Park:

We’re a community school so Learning Together fits into our community philosophy and really gets parents involved and kids learning right from birth. It serves the whole Murray Bridge community, not just Fraser Park.

What we want is a smooth transition for parents and little children across the services, so their first experience isn’t just bringing a three or four year old to the preschool. Now, as soon as the baby is born, parents come through the door of Learning Together. And because those little children sometimes come over and work in our kindy, and our kindy children go over there as well, we hope the transition process is seamless.

It’s a big, important idea in education to break down those barriers. A lot of our parents have had negative experiences themselves at school so there are definitely barriers there. But once they’re comfortable at the Learning Together centre those barriers can be completely washed away because they don’t see the big difference between going there and coming over here to school.

Even our older kids will go over to the Learning Together centre and they might walk the dog or do some chores. It’s all about connectedness between all of us. It’s also about a seamless learning transition.


Susie Bowden is manager of Learning Together at Murray Bridge, on the same site as Fraser Park school. She tells us about the program:


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Susie Bowden and Cooper

I am a qualified early childhood teacher myself and all the Learning Together programs across the state are run by teachers. Our programs are for families with children from birth to four and are situated in low socio-economic areas. They are open to all families in those areas.

The very basic form of connecting with families is the supported playgroup. We do lots of noticing and naming, and we have very skilled staff who can sit on the floor, reflect on the play, let parents know what their children are learning and discuss its importance.

The parents and children are always together, and Learning Together is a strength-based program. We build on the huge strengths people in our communities already have and we try to add value to that with some learning around play. Every single person who comes here wants the best for their children. But I think we’re dealing with generations of families who have been doing it really tough, some haven’t had positive role modelling and they’re unsure about playing with and being with their young children. They haven’t had the advantages some people have had in other communities.

That’s why, as a society, we need to ask them what they need and help them out with ways to be a good parent, ways to attend to the needs of the child and ways to make sure the child feels safe at all times.

We work with the concept of a ‘circle of security’. That’s about the child always being sure who’s looking after them and if, say, mum might be going away for five minutes, preparing the child for that and making sure the child knows who is in charge while mum is away. At the same time, the child knows that mum will be back. And then when she comes back it’s about reconnecting with the child, re-engaging with the play and the child knowing that mum is back in charge: she’s my strength base, she’s my hands, she’s going to look out for me now.

We do a lot of very formal changing over but it’s always about that child knowing who is looking out for them.

At the moment, the demand for our services is increasing and I can’t accommodate a lot more people here.  I could run programs all week but not Learning Together programs; not deep, rich programs that actually have an impact and change children’s lives. That’s what we’re about. Every day I’m about making children’s futures brighter.


Learning Together @ home

This part of the program involves a fieldworker visiting a home regularly, usually once each week for at least 10 weeks. It’s for families with children aged from birth to four years and often happens by referral from health nurses, who think that extra help in the home could lead to better outcomes for the child and family. The purpose is to support families’ ability to be involved in their children’s learning, through play.

When she goes into a home the worker takes a big bag of toys and reading materials and, depending on the parent, she might also leave some scripts for play. Some parents don’t have words around play, because it hasn’t been something that’s been modelled to them in the past. So the worker might have a doll’s house and she’ll go through a script about how to play with it. Then she’ll leave the script with them.

That process could mean spending three hours on her first visit on the floor, going through things that could be said and done with the doll’s house. Then the next week it’ll be a different script, with the next level of play interactions in it.

This is intensive work, swapping bags of toys and reading materials every week, and trying as well to connect mums and dads with services in the community. It’s flexible, though, because sometimes parents can connect with a playgroup before the end of the 10 week period and then the home visits don’t have to continue. On the other hand, it’s possible for the worker to re-start home visits if a particular parent needs extra help after the end of the 10 weeks.

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