Graham Robb – “You’re Giving a Language to Children to Think About Constructive Ways to Manage Their Conflicts or Turmoil”

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Dec 06, 2016
by Chris Hamill-Stewart
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Graham Robb – “You’re Giving a Language to Children to Think About Constructive Ways to Manage Their Conflicts or Turmoil”

Chair of Trustees of the Campus School and former Head Teacher of multiple schools discusses an alternative to traditional punishment. Graham Robb at Getting Smart: Measuring and Evaluating Social and Emotional Skills

In the UK, racism and extremism are on the rise. Hate crimes have increased 58% in 2016 compared to 2015. This trend is mirrored in other countries such as the US, where there is also a spike in hate crimes. Applying the traditional justice system to crimes of this nature is difficult to execute, and unlikely to yield significant results.

Graham Robb, Chair of Trustees at The Campus School, believes a new approach to administering justice and discipline is the answer. While attending the Salzburg Global session Getting Smart: Measuring and Evaluating Social and Emotional Skills he shared his thoughts on how to better use Social and Emotional (SEL) skills in this area.

Robb advocates for “Restorative Justice,” (RJ) a process in which someone who does harm to another person, rather than being punished or treated as a criminal, is invited to take part in a conference involving them, the victim and other important figures, including parents and teachers. The conference follows a clear script with all participants fully briefed in advance; consideration is given to the time-frame after the incident in which the conference should take place, and even the order of participants’ arrivals is choreographed to minimize the possibility of further conflict. It is an opportunity for those involved to discuss their feelings, come to terms with the incident, and discuss how best to avoid it in the future. The process fosters empathy, and is designed to help people, particularly adolescents, understand other people’s perspectives of the incident and how it made them feel.

Robb, who has implemented the system in the high schools at which he served as head teacher, has seen “very high levels of satisfaction from the victims and perpetrators of incidents – they say it’s a fair process.” He continues, “Importantly, it’s proven to lead to a reduction in future behavior that causes harm.” Genuine feelings of remorse and freely offered apologies are common – an often-absent outcome of traditional disciplinary measures involving children and teenagers.

RJ promotes and amplifies the perpetrators’ SEL skills development. When used in schools, “the child realizes the impact they have on the people around them – that’s empathy straight away,” says Robb. It helps to give people, especially children and teenagers, a voice in ways they didn’t have before. As Robb explains: “You learn to name emotions; you’re giving a language to children to think about constructive ways to manage their conflicts or turmoil.” The SEL aspect of RJ is undeniable, and critical to its effectiveness: “It’s about communication skills, managing conflicts, managing emotions, empathy and problem solving.”
Robb believes RJ would be especially effective in countering the trend of hate crime – a crime that evidences a distinct lack of SEL skills.

However, he acknowledges some challenges in the wider implementation of the process; the media especially presents an obstacle. “They’re likely to attack [RJ], saying people get away with crimes with just a ‘slap on the wrist’ or an apology,” explains Robb. This creates political pressure, and politicians are forced to respond to it. “This isn’t what RJ is about.” RJ is not about retribution but rather preventing similar behavior and incidents from happening again, and promoting understanding. Unfortunately, viewing RJ as “soft” remains an obstacle for its wider implementation.

Despite difficulties in implementation, the advantages are clear: it is an alternative to the “adversarial system” of the courts, one that reduces re-offending, can be evaluated, and is seen favorably by victims and perpetrators alike. In contemporary times, when the world seems to be in great need of empathy and other SEL skills, the value of Restorative Justice is evident.

In addition to improving the SEL skills of the individuals involved in the process, RJ can also provide wider societal benefits, especially when it is pursued instead of escalating a matter to the police and courts. Keeping potential young offenders out of the judicial system and improving their behavior helps to reduce future costs in court proceedings and incarceration.

Robb presented RJ as a case study at the session in Salzburg. Following his interactive workshop, which involved Fellows “hot-seating” him on his experiences of implementing this process in schools, Robb in turn appealed to Fellows to give him curricular advice and guidance for the new school – The Campus in north London, UK – that he is helping to establish. The school will exclusively serve students who have been removed from the conventional education system for behavioral reasons and aims to provide students with a “holistic” and supportive learning environment where “Your past can be history, not a career plan.”
As session co-organizer Catherine Millett of ETS remarked: “This is exactly what a Salzburg Global Seminar program is all about.” Exchanging knowledge and best practice the world over.

The day’s second panel considered “How do we ‘make the case’ for social and emotional learning (SEL)?“
Positive attitudes and behaviors towards self, school and society are developed through SEL. Research has shown that students who took part in controlled SEL programs saw improved classroom behavior, had better self-esteem and management of their of stress, and fewer instances of depression. Evidence increasingly shows the importance of social and emotional learning and its impact on other, cognitive skills – or as a discussant on the second panel put it: “If we invest in the heart, that will help the head.”

Researchers also expect that future employers will put greater emphasis on “human” skills such as communication, collaboration and creativity as we enter the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” making SEL vital for success in the workplace of tomorrow as well as the classroom of today.
Yet ambivalence towards SEL remains with some parents, educators, policymakers, and students questioning how much, if any, time it should be given in the curriculum. There is also a persistent ignorance about where SEL skills are most needed and valuable. SEL is not just necessary in schools – these skills must be practiced elsewhere also, and used throughout a person’s life, not just their education. How can we produce better evidence to support stronger arguments for the promotion and nurture of SEL?

Hundreds of SEL programs are currently being studied, but it is not enough to know if SEL programs work, but how, why and for whom as different results can be found in different contexts. Why is it that students who took part in a music-led SEL program exhibited greater empathy than those in the control drama-led SEL program? SEL programs alone do not see positive effects – they need to be well-planned, well-taught, and well-implemented.

Research has also shown that SEL programs are more effective when they are integrated in to the general curriculum and taught by classroom teachers rather than external experts. While they benefit hugely from such programs, adolescents often find it hard to engage in top-down SEL programs; educators need to engage them in both the program design and implementation. Evidence to support SEL can be found an built upon from many sectors beyond just education: much can be learned from studies focusing on neuroscience, psychology, health and economics, such as the impact of SEL on physical as well as mental health (mindfulness reduces heart pressure) and how cost effective this can be for society-at-large.

Responsibility for building this evidence base lies not only with policymakers and researchers, but also NGOs, teachers and parents. These adults too need to have their SEL developed.


Graham Robb was a participant in the Salzburg Global session Getting Smart: Measuring and Evaluating Social and Emotional Skills, which is part of the multi-year Education for Tomorrow's World. This session is being hosted in partnership with ETS (Educational Testing Service).

More information on the session can be found here: salzburgglobal.org/go/566.

You can follow the discussion on Twitter with the hashtag: #SGSedu