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The simple matter of saying sorry: Language skills and restorative conferencing

April 23, 2014

It is notable too, that the principles of restorative conferencing are also finding their way into schools, both primary and secondary, in an effort to equip young people with the skills required to negotiate conflict and interpersonal harm in prosocial and respectful ways. This is particularly important to young people whose families are unable, for a variety of reasons to model and teach these skills.

Restorative conferencing sits well alongside the above principles. It is a process whereby the young offender comes face-to-face with his /her victim and others who have been affected by the “tear in the social fabric” created by their wrong-doing, in an effort to ensure that all parties can tell their story, express their pain, hear and understand the perspectives of others, and offer and receive an apology. 

…Research from Australia, the UK, and the USA has indeed clearly identified young offenders as a group whose language skills will fall below expected levels, based on age and IQ. Whether we refer to these young people has having language disorders, impairments, handicaps, or simply “problems” is academic in this context. What matters is that around 50% of them perform in a clinical range on a wide variety of expressive and receptive language tasks, though have rarely been identified as having anything other than “learning problems” and/or “behaviour problems”. Language problems, though pervasive, are invisible, and when undiagnosed in young offenders, tend to masquerade as behaviours such as rudeness, disinterest, and poor motivation.

What then, does this evidence mean for restorative justice conferencing?

Though we lack hard data with which to answer this question, it is the subject of speculation in this 2013 paper by Hennessey Hayes (Griffith University) and me. In this paper, we argue that because restorative conferencing is fundamentally a conversational process, the evidence on language difficulties needs to be closely considered with respect to conference planning and convening. It is usual in a restorative conference for the young person to be asked to listen to and understand the victim’s account of how the offence affected them, and to use social cognition skills to process a range of subtle emotions, such as apprehension, doubt, fear, resentment, and skepticism. In real time, the young person must also formulate their own ideas, thoughts, and experiences into sentences and narratives that are sufficiently detailed to be judged as genuine and enable the young person to display authenticity in the eyes of victims.

Of course, in the hands of a skilled facilitator, it is to be hoped that sufficient scaffolding is provided to ensure that communication success is promoted and the conversation that ensues is one that contributes to healing for victims and new insights for offenders. However, the lack of research evidence to date that specifically takes account of the verbal requirements of restorative conferencing means that we currently lack standard triaging approaches. We also do not know to what extent victim satisfaction with the conference process is influenced by the young person’s verbal skills. I have written further about these concerns here.

Because young people in the justice system embody the notion of developmental vulnerability, every effort needs to be made to foster the development of prosocial skills and offer opportunities to be part of the mainstream. Punitive approaches that promote social alienation and limit opportunities for skill development do not service the needs of young offenders, nor of the communities of which they are part.

Restorative approaches promote respect and healing, but are fundamentally verbal in their transaction, and so pose important questions that cannot be readily answered at the present time.  There is an important role for speech-language pathology here – in conducting and collaborating on research to develop clinical tools that justice and education colleagues can employ to refine the conference preparation and convening process.

Read the full article.


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