Wednesday 21 March 2018

Sophie the giraffe helps build relations in classroom

A study shows how teachers and students benefit from circle time in ‘restorative practice’

Darragh Gaskin, 13, from Johnstown, holding Sophie the giraffe during circle time with fellow first year students from St Mark’s Community School, Tallaght, Dublin. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Darragh Gaskin, 13, from Johnstown, holding Sophie the giraffe during circle time with fellow first year students from St Mark’s Community School, Tallaght, Dublin. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Teacher and trainer in restorative practice Michelle Stowe with toy giraffe Sophie. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

School’s almost out and everyone involved will be looking forward to the break. The year will have had its stresses, tensions and conflicts and some teachers may well be reflecting on ways to make it all a lot easier next year.

Many schools, both primary and post-primary, now engage in what is known as restorative practice (RP), a philosophy and skillset that focusses on building a sense of community and managing conflict by modelling positive behaviour.

Restorative practice can be employed in any relationship, and in any setting, to help people empathise with others, reflect on solutions and work out routes to them. In schools, it can support pupil teacher relationships, behaviour management and conflict resolution.

Michelle Stowe,  a teacher of English and Spanish, was introduced to the concept through a community initiative in which her school, St Mark’s Community School, Tallaght, Dublin was involved in 2010. Now she is a champion of the practice. 

As part of her studies for a master’s in education, at Maynooth University she did an action research project on restorative practice at St Mark’s. Currently, she is on a career break, lecturing part time in Maynooth as well as working as an RP trainer.

Her research project involved eight teachers in St Mark’s, who came together as a group, known as a Professional Learning Community, employing restorative practice and reflecting on the results.

The key message from her  study is that restorative practice works.

Stowe says it is about opening up new capacities in hearts and minds and developing a culture of care and respect: “RP informs how we think, engage, speak, listen and approach situations, all day, everyday”.

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Teacher and trainer in restorative practice Michelle Stowe with toy giraffe Sophie. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Teacher and trainer in restorative practice Michelle Stowe with toy giraffe Sophie

She uses a range of different approaches for different occasions. One quick and simple RP ice-breaker is “checking in” with students,  at the start of a class, and eliciting quick responses that allow her to gauge their moods. She offers 10 pre-set options, where 10 would be having a great day, down to 1, representing “head in bed”, in other words: “I would prefer to have stayed under the duvet”.

This exercise may involve the use of what is known as a “talking piece”, an item passed between participants, giving the holder speaking rights. It ensures that everyone is involved and has an equal voice.

This teacher’s “talking piece” is a giraffe soft toy called Sophie,

a travel gift to her from a friend when she was going on a trip to Africa.

Subsequently, Stowe was astonished to discover that what started as a jokey nod to her own tall stature, had a resonance with her new found passion: the giraffe is known as a restorative animal, as they have the largest hearts of all animals and a long neck that RP practitioners would say enables them to see all perspectives.

“I think students may unconsciously find it comforting to hold Sophie while sharing with the group”, she says.

The same process can be used for a variety of classroom conversations, or indeed between teachers, to tackle issues from bullying to poor application to homework.

Restorative practice also makes much use of circle time, where participants sit around in a group, making it easier to facilitate conversation and connection.

When dealing with wrong doing, restorative practice involves a shift “from blame to connection, from fear to love”, she says. 

She adds:  “It allows us to see in our young students what they may not yet see in themselves. It allows us to offer them a door to their best selves.”.

Stowe cites the Babemba Tribe of South Africa who, she says, “live their restorative values in community, even when, and perhaps especially when, someone has caused harm. They gather around them in a circle and remind them of something good they have done; a genuine reason why they like, love or value them, reminding them of their worthiness.”

Based on her findings, Stowe is satisfied that the implementation of restorative practice does  improve relationships.

“It promoted empathy and encouraged teachers and students to work together. It developed emotional literacy skills among the participants, who gained a sense of ownership over behaviour.”

She also found a change in approach to misbehaviour and evidence that improved relationships often had a positive impact on the work ethic in a classroom.

And, she says, teachers enjoyed working as a solution-focussed community:   “It helped to reinvent and enhance their best practice through  the sharing of ideas.”

Stowe’s findings appeared recently  in  The Journal of Mediation & Applied Conflict Analysis, published by The Kennedy Institute, Maynooth University. Named after the late US Senator Edward Kennedy, who played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process, it is a centre of expertise for building capacity for constructive approaches to conflict at all levels in society.

Among the courses it offers is a part-time post-graduate certificate in conflict resolution in education, which includes a module on restorative practice.

To learn more about Michelle’s methods or get in touch, visit;; or email her at

What the teachers say about RP...

Michelle Stowe used a series of quotes from teachers to illustrate her findings about the impact of participation in the project on their practices, their relationships with students and the potential for wider school change. Here is a selection of their reflections:

• During the circle is the only time I see them really listen and respect one another

• The jokers seem to sense importance in work. I'm starting to get through, I got 26/30 essays

• We were both expressing our needs in a positive, calm manner; knowing the right RP questions allowed me to respond in this way

• It certainly forces you out of autopilot

• I am a dictator, I'm reflecting on the teacher I want to be, I am going to change this

• I'm integrating circle idea to all my practices now

• If they (teachers) have no control and no discipline problems then they may not be bothered

• Some teachers are not comfortable with it. They may feel vulnerable

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