A new approach to behavior has people of all ages thinking about virtues and looking for ways to create holy habits.
It’s called Virtue-Based Restorative Discipline, and it’s making every aspect of learning better at St. George School in Hermann.
“When you really start to look for opportunities to practice virtues in your life, it just shifts your whole way of thinking,” said Principal Julie Clingman. “It’s a really good thing.”
Based on a book of the same name by Lynne M. Lang of the St. Louis archdiocese, Virtue-Based Restorative Discipline (VBRD) takes a step-by-step, community-wide approach to building positive relationships and encouraging behavior that leads people closer to God.
The program is designed to help students, their families and the whole parish learn from mistakes and repair the bonds broken by destructive behavior.
Confronted with isolated instances of bullying over the past several years, the staff and administration set out to create an environment that helps student function better in school, in society and in the Church.
“We realized early on that it wouldn’t make much difference unless it’s also being encouraged at home and throughout the community,” Mrs. Clingman noted.
They settled on VBRD because it makes sense, incorporates prayer and a wealth of Catholic Christian spirituality, includes the entire parish, and focuses on building up virtues rather than punishing behavior.
“It’s authentically Catholic,” said Mrs. Clingman. “It uses the vocabulary that we as Catholics understand. It teaches our children about the rock-solid cornerstones of who we are as Jesus calls us to live.”
Ordinary virtues are good habits that get built up with practice and affirmation.
The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are gifts imparted by God at baptism. They flourish in families and communities that nurture them with God’s constant help.
“They lead us directly to God,” school officials stated in materials introducing VBRD. “They give life to the moral virtues by allowing God to dwell within us and by drawing us to be virtuous out of love for Him.”
Mrs. Lang, author of the comprehensive manual on implementing VBRD, is director of school climate for the St. Louis archdiocese.
An experienced Catholic educator and author, she has worked for 15 years in the fields of violence prevention, health education and curriculum development.
The goal is to help decrease unwanted behaviors while increasing virtue and character development.
VBRD is built on four guiding principles:
•“We will dedicate ourselves to living virtue.”
•“We will support others in living virtue.”
•“We will commit to constructive thoughts, words and deeds.”
•“When faced with challenges or conflict, we will find solutions that cultivate virtue for ourselves and for one another.”
Spirit in charge
St. George parish kicked off the program this past autumn, setting off on a three-year exploration of the theological virtues — faith, hope and love.
“We are concentrating on faith this year and talking about all the virtues that help us build our faith,” said Mrs. Clingman.
Each month, a faith-based virtue — including stewardship, reverence, generosity, gratitude, honesty, mercy, justice and zeal — is emphasized throughout the school, as well as in adult meetings and in Sunday homilies and bulletin reflections.
“Our school motto for this year is ‘Rooted in Faith, Growing in Virtues,’” said Mrs. Clingman. “And the teachers plan the activities from it. And we all take part in them.
“Virtues come from the Holy Spirit,” she noted. “So the Spirit is in the driving seat for this.”
Bond of perfection
The students, teachers and staff start each day with a prayer based on Colossians 3:12-15:
“We are Your chosen ones, holy and beloved. Help us to grow in heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience so we may bear with one another and be forgiving.
“If we have a grievance against another, may we be as forgiving as You have been with us. And over all these virtues may we put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.
“Let your perfect peace control our hearts, the peace that calls us into one body. We are thankful, in Your holy name. Amen.”
Mrs. Clingman also invites everyone pray for “peace of mind, forgiveness of heart, increase of faith in my soul.”
“You need all three,” she said.
“Take it to God”
The transformation at St. George School is already well under way.
“Tempers are not as short,” said Mrs. Clingman. “Accusations are not just thrown around. It doesn’t seem like people are so quick to judge.”
The restorative aspect of VBRD is helping students learn how to apologize and how to accept an apology correctly.
“We teach the children what forgiveness looks like,” she said. “It’s not just you saying, ‘I’m sorry’ and them saying, ‘It’s okay’ and being done with it.”
Because it’s not okay.
“So now we have conversations,” she said. “It’s not okay that you kicked me. It hurts. It’s not okay that you took my pencil and broke it. It was my only pencil, and now I don’t have one.”
Those conversations become less difficult when the students understand that they have to “take it to God” in prayer first.
“Conversation builds relationships, and relationships bring you closer to God,” Mrs. Clingman noted.
Making all things new
This approach is affecting every aspect of the learning environment, from gym to science to reading to recess.
“We’ve had some things come up this year that if we handled it ‘the old way,’ it would probably have severed relationships completely,” said Mrs. Clingman.
“But we’ve been doing it ‘the new way,’ having conversations and focusing on restoring the relationship and using it as a chance to reinforce virtues that will help us down the road,” she said.
“You build your relationship with God, and He gives you what you need to build relationships with others,” she said. “He builds your skills, your knowledge and your wisdom, and then He gives you opportunities to put all of those into practice.”