This post is one in a series about integrating Restorative Practices into a model for residential learning. Start withe the introduction as a primer and explore posts on other strategies you can utilize with a restorative lens.
Introduction | Roommate Agreements | Circles
The roommate agreement has become a hallmark of residential learning models, combining the practical task of preparing roommates to share a space and lending itself well to several learning goals that are likely to fall within a residential curriculum. The agreement can build capacity around self-awareness, interpersonal relationships, and community responsibility, which are common goals addressed by curricular models. However, depending on how they’re implemented, the learning and effectiveness of agreements can vary greatly; we’ve all seen agreements made up of exclusively one-word responses. The framing of this strategy can be the difference between a hastily completed administrative process or a restorative approach with a focus on connection and learning.
When operating ideally, a Restorative Practices model should include 80% informal proactive work centered on building community and establishing norms and 20% responsive work managing conflict and harm. Hence, a roommate agreement model that encourages residents to establish norms and discuss how they will commit to handling conflict before conflict occurs can be a great restorative tool. However, the framing and presentation of the agreement is key since a typical “contract” often utilizes a retributive model of justice, relying on punishments for violations rather than repairing harm to relationships.
Some of this shift in framing is as simple as an intentional language shift in the form itself. Framing the agreement as “contract,” using technical language, including long series of close-ended questions, or referring violations of the agreement to a conduct process connotes a retributive model. Residents may treat the process as administrative or approach the agreement with an adversarial mindset. Instead, framing the agreement as a conversation starter and an opportunity to create a shared set of standards promotes a collaborative approach. Some specific questions about common sources of conflict like guests, noise, and cleanliness may always be necessary, but including questions that promote connection and address norms around conflict may prevent conflict escalation.
- What traditions will we have as roommates?
- What do I need from a roommate?
- How will we communicate?
- What’s the best way to communicate when things get tense?
- How will we address a violation of the agreement?
While these questions are broad and require more than a one-word answer, students who take the time to discuss them in detail will foster stronger relationships with their roommates and have a process by which to address conflict should it arise.
In addition to the language, how the agreement is formatted may also send implicit messages about how to approach the process. Paper forms will always be a standby, but when multiple paper copies must be maintained, editing the form becomes difficult, and the agreement may feel more like a one-time decision rather than a continuing conversation. Utilizing a digital agreement, like that offered by Roompact, allows everyone to have access to an updated form while making the form easily editable should roommates continue the conversation. The timing of the delivery is also key. An agreement that is emailed out on move-in day or handed out at the first floor meeting may prove ineffective. Roommates have not come to understand their own needs in sharing a space, and the form may get lumped in with administrative documents, like room condition reports, and approached as a task rather than a conversation.
One way to ensure the roommate agreement becomes a conversation about standards is to have RAs facilitate each of these conversations. Many of us can attest that the agreements facilitated by a student staff member tend to be more detailed, and a staff member who’s participated in training can also encourage a restorative approach. This in part may be done by coaching an RA to use the conversation as an opportunity for connection; in addition to the roommate agreement being an opportunity for roommates to set norms in their shared space, it can also be a time the RA will create norms around their interactions with residents. Being present for the conversation and taking time to get to know the residents sets the tone that an RA is there as a point of connection as well as a resource.
Additionally, an RA trained in restorative tools may also be able to build several of the tools into the roommate agreement conversation. For example, the RA may take this early conversation as an opportunity to model the use of a talking piece in small group discussions. Essentially, the RA brings an item – either something that represents the community or just an object at hand – that will serve as the talking piece and introduce it by saying the person holding the talking piece speaks and those not holding the talking piece focus on listening. This keeps conversations orderly and may help balance the amount each party speaks. It’s also an opportunity to introduce affective statements and affective questions, informal restorative tools.
While not necessary to teach all these skills in a single conversation, introducing these tools prior to major conflict normalizes their use. If a roommate pair is already in the heat of conflict, they may be less than receptive to using a talking piece for the first time or learning about affective statements. However, if they are already accustomed to using a talking piece during difficult conversations and have practiced affective statements and restorative questions, these tools can help address the conflict more effectively.
All that said, depending on the ratio of residents to RAs, it may seem unrealistic to expect RAs to facilitate a conversation for each roommate group to which they are assigned. However, this initial time investment is in line with the 80/20 philosophy of Restorative Practices. Ideally, the investment in these proactive conversations should build connections between roommates and mitigate conflict, meaning that there should be fewer conflicts where extensive mediation is necessary, and if mediation is necessary, the RA should be better equipped to work with the roommates.
Hence, it may be worth allocating more time early in a curriculum to prioritize these conversations. While this could look like scaling back other strategies, it could also mean integrating them. A floor meeting that focuses on community standards or teaching restorative skills can lead into roommate agreement conversations, and these conversations can double as the first intentional interaction of the academic year. If these conversations will simply take more time than RAs have, a version of the integrated approach can still be used. A single floor meeting to frame the agreement and provide restorative tools can serve as a starting point, and part of an intentional interaction can check in about the roommate agreement.
Last but not least, be mindful of the way you assess agreements and their completion. With the sheer volume of agreements to be completed, it’s logical to take a quantitative approach and examine completion rate. While there’s nothing wrong with aiming for 100%, placing too much emphasis on that goal – especially with a strict deadline – may sacrifice quality for quantity. Instead, looking at qualitative responses for a few key questions may be a better indicator of student learning. A quantitative approach still has its place, and tracking the number of roommate conflicts that require staff intervention can test whether a proactive restorative approach serves to mitigate responsive conflict mediation.
- Take a look at your current roommate agreement. How might the format frame the residents’ view of the agreement?
- What questions in your current roommate agreement promote conversation? Are there questions you can add to promote connections and conversation?
- What barriers exist to having RAs facilitating a conversation for each roommate agreement? Is that a realistic option?