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How to Successfully Implement Restorative Practices At School

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Every teacher has their own approach to school discipline. But in recent years, restorative practices have emerged in schools as a new and better way to correct student behavior. Instead of punitive punishment, restorative practices in education promote a positive mindset change in teachers and students.

Educators should implement these practices to foster and maintain mutual respect, resolve problems through a supportive environment, and make positive changes. 

When teachers show that problems and obstacles are opportunities for growth and improvement, students learn they can achieve a positive outcome in any situation.

What are restorative practices in schools?

By now, you've probably heard of restorative practices and restorative justice. Restorative practices work to repair harm through learning and community participation.

Restorative practices in schools focus on cultivating a positive, respectful and inclusive school environment. To achieve this ideal status, educators should develop good relationships with their students based on a foundation of trust, mutual respect, and empathy. It's important to create a fair and safe place for students to adopt a healthy mindset and good coping mechanisms.

The basic concept of restorative justice includes:

  • Shifting from punishment to reflective learning. Students react better to reflecting on their mistakes, being accountable and apologizing for their actions.
  • Raising student awareness of how their actions caused the problematic situation.
  • Community participation to begin the healing process. This may include practicing empathy, owning their harmful behavior and making restitution.

Restorative justice shows young people that conflict resolution through communication has a positive impact when compared to using harsh disciplinary action to correct misbehavior. Teach students the difference between restorative practice and the harmful "criminal justice" system of behavior correction.

Top benefits of restorative practices in education

Children stand at a table during restorative practice activities.

Restorative practices in schools continue to grow and create fair ways to reduce repeat infractions, combat poor attendance and prevent bullying. It also strengthens the ties between you and your students.

There are many benefits to restorative practices. Let's have a look at seven key points that make restorative practices the top choice in reinforcing a healthy school climate:

  • Help students take responsibility. When students take ownership of the conflicts they created, they develop self-awareness of how their actions can negatively affect someone. Instead of blame-shifting, students realize where they went wrong and find positive ways to repair their mistakes. They'll become productive members of society who understand the difference between right and wrong.
  •  Make students aware of consequences. For every negative action, there is a consequence. When students discover what they could lose, they might think twice about their actions and reactions. They should be told about the school district's zero-tolerance policy for bullying and violence.
  • Teach students conflict resolution. Solve problems through communication, patience and understanding instead of fighting. Encourage them to talk about their feelings, brainstorm good solutions and set goals to maintain peace. Other good resolutions include remaining calm and apologizing.
  • Build emotional skills. Make students feel heard and emotionally validated by cultivating social-emotional learning skills. Focus on self and social awareness, emotional management, relationship skills and responsibility.
  • Help students practice empathy. Show kids empathy and teach them to restore peace to frayed relationships. Students learn by observing, so why not demonstrate empathy to your class by showing them you care? Give them examples of what it's like to feel another person's emotions.
  • Teach students to embrace forgiveness. How many times have you heard that forgiveness isn't about condoning someone's wrongdoing, but learning to let go of its harmful emotional impact? Explain to your class that forgiveness involves releasing their anger toward the person who wronged them. Reinforce in their mind that it takes time to learn how to forgive and that holding a grudge harms them more than the person who hurt them.
  • Show the importance of communication. Demonstrate how to have pleasant conversations. Show your students how to take turns during conversations. They need to understand it is polite to listen without interruptions. Model appropriate behavior and use role-playing activities to help show your class the difference between acceptable and negative behavior.
  • Build strong relationships. Restorative justice is crucial for improving relationships between students, teachers, and school administrators. Social and emotional learning (SEL) strategies can help educators to foster good relationships with their students. Show students that you genuinely care about them, work toward building trust and spend time getting to know their parents. It's fundamental to their education and well-being to have consistent open communication and support from teachers.
  • Teach students how to respect different cultures and beliefs. Use photos, videos and current events to develop culturally responsive teaching strategies. It's vital for kids to learn respect for other cultures and understand that nearly everyone has different practices and beliefs. Encourage your students to make friends from a variety of cultures to help them appreciate how other people live their lives.
  • Help community building. Restorative circles play an important role in addressing challenges that students face. Begin by creating a safe space for students to learn empathy, patience, and compassion for others. Use your students' input to decide which topics of discussion they want to address, such as mutual respect and problems surrounding racism. Help students build community through restorative circles and make them more proactive when it comes to developing meaningful connections and promote healing.
  • Encourage students to face fears. Let your students know everyone has fears and concerns. Help your class to overcome their fears through distracting physical or mental activities and conversation. Explain that there are ways to arrive at a solution for every problem. They can write a shortlist of solutions and how to implement a plan to execute one or more of those solutions.

Examples of effective restorative practices you can follow

Three teenage students stand outside while doing restorative practices.

School leaders can implement several restorative practices today. These practices create positive changes to the way you correct student behavior throughout the year. Consider discussing these practices with the school board and administrators to stop punitive discipline measures. You'll find that the whole school benefits from a reduction in problematic behavior.

Restorative practices can also work virtually when they invite students to collaborate on classroom rules like being kind, responsible, and respectful. 

Here's a list of strategies to help you use restorative practices in your class:

Building a school community

Teach your students how restorative practices help them learn and grow from their mistakes. They'll develop the ability to remain accountable and solve problems through responsible decision-making. Invite them to discover the root cause of problems so they can find constructive ways to fix their mistakes.

To help build a sense of community in your class and school:

  • Create common ground for everyone affected by the problem
  • Open a dialogue between affected parties to facilitate healing
  • Use calming techniques to help students overcome tension and anxiety  
  • Arrive at a resolution to help everyone heal and recover from the conflict
  • Offer students workable solutions on how they can repair any harm they caused
  • Hold weekly class meetings to check in with students or discuss problems as they arise

Remember, the goal is to unite rather than divide everyone affected by conflicts.

Establishing classroom norms

A group of students sits on stools in the classroom and raise their hands during restorative justice activities.

Involve your students in deciding the classroom rules and norms. Ask your students to work with you to create a list of acceptable behaviors, problem-solving methods for students and yourself, and effective ways to respect each other. Discuss non-punitive disciplinary action for outbursts and other negative behaviors.

Provide simple examples of how to change negative behavior into a positive one. Ask your students questions such as, "If you're angry, how can you turn that around and feel less tension sooner?" When kids learn how to self-regulate their thoughts and emotions, they'll notice a difference in the way they feel and react. Keep in mind that it takes time to become a master of your thoughts!

Bridge gaps to promote healing and acceptance, reduce poor attendance and minimize repeat offenses. Help students realize they have the power to change their behavior with help from their teachers and school administrators.

Restorative conversations

Restorative conversations encourage teachers and students to share their feelings without guilt or judgment. Follow a restorative approach to conversations that offers students effective ways to repair harm. 

These questions will help you get started on the path toward restorative conversations:

  • Who else is affected by your actions?
  • What can you do to remedy the situation?
  • What happened to make you feel this way?
  • How were those people affected by the conflict?
  • What were your thoughts when the incident happened?

These questions promote constructive conversations that correct misbehavior and teach students how to tackle problems on their own.

Respect agreements

Display respect agreements on walls to remind students what it means to show respect toward each other, their teachers, and school property. 

We've outlined a few suggestions to help you create collaborative respect agreements with your class:

  1. Write a list of how students should respect each other. There are basic rules for everyone to follow, such as being kind, well-mannered, cooperative and refraining from using inappropriate language.
  2. Add another list of how students need to respect teachers. The list can include paying attention and not interrupting class, sympathetic attitudes, abiding by school rules and raising their hand to speak.
  3. Write the third list yourself and share it with the class. Consider these key points to share: be kind to all students and listen to them when they need your help, make school assignments interesting and fun, and don't pile on too much homework.
  4. Finally, create a fourth list that focuses on students and teachers respecting school property. No littering or vandalism, follow school rules without bending them and keep your desks clean.  

Basic agreements reinforce acceptable behavior and teach learners to practice respect every day. Create a student Code of Conduct handout and share it with your class. Encourage them to take the handout home to show their parents.

Restorative inquiry

Teacher and students sit in an office at a desk and discuss restorative practice activities.

Restorative inquiry helps teachers open a calm dialogue with students to repair harm. Teachers might involve one or more students to inquire about the conflict, coax them to repair the damage and restore peace to relationships.

Restorative inquiries also help people harmed by another person's actions. The following questions help you discuss harmful incidents with your student(s):

  • What do you think needs to make this right?
  • What were your thoughts when the episode occurred?
  • What was the hardest part about this problem for you?
  • How did this incident impact you and others that were caught up in the same incident?

Restorative welcome

The restorative circle process (or "restorative welcome") gives the school or classroom community space to invite a student back to school after they took part in a harmful event. Instead of permanently shunning or expelling students, this method provides a gentler way to reintegrate a student into school, rebuild relationships and promote a supportive climate.

Restorative circles should have a purpose, whether it's to establish ground rules, resolve conflicts, welcome a student back to the fold, or set boundaries.

There are a number of ways you can create restorative circles for in-person or virtual classes. Use the following tips to form connection circles with your class: 

  1. Nominate a circle-keeper to begin conversations and pay close attention to the well-being of students. The circle-keeper can be a student, guidance counselor or teacher.
  2. Make it clear that this is a safe space for students to express their feelings without discrimination.
  3. Talk about relevant issues pertaining to recent problems or to create meaningful connections between learners.
  4. Mention community agreements to promote active communication, patience, understanding, acceptance and honesty.
  5. Close the circle by thanking students for their willingness to take part, heal and recover from harmful incidents.

When you hold restorative circles, be sure to have a clear purpose in mind and share that with your students. They need to feel they're part of the solution.

Continually improving restorative practices

As more schools add restorative practices to improve disciplinary measures, it's important to refine these processes. Schools should know communication methods can evolve and educators need to adapt to these modifications. Staff must be receptive to professional development and training to make restorative practices a collaborative effort.

To make sure restorative justice is successful in your school:

  • Look for opportunities that include future amendments and improvements.
  • Realize that minor changes should happen gradually to make it easier for everyone to adjust.
  • Review results to see if the changes make sense or if they should be abandoned for alternate solutions.
  • Cast a wider net to encourage positive changes in the school culture if the transformation was good for students.

Don't be afraid to ask your students for their thoughts and opinions on how best to use adaptive changes to the current restorative practice.

Make restorative practices part of everyday life so that your students reap consistent benefits.

Support and resources

A teacher completes restorative justice activities with a group of students.

For educators seeking support, we've put together a list of resources to help you find what you're looking for: 

 1. Receive online support and resources with valuable tips: 

2. Teacher development solutions including training programs and toolkits: 

When you and your students have the tools you need to resolve conflict in a healthy, open way, you’ll spend more time learning and less time correcting behavior. There’s no telling what benefits you could see in your classroom when you keep an open mind!

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