Introduction to Restorative Practices in Schools: Healing, Reconciliation, and Academic Success 

Introduction

Restorative practices in schools are a set of holistic approaches aimed at fostering relationships, promoting accountability, and establishing an inclusive learning environment. Derived from the principles of restorative justice, these practices prioritize the healing and reparation of community bonds that may have been broken due to conflicts or misconduct. This article provides an overview of restorative practices in schools, incorporating historical background, thought leaders, contemporary insights, and a captivating case study.

Historical Background

The integration of restorative practices in schools can be traced back to the 1990s, initially gaining traction in Australia and New Zealand, before moving to the United States and other Western countries (Morrison & Vaandering, 2012). Originally derived from indigenous cultures, these practices blend seamlessly with the educational domain, providing a humane alternative to traditional punitive disciplinary actions like suspension or expulsion.

Key Thought Leaders

Howard Zehr

Known as the “grandfather of restorative justice,” Zehr’s work significantly influences restorative practices in schools. His foundational text, “Changing Lenses” (1990), is often cited for its emphasis on the importance of focusing on harms and needs rather than rules and punishment.

Brenda Morrison

A significant player in the field of restorative practices in schools, Morrison is celebrated for her work on the “whole-school approach,” advocating for the pervasive application of restorative principles throughout the educational environment (Morrison, 2007).

Thalia González

An advocate for legal frameworks supporting restorative justice in schools, González has researched and published extensively on the systemic advantages and implementation strategies for school-based restorative practices (González, 2015).

Methodologies and Programs

Differentiating Restorative Practices: Discipline Approach vs. Classroom Well-being

The methodologies and programs associated with restorative practices in schools serve dual and interconnected purposes: addressing discipline through a restorative lens and enhancing classroom well-being. Both aim at nurturing a positive school culture but from slightly different angles.

Restorative Discipline Approaches

Restorative Circles for Discipline: These structured discussions provide a platform for all involved parties—those who have caused harm and those affected—to come together in the presence of a trained mediator. The primary focus is on uncovering the impact of the harm, addressing the needs of the affected parties, and determining a collective path towards making amends. This method shifts the focus from punishment to understanding, accountability, and healing.

Peer Mediation: This approach leverages the influence and relatability of peers to resolve conflicts. Selected students, typically older or possessing qualities of empathy and leadership, receive training to facilitate resolution discussions among their peers. The goal is to resolve disputes amicably before they escalate, emphasizing the restoration of relationships over punitive measures.

Enhancing Classroom Well-being

Healing Spaces for Well-being: Unlike the direct conflict resolution focus of restorative circles and peer mediation, healing spaces are dedicated areas within the school where students can engage in self-reflection and emotional processing. These spaces, often infused with mindfulness practices, aim to support students in managing their emotions and stress. By providing a tranquil environment for introspection, healing spaces contribute to overall student well-being, promoting a calm and conducive learning atmosphere.

Restorative Practices for Classroom Management: Beyond addressing misconduct, restorative practices are integrated into daily classroom management to build a community and enhance the learning environment. This includes regular check-ins, community-building circles, and discussions that foster open communication and mutual respect. These practices aim to prevent conflicts by strengthening relationships and ensuring students feel valued and understood within the classroom setting.

Restorative circles in the classroom: Restorative circles in the classroom represent a powerful tool for building community, fostering open dialogue, and addressing conflicts in a constructive manner. By inviting students and teachers to participate in a circle, this approach promotes a sense of equality and mutual respect, as everyone is given an equal opportunity to speak and listen. The circle process encourages sharing personal experiences and feelings, which deepens understanding and empathy among participants. When used to address classroom conflicts or challenges, restorative circles facilitate collective problem-solving and help identify actionable steps to repair harm and restore relationships. This methodology not only resolves immediate issues but also strengthens the classroom community by establishing a foundation of trust, respect, and open communication. Incorporating restorative circles into regular classroom routines can significantly enhance the learning environment, making it more inclusive and supportive for all students.

Case Study: Smithville Middle School

For decades, zero-tolerance policies involving punitive practices like suspension and expulsion have been the norm for school discipline. However, research shows the ineffectiveness and harmful impacts of these policies. As an alternative, some schools are adopting restorative justice (RJ) disciplinary approaches focused on repairing relationships and accountability rather than just punishment.

Researchers conducted a case study examining RJ implementation over five months at Smithville Middle School (pseudonym).  Data was collected through interviews, observations, and document review. The study found RJ takes a contrasting philosophical approach to traditional punitive discipline models.

Rather than just handing out consequences, RJ emphasizes resolving conflicts through open dialogue and having students take accountability for repairing harm done. Practices included creating a collaboratively-defined “respect agreement” and students writing reflective letters addressing their misbehaviors. The goal was addressing issues through learning experiences instead of punitive measures.

For teachers accustomed to zero-tolerance policies, adopting RJ required a substantial mindset shift. They expressed frustration with traditional punishments’ ineffectiveness, as students became desensitized. RJ moved the focus to repairing relationships and shared accountability within the classroom community.

While implementation was still in early stages, the study identified several positive outcomes across stakeholder groups. Students appreciated reflective disciplinary practices that prompted deeper contemplation of their actions’ impacts. Teachers saw improved classroom relationships as conflicts became opportunities for dialogue over punishment.

One administrator highlighted how the restorative approach allowed the learning process to continue positively following conflicts by “knowing the relationship is okay.” These successes align with prior research showing RJ’s potential benefits.

Though challenges exist in adopting RJ frameworks, this case study provides an encouraging look at RJ’s potential as a more constructive, supportive disciplinary model compared to zero-tolerance policies. By prioritizing accountability, communication, and learning over punishment, RJ represents a pathway to more effective school discipline.


Lyn Doppler: Observations from around the world

Extract from Lyn Doppler’s Churchill Scholarship Report to study the effects on student achievement in schools where restorative practices have been embedded as a way of learning and being together – UK, USA and Canada:

My Learnings and Conclusions from International Investigations

My learnings and conclusions from international investigations confirm a culture change which occurs in schools where Restorative Practices are embedded as a way of being and learning. This change affects the various levels in a school, and each level is connected and adds value to the other within a cycle of continuous school improvement, leading to enhanced student achievement.

Culture:

  • Seek culture change at a whole school level where the focus is on building healthy relationships via a common language and framework and within a climate of trust and empowerment.

Leadership:

  • Provide structured opportunities via the principal/leadership team for staff dialogue, including reflection, rigorous discussion, and respectful challenge that may clarify beliefs and rationale for teaching and student learning, and in turn, influence practice.

Teacher Practice:

  • Allow for individual teachers to focus on the big picture and be explicit in rationale and teaching practice rather than work intuitively and be susceptible to feeling overwhelmed by the myriad of expectations, programs, and external accountability constraints.

Curriculum & Student Learning:

  • Embed Restorative Practices within the Quality Teaching framework (NSW) as they provide a perfect alignment to support student-centred learning, constructivist pedagogy, and inquiry-based participatory approaches to learning via an explicit framework.

Capacity:

  • Use the restorative framework as the catalyst for sustainable student achievement by focusing on:
    • Quality teaching and learning practice (as opposed to a narrow test focus) combined with quality professional development and within a climate of empowerment, trust, and support.
    • Building healthy, respectful relationships (as opposed to building more programs).
  • Create specialist positions at school and district level to oversee the training and ongoing support for schools in the restorative philosophy.
  • Develop clusters of schools or entire districts willing to embark upon the Restorative Practices journey so that a collegial support network is formed. These networks are invaluable during times of stress when it’s natural to revert to learned behaviours, especially in the early days of the implementation dip and cycle.
  • Provide accreditation for teachers completing modules in this philosophy at conferences and professional development sessions.
  • Provide a manual which complements the initial Restorative Practices training and acts as a scaffold for teachers, along with professional dialogue to enable them to grow their practice.

The capacity building around the world in Restorative Practices will continue if we provide opportunities to have reflective conversations by celebrating successes and critically evaluating failures. Many schools seem to find the transition from a way of being to a way of teaching and learning a little more challenging. In schools, this premise has important implications for leadership teams in keeping the big picture in focus and the restorative foundations healthy by filtering the minutiae of things with which schools and teachers are buffeted.


Contemporary Insights

Virtual Implementation

Embracing Trauma-Informed Restorative Practices

An essential evolution in the application of restorative practices within educational settings is the integration of a trauma-informed approach. This perspective recognizes that many students come to school bearing the weight of various forms of trauma, which can significantly impact their behavior, learning, and relationships. Trauma-informed restorative practices (TIRP) are designed to create a school environment that acknowledges the presence of trauma, understands how it affects individuals and communities, and responds by embedding principles of safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment into restorative methods.

The implementation of TIRP involves training educators to recognize signs of trauma in students and to adjust their restorative approaches accordingly. This may include adapting restorative circles to be more sensitive to the needs of traumatized participants, ensuring that the process does not inadvertently re-traumatize individuals. Schools adopting a trauma-informed lens also work towards fostering resilience and healing by providing resources and support tailored to the needs of those affected by trauma.

Enhancing Teacher Training and Professional Development

The evolution of teacher training programs signifies a growing recognition of the importance of equipping educators with the skills and knowledge necessary to implement restorative practices effectively. Comprehensive training now includes not only the foundational principles of restorative justice but also practical techniques for facilitating restorative circles, managing difficult conversations, and integrating restorative approaches into daily classroom management. Professional development opportunities are expanding to include advanced workshops, peer mentoring, and community-building exercises that reinforce a restorative culture among staff members.

Focus on Systemic Integration

The systemic integration of restorative practices into school policies and procedures marks a significant step toward institutionalizing these approaches. Schools are increasingly developing policies that reflect restorative values, ensuring that responses to conflicts and misconduct are consistent with the principles of healing, accountability, and community restoration. This integration involves revising disciplinary codes, training administrative staff, and creating roles specifically dedicated to overseeing restorative initiatives.

Addressing Equity and Inclusion

A critical contemporary insight into restorative practices is their potential to address issues of equity and inclusion within schools. Restorative approaches are being examined through an equity lens to ensure that they contribute to dismantling systemic biases and promoting a culture of inclusivity. This involves tailoring practices to meet the needs of diverse student populations, recognizing and addressing power imbalances, and actively involving underrepresented voices in restorative conversations.

Research and Evaluation

Ongoing research and evaluation are vital to understanding the impact of restorative practices on school climate, student behavior, and academic outcomes. Current studies are exploring the long-term effects of restorative approaches, with a focus on quantitative data and qualitative insights that can guide future implementation. This research includes exploring the scalability of successful programs, the role of community partnerships, and the integration of restorative practices with other educational innovations.

Conclusion and Academic Insight

The application of restorative practices in schools represents an essential paradigm shift in education, but its implementation is not without challenges. While Zehr, Morrison, González, and others have laid the groundwork, the academic community must continually scrutinize these practices to ensure their efficacy (Zehr, 1990; Morrison, 2007; González, 2015). Studies should focus on identifying best practices for different educational settings, including marginalized communities where restorative practices might be uniquely beneficial. Further longitudinal studies are imperative to truly gauge the long-term impacts, both socio-emotional and academic, of these practices.

References

  • Morrison, B., & Vaandering, D. (2012). Restorative Justice: Pedagogy, Praxis, and Discipline. Journal of School Violence, 11(2), 138-155.
  • Zehr, H. (1990). Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice. Herald Press.
  • González, T. (2015). Socializing Schools: Addressing Racial Disparities in Discipline Through Restorative Justice. In D. J. Losen (Ed.), Closing the School Discipline Gap (pp. 151-165). Teachers College Press.
  • Costello, B., Wachtel, J., & Wachtel, T. (2009). The Restorative Practices Handbook for Teachers, Disciplinarians, and Administrators. International Institute for Restorative Practices.
  • Stutzman Amstutz, L., & Mullet, J. H. (2005). The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools. Good Books.
  • Schiff, M. (2013). Dignity, Disparity and Desistance: Effective Restorative Justice Strategies to Plug the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, 15, 1-52.
  • Evans, K., & Lester, J. (2013). Restorative Justice in Education: What We Know So Far. Middle School Journal, 44(5), 57-63.
  • Ashley, J., & Burke, K. (2017). Implementing Restorative Justice: A Guide for Schools. Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
  • Gregory, A., Clawson, K., Davis, A., & Gerewitz, J. (2016). The Promise of Restorative Practices to Transform Teacher-Student Relationships and Achieve Equity in School Discipline. Journal of Educational & Psychological Consultation, 26(4), 325-353.