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What are restorative practices?

Sara AustinAugust 1, 2022

What are restorative practices?

We know that a positive school climate and culture help students achieve more. Restorative practices support teachers and students in creating this positive environment by providing opportunities for everyone to feel heard, respected, and supported. 

A restorative practice is a learning experience designed to promote sustainable social, emotional, and academic skills for all students. These practices involve reflection, empathy building, and dialogue to strengthen relationships with peers, teachers, administrators, and parents.

Restorative practices can be used to transform school climate and culture

Restorative practices are an emerging field with the potential to transform schools, resulting in improved student conduct, enhanced social-emotional learning, less exclusionary discipline, and more academic engagement.

Through ongoing dialogue, trust-building exercises, and empathy-building conversations, restorative practices reduce offending behavior and conflict, maintain positive relationships, strengthen community cohesion, and improve school culture.

There are many ways to define restorative practices

Restorative practices are a range of philosophies, approaches, and strategies to reduce offending behavior and conflict, maintain positive relationships, and strengthen community cohesion. Restorative practices are not a single method but a set of methods used to reduce harm and improve relationships. 

The best restorative practices have three components: 

  • Caring relationships that are visible, genuine, and supportive 
  • Clear processes for addressing harm 
  • A commitment from all involved parties to understand what is at stake in the conflict

Restorative practices promote the inclusion of all parties in dialogue

Restorative practices are used to build and strengthen interpersonal relationships and foster a sense of community. When a negative event occurs, restorative practices bring together all parties in dialogue to answer questions like: 

  • What happened? 
  • Who was affected by what happened? 
  • What are the impacts? 
  • What are the root causes of what happened?
  • How can we work together to make this right?
  • How can we prevent this from happening again?

Restorative practices promote a conversation between all parties involved in the conflict. This approach aims to build trust among people involved in a conflict rather than seek punishment or revenge.

The responses to conflict and harm include dialogue between the victim, offender, and others impacted by the incident. They also include deep self-reflection by individuals, group problem-solving processes, and peer mediation.

This dialogue can take place in a variety of contexts, including: 

Conferencing – An informal meeting between the victim(s), offender(s), other people affected by the incident (such as witnesses), and support staff in which everyone can share their views on what happened and how they feel about it. This should take place in an environment where everyone feels safe to talk about their experiences. The aim is for all parties involved to think of ways to improve things for themselves or others who may be affected by the situation.

Mediation – A form of dispute resolution where parties meet together under the supervision of a mediator. The role of the mediator is to help them reach an agreement on how best to resolve their dispute without resorting to disciplinary action.

Circles – The use of circles in restorative practices is influenced by the communal practices of indigenous peoples. To use this strategy in your classroom, gather your students and have them sit in a circle facing each other. Designate an item to be passed around the room in order to indicate who may speak. If, for instance, a student is holding the “talking ball”, the rest of the students must listen to him or her. Because the circle is round, it asserts a paradigm in which nobody has power over anyone else – each circle member is a co-equal part. In this way, circles can become safe spaces that nurture a sense of community and belonging. This dynamic fosters trust and respect among all members of the classroom community. 

  • Circles for conflict resolution – These involve bringing victims together with offenders in circles (called restorative circles). They share their stories about what caused the harm or loss, who was harmed, and why they were harmed, and seek ways that all involved can contribute towards healing together and forging a more positive path forward. 
  • Circles for building community – Circles are not just for resolving conflict. Adding circles to your advisory periods or morning check-ins provides an environment that fosters empathy and helps build positive relationships among students. 

Benefits of restorative practices

Restorative practices establish and clarify expectations

For restorative practices to work effectively, everyone needs to know each other’s expectations—students and adults—and they all need to respect one another enough so that they can communicate openly about those expectations with each other if something goes wrong.

Students need to know what is expected of them and understand what it means to be part of a community. At the end of the day, students are still developing, and they may not have the innate tools to understand how their actions affect others. If a student is punished without understanding why or how that behavior affects the other people, then there is nothing motivating them to avoid that behavior in the future. Through restorative practices, teachers can provide a framework for conflict resolution and a roadmap for becoming productive, helpful citizens. 

Restorative practices build strong relationships of trust

One of the most important benefits of restorative practices is that they help build strong relationships and better connections between students and teachers, students and students, and even improve communication between parents and teachers. Strong trust among all stakeholders in the educational experience yields improved student outcomes. 

When you trust your teacher or principal to help you learn more effectively, you’re more likely to work with them to create an environment where learning takes place. When you trust your classmates to work with you rather than against you in a classroom activity or project, it allows for collaboration that produces higher quality work by all parties involved. And when parents feel like they can talk openly with teachers about their child’s academic experience without judgment or fear of retribution from administrators, they will be more likely to support their children academically at home — which helps to improve student outcomes.

Restorative practices motivate students by making them feel valued

Students become more motivated when they feel valued, and you can help foster this motivation by including them in the decision-making process. When it comes to resolving conflict in healthy ways, the communication skills students develop in circles, mediation, and conferencing give them a voice and a choice. 

As you encourage them to share their opinions and ask for their input on what happens in class, you demonstrate your respect for their voice. In addition, by nurturing this dialogue, you show students that you believe their ideas have value, encouraging them to work harder and stay invested in the learning process.

Restorative practices offer a research-based alternative to punishing students

While restorative practices are rooted in long-held indigenous practices and years of research, they are a new approach to school discipline. Restorative approaches offer an alternative vision of how schools should be run, which looks beyond punishments like suspensions and expulsions.

Instead of focusing on punitive measures to correct behavior, restorative practices are intended to repair harm and nurture healthy interpersonal relationships. 

These strategies teach students how to resolve conflict and solve problems in a safe, supportive environment. These community-building practices also encourage respect between students, teachers, and the students themselves.

In addition to improving the overall climate of your classroom, restorative processes have been shown to increase academic achievement by teaching students how to act in different situations (instead of just flagging what they should not do). As the need for discipline decreases, all school community members can stay engaged with the learning process without interruption. 

Conclusion

Restorative practices can play a vital role in how we approach school discipline. If a student is struggling with their work or interacting poorly with others, restorative practices can help you understand the root cause of the problem and tailor your response to it. For example, a teacher might learn that one student has been bullied by another and is upset about it. Instead of seeking to punish, a teacher using restorative practices can facilitate a conversation that helps to uncover the underlying issues. 

While effective, restorative practices are not a quick fix. This conciliatory approach has many benefits but requires careful planning and deliberate fidelity. Successful implementation of a restorative practices program requires a holistic approach, with ongoing support and input from all school community members. Students, teachers, and administrators must be actively engaged daily in fostering healthy communication and promoting practical conflict resolution skills. 

With proper training and support, a robust program of restorative practices lets all students thrive in their environment without fear of being harmed or punished for minor issues. In addition, students who are exposed to restorative practices in school can learn and practice conflict resolution skills in a safe environment. 

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