How to Implement Restorative Practices in Schools

A woman talking to a teenage girl

Offsite suspensions as a disciplinary method are causing problems in our schools. The ACLU’s Dignity in Schools Campaign compiled a report in 2013 confirming the detrimental effect this was having on students and identified a phenomenon they called “school pushout.” The study found that public students in Texas who were suspended or expelled from school became twice as likely to repeat a grade, and 10 percent of students with at least one disciplinary contract ended up dropping out.

In the report, it was argued that over three million students are suspended from school every year. While on suspension, they aren’t learning, and when they come back, they’re confronted with an overwhelming pile of makeup work. This, according to the report, increases the chance of students dropping out of school altogether; they’re effectively “pushed out” of the school system. The report’s authors argued that a way to address discipline problems without kicking students out of school is needed. One alternative method gaining popularity in recent years is restorative practices.

Understanding Restorative Practices

Restorative practices, also known as restorative justice, is an approach to classroom discipline that encourages conversations over punishments like suspension and expulsion. This is thought to encourage students to talk through their emotions to get to the root of a problem. Once the person who has done wrong has admitted it and made it right with the group, they can be readmitted into the fold. The International Institute of Restorative Practices describes it as the practice of fostering connection and community between individuals in a group setting, stating on their website:

“All humans are hardwired to connect. Just as we need food, shelter and clothing, human beings also need strong and meaningful relationships to thrive. Restorative practice is an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities.”

Schools that use restorative practices focus on community, attempting to build empathy among students by helping them understand themselves why what they have done is wrong for or harmful to their community. Instructors take a more collaborative model than the norm, conversing with rather than at their students and trying to engage in one on one connection as often as they can.

Implementing Restorative Practices in Schools

This may sound vague at first, but there are concrete ways of implementing the restorative practices model inside the classroom. Education technology company Kickboard, based in new Orleans, LA, outlined five ways educators can use the model to their advantage when working in schools:

  1. Mindfulness practices
  2. Using restorative circles
  3. Using affective (emotional) statements
  4. Forming collaborative class agreements
  5. Having a problem-solving “anchor chart” for the classroom

Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, are recommended for increasing a student’s focus and can also help reduce stress and anxiety. Sitting for five minutes and doing nothing but focusing on their breathing can help clear students’ minds, connect them to what they are doing and leave them better able to handle the rest of the day. Mobile apps like Headspace and Calm can help guide the student through a mindfulness session.

Restorative circles are regularly used in the restorative practice model as a way to encourage conversation and the sharing of experiences as well as an opportunity to brainstorm. The Center for Restorative Process said that circles help with leadership skills, self-awareness, relationship skills and self-management. When in the circle, there is a centerpiece and a “talking piece,” an object that whomever is talking holds. When that person is holding the talking piece, it is their turn to speak without interruption. Common discussion topics in these circles include group issues like class lessons, daily check-ins and conflict resolution.

Affective statements, also known as “I feel” statements, provide a framework for students to tell others what is wrong and what can be done to solve a problem. Students can use them with each other, or with another student. On their blog Kickboard provided a sample framework they dubbed a “feelings script,” which looks like this:

I feel/am _________________(emotion) when/that you______________(behavior)

because__________________ (reason). I need________________ (request).

This skeleton allows students to communicate a problem and emotion, then provide a way to resolve the situation without introducing blame.

Collaborative class agreements are much the way they sound: a code of conduct that the whole classroom creates together and agrees on. The idea is to give students a sense of pride and ownership in the workings of their classroom environment and make it more likely that they will abide by those rules.

Problem-solving anchor charts categorize common events likely to happen during a school day, and then provide actions students can use to deal with those events. Teacher Nneka A. Bennett uses the categories “big deal” and “no big deal.” The correct action for a “bid deal” situation – a fight, injury or similar problem – is always to tell an adult. A “no big deal” situation can be worked out between students.

The Effect of Restorative Practices in Schools

The school pushout phenomenon has been linked to more than just dropout rates. When students drop out, they’re more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. A 2016 study entitled Outcomes of a Restorative Circle Program in a High School Setting sought to explore restorative practices in action and see whether it actually could be of benefit to students in a real-world setting. Authors of the study spoke with students and faculty at a Virginia high school where over 90 percent of the students were African American, and three quarters of the student body qualified for free or reduced lunch programs.

The study authors found some real benefits of using restorative practices in the classroom. According to that paper, students started using circles on their own to problem solve, and teachers were more likely to talk things out with their students than jump right to punitive measures like suspension. One student involved in the study said they preferred using circles to solve their conflicts over suspension:

“I noticed that some fights, some arguments, get talked out more instead of just suspending somebody from school where they get away from their education. They don’t learn (anything) for that whole five days. Instead of doing (suspensions,) you could do a circle, they sign the paper, then they go to class, and become friends again, or they leave each other alone.” – (female, 11th grade)

How You Can Get Involved

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