As we learn more about child development and how much what happens to students outside the classroom impacts their behavior inside the classroom, there is a noticeable shift towards an improved framework for classroom management. Traditionally, school discipline has been modeled on the criminal justice system, with students punished for negative behavior, or even removed from the community altogether through detention, suspension, or expulsion. However, research is now revealing that punishing students who are struggling may do more harm than good, as it responds to the original harm with further harm.
In recent years, many schools and districts have started moving toward a model called restorative justice (or restorative practices) as an alternative to the traditional school discipline models that are largely based on punishment.
Supporting a Healthy Classroom Community
Restorative justice has varied roots and has been attributed to various religious affiliations, indigenous practices, and the victims’ rights movement. At the heart of restorative justice is the idea that our social relationships are vital to our individual health. Therefore, restorative justice is designed to heal the harm that comes with interpersonal conflict. It offers a variety of strategies, but one of the most common is joining any persons who have caused harm in the community together with those who have been affected to provide an opportunity for the persons who caused harm to heal it and peacefully rejoin the group.
There are many benefits to using this model in schools, including increased student attendance and time in class, fewer disruptions, and even a reduction in bullying. If done well, restorative practices are very comprehensive, and require a different way of thinking for both students and teachers. A recent EdWeek blog summarized these shifts quite succinctly. For adults in schools, restorative practices call for a commitment to “work[ing] with students (the victims and the accused) to come to a solution rather than simply handing down punishment.” If students cause harm in the community, restorative practices require them to think outside of themselves and “focus on the harm their misbehavior caused others, and what they can do to repair the harm and restore and strengthen relationships that may have been affected in the process.”
A School-Based Example of a Restorative Justice Model
The Oakland Unified School District in California has been practicing restorative justice since 2007. The district uses restorative practices in over thirty-five of its schools with plans for even further expansion. Its approach is based on a three-tiered model, shown below.
The first tier (Community Building) focuses on building all students’ social-emotional skills to help them relate to one another positively. In Oakland, and in many other districts, this is done through classroom circles. These circles can be integrated into various parts of the school day, including morning meetings, academic interventions, on an as-needed basis when conflicts arise, or at the closing of the school day. Though circles may vary in their time and focus, most share some common themes. Experts encourage teachers to participate in the circle as a listener to speak and listen along with their students. Many circles incorporate a talking piece to clearly and respectfully delineate the role of the speaker and the listener.
In the second tier (Restorative Processes), schools implement strategies to repair harm as it arises within the community. According to Oakland’s model, this involves approximately 15% of students. Again, the restorative justice model offers a wide variety of strategies to mitigate harm. Each strategy is non-punitive, including mediation, family conferences, and harm-reduction circles.
The third tier (Supported Re-Entry) is focused on successfully re-integrating a student into the group after they have caused harm. Even in restorative settings, there are times when a student must be separated from their classroom community, either voluntarily or involuntarily. To help students rejoin the community, schools provide support to welcome them back, while holding them accountable for their actions.
The Challenge with Restorative Justice in Classrooms
Since restorative justice is built on the idea of sustaining a healthy classroom community, to be successful, it must include 100% of the community members. In school settings, this requires buy-in and support from students, staff, and even families, which can prove to be quite challenging.
As budgets grow smaller and demands get bigger, teachers and administrators often find themselves overwhelmed with managing their day-to-day responsibilities, with no time to learn about, let alone practice a new way of thinking. Yet, it is counterproductive and perhaps even harmful to implement restorative practices only partially. Students thrive in environments that are structured and consistent. If conflict is dealt with in a manner that is unpredictable, it can create instability and cause even more harm. Schools and districts looking to implement restorative practices would be well-served to set up a strong foundation that supports the work.
A Place to Start for Restorative Justice
If you’re looking for where to start with restorative practices, a great begin is with classroom circles. Practice bringing your students to sit and talk together for a dedicated period of time within your day. You can work with your students to set agreements for how you will speak and listen to one another within your circle, and use a talking piece to empower both the speakers and the listeners.
Once your students feel comfortable speaking and listening in your circle while respecting your agreements, you can experiment with using circles to discuss problems that arise in your classroom. The Center for Restorative Practices has a resource with lessons and ideas to help you structure your time in circle and lay a foundation to use restorative practices later on
Resources to Support Restorative Practices
There are a wide variety of supports (many of them free!) available for schools looking to implement restorative practices fully. If you’re looking for resources to help you get started, Rethinking Schools has a comprehensive article that covers the main idea and many misconceptions around restorative justice. Edutopia also has a collection of blogs that include tips and resources to help you get started as well. If you’re interested in taking your work a bit deeper, The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) is a small graduate program based in Pennsylvania that is working to further develop the theory and practice of restorative justice and distribute information globally.
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Ashley Brown has worked as both an elementary school teacher and administrator. Ashley spent several years teaching third grade in St. Paul, Minnesota, before moving to Portland, Oregon to serve as Head of Lower School for a charter school in the city.
Prior to her time as an educator, Ashley worked as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Education, partnering with schools in the turnaround process to support them with their school improvement efforts. Ashley also worked at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on a program aimed at improving education, housing and health in low-income neighborhoods throughout the country.
Ashley applies all of her experience to her role on the Professional Development team, working with teachers and administrators to help them develop and maintain a successful, comprehensive curriculum process. Ashley has a deep respect for school teachers and leaders and is committed to providing them with high-quality professional development to make their incredible work sustainable.