Restorative practices are used in schools to foster an equitable and positive school culture. Restorative practices focus on strengthening relationships and connections between individuals, both youth and adults, in a school community.

Heptagon.png What Are Restorative Practices?

Restorative practices offer schools an alternative to traditional disciplinary actions that center on punishment for misbehavior and breaking rules. These punishments push kids—disproportionately students of color and low-income students—out of their classroom and school community. They may be suspended or simply sent to the principal’s office, but students who are pushed out may drop out of school altogether.

In contrast, restorative practices focus on resolving conflict, repairing harm, and healing relationships. They support a positive and safe school climate, prevent bullying, and reduce disciplinary incidents. A restorative culture can mitigate the negative effects of punitive discipline policies that exacerbate inequity.

Educators use two types of restorative practices in schools:

  1. Proactive schoolwide strategies to create a sense of community, build healthy relationships, and develop conflict resolution skills, sense of belonging, and agency.
  2. Restorative processes like circles, conflict-resolution programs, peer-led practices, and tribunals to respond to incidents that cause harm.

The Restorative Practices Guide from the Schott Foundation lists some examples of restorative practices: restorative justice, community conferencing, community service, peer juries, circle processes, preventative and post-conflict resolution programs, peer mediation, informal restorative practices, and social-emotional skills instruction.

Heptagon.png Tools for Restorative Justice Practices

How do schools implement restorative practices? Watch how restorative practices are being used in Oakland schools to foster an equitable, respectful, and positive school community. Restorative practices, an outgrowth of restorative justice, provide ways to prevent and/or constructively address conflict and harmful behavior. Restorative practices in education are intended to build community and maintain healthy relationships. Since all learning is social by nature, strong relationships fostered by restorative processes play a powerful gatekeeping role. They help educators and an entire learning community understand each student’s individual needs in order to create a more equitable experience and outcomes.

These video tools take you inside two schools to hear from students and teachers. You will observe students owning, leading, and participating in restorative processes such as fostering shared values and utilizing positive communication in face-to-face discussion.

Conflict Resolution at Edna Brewer Middle School

Restorative Circles at MetWest High School

Heptagon.png Purpose: Creating a Sense of Community

Part of designing more equitable school models includes community-building: shifting away from traditional disciplinary practices and “command and control” school cultures to embrace collaborative community, co-created values, and accountability for upholding shared ideals.

There’s no evidence that punitive measures make schools more safe. What’s more, they’re often disproportionately used with students of color and those from low-income families with serious negative consequences for those students. Zero tolerance-style policies push out and further disadvantage the very kids who need learning and community connections the most. (See, for example, Closing the School Discipline Gap.)

Oakland Unified School District has made a commitment to use restorative practices to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. As a school district, Oakland has prioritized keeping more students of color, students from low-income families, and students from challenging circumstances enrolled, progressing toward graduation, and out of the criminal justice system and local detention centers. They view restorative practices as essential to realizing the spirit and goals expressed in their equity pledge.

Restorative Justice

Restorative practices focus on resolving conflict and healing harm. Restorative justice seeks the root cause behind individual and group behaviors instead of treating the behavior as an isolated symptom or judging students as good or bad based on isolated incidents. These practices assume that all students are worthy and deserving (a fundamental equity assumption), that behavior is learned, and that a specific incident is an extension of some other issue needing resolution.

Sujatha Baliga, Director of the Restorative Justice Project at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. From the 2013 Workshop on Mindfulness in Legal Education at Berkeley Law.

Traditional Paradigm Restorative Paradigm
What rule was broken? What harm occurred and how has it impacted our relationships?
Who broke it? What needs and obligations have arisen from that harm?
How do we punish them? What harm occurred and how has it impacted our relationships?

Restorative justice utilizes talking circles and honors distributed power among students and the sharing of power between adults and young people. Students practice agency and engage in a form of self-governance as part of their shared identity in the community.

In addition to building an equitable and productive community, these practices help students acquire valuable social and emotional skills. Students practice listening with empathy; constructively communicating needs; problem-solving; honoring and embracing differences in opinion, perspective, and experience; and taking responsibility for personal feelings and actions to repair harm. With regular engagement in ongoing dialogue and reflection, students also build leadership, facilitation, and critical thinking skills.

Heptagon.png Use Restorative Justice: Building Healthy Schools

More and more educators are asking, how do schools implement restorative practices? Use these videos from Oakland to help your school staff better understand what restorative practices are, why they’re important to equity in education, and what it could look like in your school. Engage your school team in a review of the research on restorative practices and building collaborative learning environments, such as WestEd’s Restorative Justice in U.S. Schools: A Research Review.

Next, examine the data in your community about disciplinary actions, from referrals to suspensions and expulsions to see if the national trends are repeated locally. Then, invite your team to unpack assumptions behind discipline procedures to reflect upon the extent to which they support and motivate equitable learning. Bolster or accelerate this inquiry using the discussion protocols and design principles found in this toolkit.

Abundant resources exist to help you make the case for restorative practices as a key component of an equitable and healthy school. Once your school team or district commits to the effort, as Oakland did with its equity pledge, seek training for facilitators and build restorative practices into the curriculum and classroom practices. That’s how they will become part of regular school operations and contribute to an overall safe, respectful, and productive climate. In Oakland, the shift away from rules toward strengthening relationships has resulted in better attendance, fewer suspensions, and more positive and productive culture in these schools.

Heptagon.pngConsiderations for School Leaders

  • Do you have community partners already interested in implementing this work? If so, could they be an ally or resource to your school? Many urban areas have community organizations (e.g., Oakland’s Community Works) that can lend expertise, training, facilitation, and parent communication support.
  • Your school may want to couple the restorative practices with other student supports, such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), social-emotional learning (SEL) initiatives, and mindfulness practices. Together these efforts build community and create powerful synergies in the school culture and climate. See the Breathing love into communities TEDx talk from Holistic Life Foundation.
  • Attending to your school culture pays dividends. If you don’t already, survey students to find out how they feel about their school climate and culture. Do they feel safe? Respected? Heard? Valued by other students and adults? Dig into their responses. Listen. Then try out something new. Instead of using punishments and rewards to influence the way students behave, try a restorative approach to your classroom management. It will help you uncover underlying reasons for students’ hurtful behavior and nurture their intrinsic desire to treat others with care and respect. Use listening circles in your classroom to host constructive racial and cultural communication among students (and teachers). The listening circles create a safe space to model how we all make mistakes, how mistakes can be healed and overcome, and how to practice empathy for and with one another.

Heptagon.pngExtended Resources

  • Unearthing Hidden Gems in an American Public High School: A Three-Pronged Approach to Meeting the Needs of Diverse Students, from NGLC co-director Carlos M. Beato and his co-author Daniel J. Sass for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Leadership, Equity, & Justice. Infused with personal stories of students who are English language learners and recently-arrived immigrants and refugees, this essay explores how International High School at Langley Park (IHSLP) in Maryland leverages restorative justice practices to begin the long overdue healing process for students, families, and community members.
  • Repairing our schools through restorative justice, Jean Klasovsky at TEDxWellsStreetED. Jean makes connections between classroom and school restorative practices that benefited kids in her Chicago public school. Don’t miss her powerful “what if” questions (12:00 min). Is it time to redesign old school discipline and control measures (that don’t work anyway) in your school?