I’m writing to you today from beautiful St. Paul, Minnesota–home of Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion, Bill Murray’s Saint Paul Saints baseball team, and 3M’s Post-It Notes and Scotch Tape. I know, it’s a lot to take in!
In all seriousness, St. Paul is also home to many amazing teachers who have taken on the work of bringing restorative justice practices to their schools. As a parent, I have watched with admiration as our local school communities come together to confront the challenges of traditional discipline, including zero-tolerance and one-size-fits-all policies. The power of restorative practices is they move beyond the limitations of these traditional policies and offer schools a more holistic way to address student conflict.
Restorative practices are a framework for building community and responding to challenging behavior through meaningful conflict resolution. In traditional discipline models, students face an escalating scale of punishments that can eventually lead to suspension or expulsion, but there is strongevidence that shows just removing students from class often doesn’t have the desired outcome because the deeper issues that led to the problem remain unresolved, students continue to repeat destructive behaviors and affected classmates and teachers are left feeling victimized. Suspensions and expulsions also hurt students’ long-term academic success.
With restorative justice, rather than just removing a student from the school setting, students are asked to engage in open dialogue to come to an understanding and ultimately make things right. Here is the real power: healing is at the heart of all restorative practices. As the authors of Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management* explain, it is the difference between “getting even” and “getting well.” This approach seeks to build strong relationships and then rebuild relationships when conflicts arise.
In my mind, the underlying success of restorative practices is based on a simple truth: we are happier and more cooperative (and more likely to make positive changes) when we feel we have a say in what happens to us. In the case of students facing consequences for their actions, they, too, feel more respected and more open to change when their teachers and administrators do things with them, rather than to them. To be ‘restorative’ means to believe that decisions are best made and conflicts are best resolved by those directly involved in them. So when harm is done–a classmate fights with her peer in the hallway or an angry student has an outburst that impacts the entire class–we heal that harm by inviting the involved students to take an active role in resolution.
Restorative justice in schools isn’t just about approaching discipline differently, it is also about developing resilient learners able to fully understand and care about how their actions impact others and contribute to the overall health of their community. Here are just a few of the ways schools can build restorative practices with students:
- Encourage community-building through class circles and collaborative work
- Foster social skills by modeling and discussing important topics such as empathy, conflict-resolution, respectful debate, and grace
- Build bridges between school and home by creating a welcoming environment for parents and school visitors
- Invite students to take an active role in both preventing and repairing harm caused by disruption and conflict
- Create “re-entry” plans for students returning from disciplinary situations to heal the classroom community
When we invite students to take an active role in both prevention and healing, we build stronger school communities. Perhaps more importantly, we teach students about the importance of giving and receiving forgiveness–a lesson they can carry with them the rest of their lives.
*Fisher, D., Frey, N., and Smith, D. (2015). Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative practices for positive classroom management. Baltimore, MD: ASCD.
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