Summarizing Restorative Practices in One Word
Just before the start of a recent workshop, a teacher introduced himself and said “Oh, you’re talking to us about Restorative Practices? That’s like when you make kids stay after school and clean the gum off desks and wash the board and stuff right?” I suppose a restorative outcome could look like that at some point, but that’s obviously not what I would want someone to think of first when they think “restorative practices.” (See blog post #4 in which we discuss how the nature of the process, not the outcome, makes a response restorative or not).
What do you think of when you hear the phrase "Restorative Practices?" Whether you’re new to the topic or a seasoned practitioner, what comes to mind first? In fact, what if you had to boil it down to one word?
We might have votes for justice, relationships, repair, conflict, circles, love, listening, healing, empathy, accountability…
I’m in no position to declare a “right” answer, but I’d like to make a strong case for the one word that I would boil Restorative Practices down to:
Check out this short video that discusses the importance of connection in Restorative Practices:
What the Science Says
Social connectedness is a human survival need. We require it for our mental health. Experiencing strong connections with others even leads to a longer lifespan. This is why we've been hearing so much in these last few months about the mental health concerns for children experiencing "COVID separation" from their friends and from school, which for many is a source of stability and safety. These scientific findings overlap with my work as a meditation teacher and a coach who guides teachers to bring mindfulness into the classroom and other school spaces. Toxic stress depletes our feelings of self-control and connectedness with others, makes it very difficult to cultivate quality relationships, and then makes us feel isolated, creating more stress. Remaining in this high-stress state with a lack of meaningful connections weakens the vagus nerve and damages the nervous system and immune system, creating a dangerous cycle. The good news is that we can incorporate breathing processes and meditation along with various other specific habits and practices to manage stress, rewire our brains, improve social connection and relationships, and elevate overall mental health. In this way, the fields of Mindfulness in Schools, Trauma-Informed Pedagogy, Social-Emotional Learning, and Restorative Practices all intersect.
We can even state that all of these other fields are branches of Restorative Practices
As mentioned in the video above, the seminal research of John Braithwaite taught us that, contrary to what we might instinctively assume, the reason that most people do the right thing most of the time is not primarily due to a fear of consequences, such as going to jail. People are more strongly motivated to do the right thing because they feel connected to a larger community. When people feel that they truly belong to a community full of meaningful relationships, they are far less likely to inflict harm upon that community.
Seeking applications of Braithwaite's findings, I came across articles describing the US Department of Justice's most comprehensive study ever of mass shootings - the study looked at every single mass shooting that's taken place in the US since 1966 and found a few common variables in nearly all of the shooters. Among those variables was major childhood trauma, which we know alters brain architecture and makes healthy social connection and relationships very difficult to maintain. Another variable was a high rate of suicidal thoughts or intentions, which of course is linked to poor social connection as well as having experienced childhood trauma. Thus, even at the most severe levels of harm and in instances of unconscionable acts of violence, the lack of healthy social connection played a key role in the offender's behavior.
The same science applies to children's behavior in schools - students do not harm a school community in which they feel a genuine sense of belongingness.
All misbehavior is somehow related to a student’s feeling of connectedness to the school community
As K-12 educators, don't we often notice that some students behave in one setting and not another? This has to do with the relationships (or lack thereof) that students experience with different adults and peers in different settings.
Sure, academic issues and perceived deficiencies by the student can lead to off-task or disruptive behavior. The student who loves numbers but has difficulty reading on grade level may misbehave in ELA class. However, this same student is much more likely to collaborate with an adult with whom he or she has a strong relationship and participate actively in constructing a plan for growth and success.
Every academic and behavioral intervention that we implement in schools - counseling, mediation, small group pull-out, private tutoring, functional behavioral assessments, individualized behavior plans, etc. - all comes down to relationships. Are there students who misbehave in class or engage in antisocial behavior and persistent conflicts because they have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) at home and they suffer from chronic, traumatic stress? Certainly. It's still all about connection - we can't directly or immediately change what's happening in the surrounding community; we can't snap our fingers and instantaneously liberate our students from being stuck in "fight, flight, or freeze" mode. So we need to overcompensate with what we can control and make school a safe space of empathy, belongingness, and loving relationships.
Fundamentally, when a school gets the magic restorative ratio right: 80% proactive practices to build relationships / 20% reactive practices to restore relationships and repair harm - when classroom community-building circles are done consistently, when relationships are prioritized above all else, when the time and space exist for staff members to have restorative conversations with students - we learn so much more about each other and recognize the full humanity and dignity in each other, rather than concocting single-sided stories. In such a school, the students are constantly listening, learning, and empathizing. They feel others’ victories and tragedies and they trust that they can share their own. As a result, not only are instances of harm dramatically reduced, but when they do occur the community members involved have the vocabulary, character strengths, self-awareness, and the desire to make things right, utilizing Restorative Practices that don’t necessarily involve pushing someone OUT of the community. After all, the whole point of the restorative approach is to make everything about connection, not to exclude.
What do you think? Please take a moment to comment below or leave me a personal message using the contact form.
Hemanth Venkataraman aka Mister V
I am a school culture consultant who guides educators to effectively implement restorative practices in order to transform school culture and maximize educational outcomes for all students.