3. What are Restorative Practices and How Do They Enhance School Culture?
Updated: Aug 17
Welcome to the School Culture Solutions Blog!
Welcome! I’ll be using this blog to illustrate how restorative practices can be used to dramatically improve school culture, reduce disciplinary incidents, and dismantle disproportionality in school discipline. I’ll share a number of personal anecdotes as a former school leader and coordinator of restorative practices in order to give educators some practical examples of how these practices actually work in schools and I’ll also share tips to develop the systems to promote their success. In addition, I’ll be responding to current events and educational developments in the community that pertain to restorative justice. In upcoming blog posts, I will suggest restorative solutions to particularly harmful or traumatic events that take place in schools and/or affect school-aged students; I will also respond to policies and statements made by public officials when they impact school culture, school disciplinary policies, or the intersection between school climate and the criminal justice system.
Some Background Information on Restorative Practices
The purpose of this blog is not to define restorative practices from scratch and provide a full background and introduction to the research. For visitors who are completely unfamiliar with restorative practices, I recommend the following resources from the IIRP (International Institute for Restorative Practices) and the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility:
Defining Restorative - A concise, yet thorough, foundation for those new to the concept of restorative practices, including the history, framework, and some specific processes used in the implementation of restorative practices
Video: What Is Restorative Practices?
The Restorative Practices Handbook, Second Edition - A phenomenal book that provided my starting point on my journey to learn about Restorative Practices. The reader will emerge with a strong understanding of the science behind restorative practices, how they can be implemented in the classroom, and how one can bring about the transformation of a school over time.
The Morningside Center’s TeachableMoment lessons are tremendously well done and cover topics from Social Emotional Learning to Restorative Practices. For example, see this video on the three tiers of Restorative Practices used at an Oakland high school or this lesson introducing restorative circles.
*Note: While I am licensed by the IIRP to offer trainings using their curricula, I have no formal financial relationship with the IIRP. I do not benefit financially if readers purchase the IIRP’s resources or visit their websites. I do believe that their resources are outstanding and I will often link to them from my website.
The Aim of Restorative Practices
Now that we’re all on the same page and we have at least a basic understanding of the meaning of Restorative Practices, let’s talk about why guys like me advocate so passionately for their implementation in schools.
Watch this brief video on the Aim of Restorative Practices:
The aim of Restorative Practices is to develop community and to manage conflict and tensions by repairing harm and restoring relationships
When I first started reading up on utilizing Restorative Practices in schools, like many school administrators, I had a specific agenda: I wanted to bring down the number of incidents of violence, bullying, and other serious infractions taking place in our school; I wanted to dramatically reduce the number of Out-of-School Suspensions and In-School-Suspensions taking place. And of course, I wanted all students and staff to feel safe and happy in our building. So I tried to skip ahead to the “repairing harm” part of restorative practices. As a practitioner of Teaching with Love & Logic, I had already spent a lot of time contemplating the difference between discipline (which aims to teach a child and thus shape his/her future decisions) and punishment (which seeks to make a child suffer for past behavior and often leads to increased anger in children and a desire to regain control). I was really attracted to passages like the following one from the Restorative Practices Handbook:
"The belief that punishment changes behavior is the basis for school discipline policies around the world. Yet the belief is not supported by evidence. Punishment works only superficially, primarily when the misbehaving students are in view of those in authority. But punishment does not create empathy in students and encourage them to internalize a commitment to behave properly, so as soon as they are out of sight the inappropriate behavior surfaces again. When we punish students by excluding or humiliating them, they do not feel connected to school administrators, teachers, or their well-behaved peers. Rather, they feel alienated and instead seek out and bond with others who have been excluded from the mainstream, creating their own negative subculture in the school. The most significant shortcoming of punishment strategies is that they stigmatize students and label them as “bad.” While schools cannot condone and must confront inappropriate behavior, they must do so in a way that allows offending students to reclaim their good name and rejoin the school community. Shedding the “bad student” label and returning to the fold is critical for misbehaving students, if we hope to help young people change their future behavior."
My team read articles about how one school replaced detention with meditation and we met deans who explained that, in their school, the students regularly did community service around the building on weekends to make up for some harm they had caused. With an incomplete understanding of Restorative Practices, we moved to revise the consequences that we were handing down for various violations of our school’s disciplinary policy. No longer would students experience arbitrary punishments that had no connection to the actual wrong that had been done, such as sitting idly after school in a silent detention room with 40 other students. Instead, we would create what we believed to be restorative consequences, that:
felt like logical responses to whatever infraction had been committed
taught a lesson that the student could use to alter his/her future behavior
required the student to “make things right” somehow
For some relatively minor infractions, we didn't struggle to concoct a restorative solution. A student who had made a mess of the materials in art class would stay after school and clean up and organize the room. They’d also speak with the instructor in charge of that classroom to get a sense of how their actions had impacted this teacher and others who use the room and strengthen their ability to empathize. For more serious infractions, we had a very tough time devising the right responses. We sought to create a comprehensive menu of restorative consequences for every foreseeable violation of our code of conduct, from dress code violations to physical altercations. We would later learn that it is impossible to create such an exhaustive list; moreover, even if we had created one, it would not have made our school restorative. More on that point shortly.
Unaware of this last point, our team got to work and got really creative. For example, in response to a string of incidents in which students used homophobic slurs to insult each other or in which students actually bullied classmates for being LGBTQ, we generated this restorative assignment. In some cases, before being allowed to return to the community, students spent hours in the Deans’ office constructing responses to the questions in the assignment, watching the linked videos and changing their perspectives, and writing public apologies that they would deliver to their classes when the Deans deemed them ready to return.
2 Fundamental Elements of Restorative Practices
I keep stressing that our approach was not fully restorative. That doesn’t mean that the consequence was completely ineffective. Actually, teachers and other members of our school community found the response quite thoughtful in comparison to the apathy they had encountered at other places of employment. You can download that assignment and customize it if you’d like - you’ll certainly find that the students who used the slurs or harassed a classmate are more likely to learn and modify their behavior than if they are simply awarded a suspension or some other purely exclusionary consequence.
However, we were missing at least two fundamental elements of being a truly restorative school:
The Aim of Restorative Practices is to build Community. Restorative Practices are not primarily about repairing harm. 80% of restorative practices are proactive practices that focus on building relationships and establishing a tightly-knit community. People in any setting are far less likely to bring harm to that setting if they feel that they genuinely belong to a community full of trust and respect. Relationships must be the foundation of a great school culture. In future blog posts, we’ll discuss the use of classroom community-building circles as perhaps the most effective strategy for building strong relationships across an entire school. We’ll also discuss other strategies that adults can use to build relationships with students inside and outside of the classroom. When proactive practices are in place, a school can then implement the restorative practices that center on harm repair; these efforts should only require 20% of the staff’s energy if community has been prioritized.
The nature of the process, not the outcome, makes a response restorative or not. This is one of the most powerful concepts in restorative practices. In upcoming blog posts, I’ll delve further into the Social Discipline Window described in the Defining Restorative document I referred to earlier. We’ll talk about collaborative problem solving and how to distinguish being restorative from being punitive or permissive. This is why coming up with a comprehensive menu of restorative responses for our school was both futile and not philosophically aligned with what it means to be restorative.
Once our school wholeheartedly embraced these two points, we began to experience the true power of restorative practices. We incorporated all elements of the Restorative Practices Continuum, outlined in the video below. We nearly eradicated Out of School Suspension, which is directly correlated with the School-to-Prison Pipeline, after suspending roughly 18% of all students in the school for at least one day during each of the first few years of operation. We saw students turn their lives around and rebound from incidents that would have doomed them to expulsion, entry into the criminal justice system, or dropout under most traditional disciplinary systems.
Learning More about Restorative Practices
Restorative Practices is not a one-size-fits-all system for transforming schools. Each school must develop a unique vision of what it wants to achieve. I hope to engage with educators of all geographic and demographic backgrounds via this blog in order to help schools develop these visions. In upcoming posts, we’ll chat about the various elements of the Restorative Practices Continuum. I’ll offer practical advice and share tangible steps that schools can take to implement these elements in their schools. We'll dispel myths about Restorative Practices replacing effective consequences with a "slap on the wrist" or notions that these practices are only suitable for certain types of schools or student populations. If you would like to chat about the needs of your particular school in more depth, please feel free to email me or to book an introductory call or video chat.
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.