Restorative Justice is an alternative to using punishment to manage misbehavior. Punishment-based approaches are the tradition most of us are familiar with, because they are the basis of our criminal justice system, guided by the idea that punishment, if fair and proportionate, is the best response to crime. In practice this means identifying, prosecuting, and punishing the offender. Often this is done at great cost to society, with little healing for victims and communities and outright harmful effect on offenders and their families.
School discipline has for the most part taken its cue from the criminal justice system. The focus is on punishing wrongdoers with the aim of enforcing behaviors that are safe and non-disruptive. When punishment does not work, misbehaving students may be excluded through suspension or expulsion, with possibly serious long-term harmful consequences to them and society. There is little or no opportunity for social and emotional learning.
Restorative practices in schools are based on restorative justice principles instead of punishment. They aim first to build classroom communities that are supported by clear agreements, authentic communication, and specific tools to bring issues and conflicts forward in a helpful way. They provide specific pathways to repair harms by bringing together those who are affected by misbehavior in a dialogue to address concerns, achieve understanding, and come to agreement about setting things right. In addition to serving the cause of fairness and justice, restorative approaches make safer schools and contribute to social and emotional learning.
As schools adopt and gain experience with restorative practices several shifts in perspective take place. These shifts don’t typically happen all at once. Nor do they typically happen perfectly. Three of the most important shifts are shown in the chart below.
Three Shifts Toward Restorative Schools and Classrooms
The first shift acknowledges that troublesome behavior is normal, and when students behave in troublesome ways they create opportunities to learn important social and emotional skills. What is important is not so much that they got into trouble in the first place, but what they learn along the way. Making things right is a powerful learning experience.
The second shift is a departure from the retributive model in which an authority, after taking testimony from the aggrieved party, decides guilt and assigns punishment. In restorative practices the authority figure acts more as a convener and facilitator. The initial investigation is concerned with identifying who was significantly affected by the incident. The facilitator invites them into a circle dialogue and, if they accept the invitation, helps prepare them. During the circle dialogue the problem and its impacts are explored and the group comes up with ideas on how to make things right. Usually this means the students who were the source of the trouble take specific actions that address the consequences of their choices. Consider the difference in outcomes between the authoritarian/punitive approach and the restorative approach: the first breeds resentment, alienation and shame and/or possibly an equally troublesome habit of fearing and submitting to authority; the second builds empathy, responsibility and helps restore relationships.
The third shift moves the locus of responsibility for well-being of the community from the shoulders of the experts to the community itself. While counseling and similar strategies have their place and are often helpful by themselves, they are immeasurably strengthened when complemented by restorative practices that challenge those who are in the circle dialogue to share information with each other and to come to agreements as a group.
There is a growing body of research supporting the effectiveness of restorative practices in schools. Evidence shows that restorative practices can result in:
- Reductions in disciplinary referrals to principals
- Reductions in suspensions and expulsions
- Reductions in amount of instructional time lost to managing student behavior challenges
- Improved teacher morale
- Improved teacher retention
- Improved academic outcomes
- Reductions in disproportionate referrals of minority students.