Restorative Practices for the Win!

This year, I transitioned from a more traditional disciplinary approach to Restorative Practices. As a side note, when I first started this transition, I referred to the approach as Restorative Discipline/Restorative Justice. But, I recently attended a conference on Restorative Practices where the speaker explained that Restorative Practices focus more on relationships/relationship building, as opposed to rules, discipline, and consequences. Therefore, we should refer to them as “practices”, rather than some set of disciplinary procedures to follow.

Initially, I think this is what interested me most about Restorative Practices. I was drawn to the notion that, sure, rules, expectations, consequences, and traditional disciplinary measures help. In fact, I’ve worked with students for whom a detention and a parent phone call home suffice and are the only disciplinary measures necessary. However, as I continue in my career in education and meet more and more students, I’ve noticed that traditional disciplinary approaches and consequences are only a band-aid. Traditional disciplinary measures don’t seek to understand the underlying causes of behavioral issues. In order for me to truly understand my students and the underlying causes for their behaviors, I have to build relationships with them. After all, it’s not the right rules that make a classroom or a school an amazing place to be for kids; it’s the right relationships (Maynard and Weinstein, 2019).

Anyways, things started off slowly with the transition to Restorative Practices. By no means are restorative practices time-efficient. Truthfully, Restorative Practices require more time, patience, and energy as opposed to more traditional disciplinary measures. What is more, the transition is often confusing for both teachers and students. I recall working through an issue with a student in my office who proclaimed, “I don’t want to do another circle. Just give me the stupid detention so I can get out of here.” To be honest, a few students shared this sentiment. Nevertheless, I kept at it throughout the year.

At the end of the year, I received a pleasant surprise from one of the students who so eloquently expressed her disdain for Restorative Practices, particularly Restorative Circles. She’d been in my office multiple times throughout the year. She had difficulty understanding emotions (hers and other students’ emotions) and seeing things through other students’ eyes. At first, I remember her being dead silent during a circle I was facilitating with her and another student. Yet, as we worked through her issues in circles throughout the year, she really started to come out of her shell and express herself. I used different circle techniques and questions to get her to think about her actions from other perspectives. I encouraged her to dialogue with me and her peers about how her actions harmed herself, her friends/classmates, and the school community. In our circles, we analyzed the harm of our actions, discussed ways to repair the harm, and dialogued about how we could prevent future harm. Eventually, she became a leader in some of our circles. Going from not saying anything to actually helping to facilitate our conversations was eye opening for me. She truly began to understand the importance of relationships and their importance to herself and the school community.

On the last day of school, she gave me a card (see the image above). There wasn’t much to the card. However, like I said before, we started out in a pretty rocky relationship. She didn’t like me and she didn’t want to work through her issues in our circles. She saw traditional disciplinary measures as a way to get out of talking and working through her problems with others. But, as we talked and built relationships, she really began to blossom. She built relationships, started to see how her actions impacted others, and began to empathize with her classmates. For me, that’s a big win for the relationship building power of Restorative Practices!

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