Restorative practices have been utilized for decades, first documented by indigenous groups like Native Americans, Africans, and the Celtics (Wachtel, 2016). Restorative practices were not given a name until the 1970s, when it was called victim-offender dialogue and soon after, restorative justice (Wachtel, 2016). This came from a probation officer named Mark Yantzi after an incident with two teenagers that were assigned to him. These two teenagers were under the supervision of Mark for vandalism, and he wanted them to meet with the victims for restitution immediately following the vandalism incident (Wachtel, 2016). To his surprise, both parties had a positive experience from the meeting, which started the Western movement towards restorative practices. Restorative practices can be defined as “a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision making” (Wachtel, 2016).
This practice has been used among indigenous groups to work through arguments and disagreements as well as between perpetrators and victims to restore peace. A new direction using restorative practice’s framework is now emerging in school systems. Schools are intended for education, but they are also places of learning where children can develop the skills needed to be successful in work and in life. These skills stem from the Collaborative on Social and Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) competencies that focus on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making, and forming positive relationship skills (CASEL, 2020). Research demonstrates that restorative practices in schools are beneficial for children and adolescents to practice skills to improve emotional competence, interpersonal skills, and to feel a sense of belonging. This is done by creating a school culture that ensures trust and respect between students and teachers (Velez, 2020). While trust and respect can improve school culture, conflict is still present at schools. People have different values and perceptions, and they may be inclined to react to different conflicts based on emotions or implicit biases. This is where restorative practices can be utilized by giving students and teachers the tools to resolve conflict, develop empathy for the person harmed, and engage in restitution, thus creating a school wide culture that fosters positive development as people and students. This is a bottom-up approach, including students in creating the school culture, which has been found to be beneficial in the social work field (Skedsmo & Huber, 2019).
There are different strategies being implemented in schools for restorative practices, the most common being circles. According to Acosta and researchers, there are four circles that can be used right now: proactive circles, restorative circles, impromptu conferences, and restorative conferences (2019). Proactive circles are used 80% of the time in schools, which include students and teachers as they work together to create ground rules in a preventative manner (Acosta et al., 2019). Restorative circles are reactive based and utilized when inappropriate behavior is affecting a group of students or the entire class (Acosta et al., 2019). An impromptu conference is an immediate response to smaller conflict between two people whereas a restorative conference is a planned response to a string of patterns of smaller conflictual behavior (Acosta et al., 2019). The integration of students into these active decision-making positions gives them a higher sense of involvement and has shown increased maturity levels among students (Breedlove et al., 2021). It is also a place where a school culture can grow. When teachers and students come together and make rules together, they provide the path to success along with a mutual understanding of a plan when disagreements arise. By working together to ensure restorative practices are being utilized, punitive punishments can be avoided to enhance the whole culture of a school.
This is particularly important because punitive punishments are usually exclusionary disciplinary practices which further isolates students (Breedlove et al., 2021). These exclusionary practices come in the form of expulsions and suspensions, where students are not able to attend school for a specific amount of time and are therefore more likely to have academic failure and drop out (Breedlove et al., 2021). Punitive punishment and exclusionary disciplinary practices reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline which most often affects black, Latino, and children with disabilities, along with children who have sustained significant trauma growing up by not giving them a place in schools (Breedlove et al., 2021). Not only do restorative practices improve social and emotional learning (SEL) skills and school culture, but they can help reduce alcohol use, bullying, and victimization (Acosta et al., 2019). Restorative practices are well-rounded and provide children tools to improve interpersonal skills, gain emotional competence, create cultures where positivity is expected and present, and can support in-school prevention programs.
However, there are limitations to implementing restorative practices in schools. First, these practices often take three to five years to be fully implemented into schools (Breedlove et al., 2021). Creating a new culture or working on an improved culture does not change overnight; it is a goal that all parties must be dedicated to for it to be sustainable. Teachers play a significant role in ensuring that restorative practices are being implemented and are being implemented well. Research demonstrates that barriers to implementation are teachers lack-of willingness to shift the power dynamics and teachers lack-of knowledge or confidence in addressing topics that children and adolescents are experiencing (Breedlove et al., 2021, Lustick et al., 2020). Many teachers struggle to give up their agency and authority in decision-making to allow students an equal position in creating ground rules for restorative practices. This is the barrier of shifting power dynamics among teachers, and this will negatively affect the culture that is created if teachers are not open to embracing the ideology of proactive circles (Acosta et al., 2019). Commonly, teachers feel a top-down approach of authority is necessary, when research has shown this causes more unintended consequences and can even potentially lead to the de-professionalization of teachers (Skedsmo & Huber, 2019). Lastly, teachers also need to be trained in restorative practices and assisting and mediating proactive circles properly. Many teachers are uncomfortable with topics that need to be addressed in conflict resolution and can accidentally further isolate individuals by not addressing their mental health needs because of the discomfort or unawareness of how to address the issue (Lustick et al., 2020). Restorative practices have been shown to be beneficial in schools from the research mentioned, but there needs to be a whole community buy-in along with proper training for teachers so they can handle the discussions that will occur. A priority should also be placed on employing and utilizing school-based mental health professionals to support school staff in utilizing restorative practices (Lustick et al., 2020).
Restorative practices should be implemented in K-12 schools as a guiding theory to resolve conflict that allows for active student and teacher participation, rather than relying on punitive exclusionary punishment. By allowing students to remain in school to work on restitution with all parties involved, they can develop competencies of empathy, relationship skills, decision-making skills, and a sense of belonging within the school system (Velez, 2020). This provides an environment where students can feel safe in expressing their own values by actively engaging in creating rules that promote understanding after conflict, instead of punishment that excludes them from attending school and having these educational conversations (Skedsmo & Huber, 2019). This environment and school culture will take time to develop and will require whole school participation, but with high quality training and the proper resources, a school system rooted in restorative practices can be created. Restorative practices will create an environment that children and adolescents deserve, one that propels learning in all situations, giving students the opportunity to mature and grow into their best selves.
Williams, Cooper. (2022) The importance of whole-school restorative practices. Retrieved from https://ismhi.indiana.edu/articles/importance-of-whole-school-restorative-practices.html