Restorative Practices in Schools: What it Looks Like and Why it Works
I am currently doing some Nonviolent Communication related work in a school that is known for students getting in fights with each other. If it isn't daily, fights certainly happen weekly, and it isn't because these kids are "bad" or "unruly". It's because they have trauma and fighting is the main way they know how to handle it. The new Principal of this school wants to change the entire school culture to include restorative practices and NVC in hopes of reducing violence and creating a connecting and safe environment for all... some people think it is just a fantasy that will never come to fruition. I, however, think it will work.
Restorative practices are techniques of addressing conflict that focus on repairing harm rather than punishing someone for it. In addition to addressing conflict, restorative practices work to build relationships and build a positive and inclusive community. Check out our previous blog post for an in-depth description of restorative practices.
When it comes to school environments, restorative practices are not the norm. Usually, schools have hard and fast rules, and if a student breaks those rules, they are typically reprimanded in the moment in the form of someone yelling at them. Then, depending on which rule they broke and at what frequency this student breaks rules in general, they are punished in one or more of various forms, generally ranging in severity. Students are then lead to obedience by fear of punishment. It is an age-old system, but is it an effective one?
I would argue it is not. After spending time in this school that sees violence regularly, I'm convinced that the students who get in fights are rarely thinking about the academic consequences of their fights. They are more concerned with having power and respect, and being perceived by others as someone who deserves both power and respect. They barely care about suspensions, or even summer school. In a triggering moment, they see red and that's that.
The funny thing is, as I talk to these kids individually, they all want the same things: respect, protection from harm, safety for their families and friends, fun, and ease. Most of them don't even want to be a part of the fights they find themselves in, but fighting is how they have been conditioned to handle conflict. And because of this astonishing shared reality, I believe restorative practices would work.
Restorative circles generally involve pre-processing - so that means the people involved in the conflict will meet with someone (a restorative facilitator or mediator) individually to talk through what happened and become really clear on their needs. After enough pre-processing, these people come together in a group with other members of the community who were affected by the harm. So in a school situation, these "community" people might be friends, teachers, administrators, or even family members.
These practices promote a positive and inclusive school environment by emphasizing relationships, accountability, and community building. Here are some of the key benefits of restorative practices in schools:
Restorative practices provide effective tools for resolving conflicts and repairing harm. By creating safe spaces for open dialogue and active listening, restorative practices allow students to express their feelings and needs, understand others' perspectives, and work towards finding mutually satisfactory resolutions.
Restorative practices foster healthy relationships among students, teachers, and staff. They promote empathy, understanding, and respect, which are essential for a positive and supportive school climate. In a world where one side glance can erupt into a multi-student brawl, it is fairly uncommon for students to have an experience of empathy and understanding. By strengthening connections and trust, restorative practices help build a sense of belonging and reduce instances of violence.
Restorative practices prioritize the emotional well-being of students and create opportunities for emotional expression and support. Through circles, mediation, and other restorative approaches, students are encouraged to share their experiences, feelings, needs, and challenges, which can lead to improved self-awareness, self-regulation, and overall mental health.
Enhanced social skills
Restorative practices develop students' social and interpersonal skills. By engaging in collaborative problem-solving, active listening, and perspective-taking, students learn valuable communication and conflict resolution skills that can be applied in various contexts, including their personal lives and future careers.
Reduced disciplinary issues
Restorative practices offer an alternative to traditional punitive disciplinary measures. Rather than focusing solely on punishment, restorative practices aim to repair harm and restore relationships. This approach has been found to reduce disciplinary issues, as students feel more empowered and accountable for their actions, and are more likely to understand the consequences of their behavior.
Restorative practices contribute to increased academic engagement and achievement. When students feel safe, supported, and connected within their school community, they are more likely to actively participate in learning, attend school regularly, and develop a positive attitude towards their education.
Positive school culture
Restorative practices have a transformative effect on school culture. By promoting inclusivity, respect, and collaboration, these practices help create a positive and empowering school climate where all stakeholders feel valued and heard. This, in turn, leads to increased teacher satisfaction, parent engagement, and overall school morale.
It is important to note that the successful implementation of restorative practices requires proper training, ongoing support, and a commitment from all members of the school community. When implemented effectively, restorative practices can have a profound and lasting impact on the well-being and success of students and educators alike.
I am personally on the ground floor of a hopefully transformative shift in school culture at this one particular school, and I am truly excited to see how the changes being implemented effect the students, teachers, and the school as a whole.