Updated: Nov 13, 2018
Restorative discipline is taking root in many schools: based on successful interventions from the juvenile justice system, restorative practices aim to strengthen relationships in school communities while also offering alternatives to suspension in order to repair and restore harm. As a former school administrator who spent most days handling middle school discipline, I love to hear about a more student-centered perspective that breaks the cycle of suspension that reinforces the school-to-prison pipeline. One deduction from the research: punitive consequences make the adults feel better, but they usually don't solve the problem or change the behavior. Schools are beginning to examine their discipline codes to reflect alternatives to detentions and suspensions; I’ve found the the daily practices useful both as an administrator and as a parent.
So does it work? Yes, but it needs to go all the way back to the primary relationship, which at school is the teacher. If only the administrators are responsible for restoring and maintaining relationships, teachers still don't have the ownership necessary to create the kind of classroom environment where kids can learn. We can't "restore" a relationship that never existed.
Schools don’t need to spend big money on training to get started with restorative discipline. Before expecting your school wide practices in discipline to change behavior, take a look at some things that build culture in the classroom:
1. Have a conversation - Teachers are always short on time, but simply asking a student, "What happened?" can solve a problem better than a discipline referral. I love walking down the hall and seeing a teacher and student having a brief, serious talk in the hallway away from the rest of the class. Taking a minute to say something like, "This isn't like you. What's going on?" both maintains the relationship and expresses an interest in getting to the root of the problem. Kids almost always respond positively to this approach.
2. Don't assume - I sometimes hear teachers and parents say things like, "He just doesn't care," that couldn't be further from the truth. Just because a student acts in a certain way doesn’t mean we can assume to know how they feel or why they acted out. Kids will often put on a cool face to not appear weak in front of teachers or peers; the truth is, they often care very deeply about getting in trouble or doing poorly in school.
3. Don't take it personally - I learned this as a special education teacher from one of my first students, Jesse, who would often curse or throw things when he was upset. His emotional outbursts were tough to handle until I started to tell myself, "This is not about me." This shifted my perspective back to Jesse, and I was able to feel compassion and empathy for his distress, and then help him resolve it. Poor student behavior is almost never truly about the adults, even if it's directed our way.
4. Stay chill - Kids hate to be screamed at; for that matter, so do adults. Even when it's controlled, anger communicates disconnection. It is impossible for our students to be reflective if they're feeling attacked. We can be firm, clear and calm when discussing behavior; we don't need to yell or be harsh to get our message across. We also don't need to be wishy-washy to be restorative (for example, I recently heard a parent say to his child, "Please don't do this again, okay?", receiving no response and an eye-roll from his daughter). Even with serious behaviors, if I say something like, "This behavior is unacceptable; it does not fit with the respectful environment we've created at our school. We need to come up with a plan to make sure this doesn't happen again," kids respond positively and will work with me to take responsibility for their behavior, understanding why both consequences and restoration are often necessary.
5. Have a sense of humor - When we show that we can laugh at ourselves, that we realize that no one is perfect, and that life is often pretty funny (especially with kids around!) we build trust. Since I'm usually smiling and happy at school, my students know that when I'm not, I mean business. If I acted serious and cranky about every little issue, they wouldn't be able to tell which behaviors were really important to me, and they would start to tune me out.
Restorative disciplinary practices at school can include conferences, circles, and other interventions at the school-wide level, but at the core are trusting, healthy relationships based on mutual respect. Taking the time to nurture those connections pays off when something doesn’t go well or a student makes a poor choice. Restorative practices offer an alternative to addressing discipline and behavior so that learning and student wellbeing still come first. Our kids need a new approach.
Skiba, R. J., & Losen, D. J. (2016). From Reaction to Prevention: Turning the Page on School Discipline. American Educator, 39(4), 4.
For more information on restorative practices: