Using Restorative Practices to Address Community Issues

Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher
High School Principal; M.A. in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist

Schools across the nation are exploring alternatives to out-of-school suspensions. Students who are suspended out of school are not in class to learn. The Crisis Prevention Institute teaches us that out-of-school suspensions single handedly lower graduation rates. Also, students who are suspended are less likely to graduate high school or college and more likely to be arrested or on probation.

One alternative to punitive consequences is the use of restorative practices. The International Institute of Restorative Practices defines restorative practices as “an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities.” Restorative practices focus on building and repairing relationships through the use of variously structured circles.

What is a Restorative Circle?

Restorative circles in schools focus on relationship building among individuals and a community or group of students. There are distinguished norms to be followed when conducting a circle. Within a classroom, it is important to view the teacher as a facilitator, not leader, of the circle. All participants should stand or sit in a circle. The purpose of this is so that no one is excluded within the space of the room, and everyone is able to have eye contact with each other.

The circle begins with one person having a “talking piece,” which is something small that helps participants remember that only one person speaks at a time and that person must be holding the talking piece. This could be a specific pen, trinket, or stuffed animal; anything to distinguish who has permission to speak.

The facilitator or another participant should suggest a prompt or topic for everyone in the circle to answer or speak about. This prompt could be simple and light or on a deeper topic. Some examples could be:

  • One-word feelings check: “Tell us one word that describes how you are feeling right now.”
  • “Tell us one thing you are looking forward to today/this week/this weekend.”
  • “How do you feel about bullying and why?”
  • “What should we be checking out on Netflix this week?”
  • “What is your favorite _________?”
  • “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?”

In the beginning, students will likely make eye contact with the teacher or facilitator when responding. Eventually, students should feel comfortable and safe enough with each other to speak directly to one another with eye contact.

If a student cannot be respectful or follow the norms of the circle, they should be asked to remove themselves out of respect for those who are respecting the process. In order to build a sense of community, students must feel safe to share within the circle. If one or more students are not respectful of others by actively listening and being supportive, it jeopardizes the emotional safety of others in the circle. As students learn to trust and take risks in vulnerability, circle prompt topics can deepen beyond one-word, surface responses.

When working with at-risk student populations or with groups of students who are living with the effects of trauma, it is worth considering avoiding certain topics when developing prompts. Some subjects to avoid:

  • Holidays
  • Gifts or material things
  • Specific family members or nuclear family structures (ex: Tell me your favorite thing about your mom.)
  • Topics that relate to money or social status
  • Drugs/alcohol/politics

Finally, it is crucial that restorative circles happen regularly and consistently to support norms and relationship development within the group or class.

What is a Responsive Circle?

The purpose of a responsive circle is to repair harm or damage done to one or more people. It is also to restore relationships when harm or damage is done. Responsive circles are one alternative to suspension. For example, after cursing at a teacher in frustration, a student could be assigned a suspension which would exclude them from school or instruction, or it could be resolved with a responsive circle.

In a responsive circle, both the offender and victim are present and seated or standing in a circle with a facilitator (neutral party). After reviewing the norms for a circle and expectations for participation, the facilitator asks both sides what happened, how the action(s) affected each side, and what needs to happen to repair the damage done. Examples of how damage can be repaired include an apology (public or private), restitution, commitment to change, or other arrangement.

What is a Re-Entry Circle?

A re-entry circle is similar to a responsive circle in that it repairs damage, but it is between one student and a classroom community. This circle is also led by the facilitator but consists of the offender admitting how their actions affected the community and taking responsibility for the harm they caused. A public apology should conclude the re-entry circle.

This kind of circle should happen any time a student or students disrupt the learning environment of the class community. The respect that results from a re-entry circle has the power to bond and strengthen a community of students. It provides an opportunity for accountability to each other and results in a desire to not let the community down. This connection can then transfer to other communities and classes.

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