Restorative Justice in Schools

Janelle Cox
Janelle Cox
M.S. in Education
A schoolboy covers his face while having a serious conversation with his head teacher.

You may have heard of a growing movement to steer away from traditional school discipline and move towards an alternative practice called restorative justice in education today. Traditional discipline systems follow the rule that students get punished if they break a rule. However, in recent years many believe that this type of punishment may lead children in the direction of further bad behavior. Some schools now think that providing students the ability to work through their issues can lead to “when you know better, you do better.” Here’s everything we know about restorative justice in schools.

What is Restorative Justice in Schools?

Restorative justice is an alternative to traditional discipline such as suspension or expulsion in schools. The restorative justice definition focuses on mediation and agreement rather than punishment for negative behavior. Through restorative justice, students learn to accept responsibility and resolve conflicts on their own or within a group. Restorative justice practices can be used exclusively or as an add-on approach to traditional discipline philosophies. It can also be combined with social-emotional learning.

How to Implement Restorative Justice in Schools

There is no tried and true rule of how you must implement restorative justice in your school. However, if you’re looking for a change in how you respond to misbehavior or any type of violation then you start by identifying what you can do to make things better. Once you come together as a school and a community, then you can better identify what you already have in place that is working and what you still need to work on.

As a Classroom Agreement

You can create a classroom respect agreement to implement a restorative practice in the classroom. Typical classrooms have rules that the teacher already sets, the problem with this is that the students have no stake in these rules because they did not help set them. When they have no ownership of the rules, they are easier to break. However, when the students help set the rules that they have ownership of, they will be harder to break. Discuss values that are important to students and make a list as a class. When the list is student-driven versus teacher-driven, students will feel part of the process and have a sense of buy-in.

As an Intervention

In a traditional classroom when someone breaks the rules, they are punished. In a restorative justice classroom, when someone breaks the rules, they need to make things right. Mediation is used instead of punishment. The mediator (typically the teacher) chats with the offending student and asks restorative questions; then, they make a plan together. The goal is to build and repair any damage that is done by talking about things that can help make the relationship stronger. These restorative chats can be done one-on-one, in small groups, or a whole group setting.

What are the Benefits of Restorative Justice?

There are many benefits of using restorative practices in schools, such as resolving conflict, building healthy relationships, holding students accountable for their actions, and reducing and improving harmful behavior. Here, we’ll take a closer look at some of the many potential benefits of restorative justice.

Creates a Sense of Community

According to a 2022 review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the most used restorative practice in school is called “restorative circles.” These circles help build a sense of community by allowing students’ voices to be heard while encouraging learning and mutual respect. Students can express and manage their emotions while increasing their awareness of their actions and how they may affect others.

Keeps Kids in the Classroom

Restorative practices help to keep kids in the classroom, says the Justice and Prevention Research Center. In a punitive school system, children are removed or expelled from the classroom because the punitive approach means that negative behavior gets a negative consequence. Often, this may lead to children ending up in the juvenile justice system. However, one of the goals of having restorative practice in schools is to help break this cycle by keeping kids in school and focused on their education.

Helps to Address Root Problems

Another popular restorative practice in schools, according to the 2022 review mentioned previously, was restorative conferencing and conversations. This is the practice of addressing conflicts (even minor ones) to help students learn how to better manage and respond to conflict. It also gives them a safe space to get to the root of the problem. These conversations help children learn how to manage their disputes and participate in decision-making independently.

In addition, restorative practices help students be accountable for their actions while building emotional skills and practicing empathy. It shows them the importance of communication and resolving conflict while building community. It also encourages students to face their fears in a safe learning environment.

You can implement restorative justice practices in your classroom by holding restorative circles, creating a classroom respect agreement, and using mediation instead of punishment as means to resolve conflict. If you’re looking to implement a school-wide restorative justice program, then you can learn what it takes to make this happen in this Restorative Justice Whole School Implementation Guide.

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