Restorative Practice in Schools

In the early 2000’s the use of Restorative Justice as a way of addressing youth crime began to attract the interest of some educationalists. Both youth justice professionals and the police encouraged this interest, as a way of reducing the use of exclusion. They were motivated by research showing the high correlation between youth street crime and youngsters out of school.

Early training for schools focussed on how to facilitate  ‘restorative conferencing’, a formal meeting framework that gives everyone affected by an incident the chance to talk about what has happened and find ways forward together. The process was found to address the needs of those responsible for causing harm as well as those harmed and proved effective not only in reducing the use of exclusion, but also reducing the kinds of behaviours that had led to exclusion.

Practice developed as educationalists realised the potential of the restorative approach for less serious, day-to-day issues, such as classroom management and conflicts between staff and with parents.  Soon staff using restorative responses also recognised that the skills they were using, and the skills needed to engage most effectively in restorative meetings, were life skills that all young people would benefit from learning, even before things went wrong. Indeed there was a growing realisation that when young people learn to manage relationships and ‘difficult conversations’ better, and when staff learn to manage these better themselves and can act as role models, there are fewer conflicts and challenges in the first place.

Nowadays the phrase ‘Restorative Practice or Restorative Approaches’ tends to be used in schools on preference to ‘Restorative Justice’ and relates to a school-wide philosophy about how to make, maintain and repair relationships and how to foster a sense of social responsibility and shared accountability.

The schools that have had most success in the implementation of a restorative approach are those that have seen it as part of  an ongoing plan to develop relationship skills,  emotional literacy, health and wellbeing, distributed leadership opportunities, participatory and collaborative teaching and learning and peer support. By seeking to build cohesive, compassionate communities in school, restorative approaches also address community cohesion in practical and pragmatic ways.

There are many challenges in implementing a whole-school approach since the restorative way challenges deeply-held notions about power and control and the urge to make someone suffer when they have ‘misbehaved’.

When harm has been caused people need-
  • A chance to tell their side of the story and feel heard
  • To feel understood by the others involved
  • To understand better how the situation happened
  • To understand how it can be avoided another time
  • To find a way to move on and feel better about themselves

If conflicts and challenges are dealt with in a way that get these needs met then those involved can repair the damage done to their connections with the others involved, or even build connections where there were none previously.  They feel fairly treated and respected, since they have been trusted to find solutions for themselves and put things right in their own way. Because they have been listened to, people in conflict are more ready to listen to others’ perspectives and emotional responses, and so empathy is developed.  This can change the choices made in future situations, as mutual respect and consideration develop.

Punitive responses, on the other hand –
  • Cause resentment rather than reflection
  • Are rarely considered fair
  • Do not repair relationships between those in conflict and indeed can make them worse
  • Leave those labelled as wrongdoers feeling bad about themselves, leading to further alienation
  • Can often leave the adults expected to act punitively feeling uncomfortable and frustrated – and wishing there was an alternative.

Although the phrase ‘restorative justice’ is going out of favour in school contexts as ‘restorative practice’ or ‘approaches’ become more widely used, the association with ‘justice’ or ‘fairness’ should not be forgotten. The word ‘justice’ belongs not only in the domain of criminal justice but also in that of ‘social justice’. Restorative practices like Circle Meetings and Circle Time provide mechanisms for the voices of young people to be heard, not just for conflict resolution and problem-solving, but also for planning and decision-making. Staff teams can use them to bring about a greater sense of collegiality.

Further Reading and Credits