Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices in Schools

Restorative practice refers to a broad range of principles and processes to build community and restore healthy relationships when harm has occurred.  Restorative practices, such as community circles, restorative conversations, and restorative conferences, can help reduce incidences of conflict and violence, foster cultural competence and equity, and improve perceptions of school safety and climate.  Restorative practices implemented in school and classroom settings build a sense of belonging, develop social responsibility and prevent harm and conflict from occurring or escalating. Schools report that whole school implementation of restorative practice can lead to positive outcomes including improved school climate, increased academic achievement, and reduced racial disparities in student discipline (Anyon, 2016; Public Counsel, 2017).  


According to Ted Wachtel, founder of the International Institute for Restorative Practice (IIRP), the fundamental hypothesis of restorative practice is that “Human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them” (p. 3).  The fundamental hypothesis defines the core value of building healthy relationships as central to restorative practice.  The hypothesis reflects an emphasis on social justice and equity that is inherent across all restorative practices.


Restorative practices in classroom settings may include asking restorative questions or initiating a restorative conversation. For example, in response to a student who uses hurtful language, a teacher might ask, “Who has been affected by what you just said?”  “What can you do to make things right?” Teachers can apply impromptu restorative conversations to defuse and resolve issues before the problem escalates. For instance, if two students enter the classroom following a conflict on the playground, the teacher can pull them aside.  Using restorative questions, each student shares their side of the issue and both students can mutually agree on a resolution.  


Community circles are core to restorative practices in schools.  Participation in community circles encourages all students in the classroom to communicate feelings and build connections to others.  For example, while students are sharing something as simple as their favorite activity to do on the weekend, they may discover that other students share the same interests. Students who have developed positive relationships with one another are less likely to bully, tease, or cause harm. When more serious problems arise, trained personnel, such as a counselor or school psychologist, might facilitate a Harm Circle to lead those students involved through a discussion and resolution of the problem.  These types of discussions provide students the opportunity to hear other’s opinions and establish a culture of acceptance and belonging.   Finally, in response to more serious harm involving two or more persons, a trained administrator may opt to facilitate a Restorative Conference to repair the harm and restore community.


Statistics reveal that students of color, particularly African American and Latino students, are suspended and expelled at rates of 3.5 to 2 times their White and Asian counterparts (McIntosh et al., 2017).  A restorative approach has promising practice for reducing the ‘discipline gap’ in schools.  Restorative disciplinary practices such as conferences and harm circles encourage the wrongdoer to reflect on his or her behavior and to take accountability for his or her actions.  Rather than disengaging students through exclusionary discipline practices, such as suspension and expulsion, a restorative approach strives to repair harm and reintegrate the wrongdoer back into the school community.  Further, by emphasizing building positive relationships, a restorative approach to discipline has been shown to re-engage and hold youth accountable for their actions through repairing harm and making amends (Swain-Bradway et al., 2015). As such, the National Education Association (NEA) and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (2014) recommended the adoption and implementation of restorative practices as an effective and more culturally sensitive approach to school discipline.  


In sum, Restorative Practice is a range of proactive and responsive interactions, designed to build relationships and develop community.  A restorative approach is a shift away from thinking about blame and punishment to thinking about how do we repair the harm, address the conflict, and meet the needs so that relationships and community can be repaired and restored.  By shifting paradigms from reactive to restorative, schools can transform into culturally inclusive communities that engage all learners, respect diversity, and create a caring and nurturing environment for all students.


Author: Dori Barnett, Ed.D.


For more information about Restorative Practices in Schools:

  • International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP), What is Restorative Practice? 

  • San Francisco Unified School District Restorative Practices Whole School Implementation Guide 

  • Oakland Unified School District: Restorative Justice Homepage

Dori Barnett, Ed.D. is a school psychologist, behavior consultant, and part-time lecturer at Chapman and National University.  Dr. Barnett is a certified trainer in Restorative Practice with the International Institute for Restorative Practice (IIRP).  


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