Restorative justice (RJ) is a trending topic in the world of education. While many educators have a basic understanding of what it is, what it takes to actually implement restorative justice practices is not as clear. But with an undisputable upside — research shows that restorative justice programs help reduce exclusionary discipline and narrow racial disparities in school discipline — more teachers are seeking resources to help begin the process.
Here are our tips to help you start implementing restorative justice practices in your classroom and school community.
What is Restorative Justice?
Restorative justice is defined as “a philosophy and a theory of justice that emphasizes bringing together everyone affected by wrongdoing to address needs and responsibilities, and to heal the harm to relationships as much as possible.” Restorative justice in school settings is being used to replace traditional punishment practices with a community-oriented approach that involves all stakeholders finding a solution.
How Does Restorative Justice Work in the Classroom?
While the process will vary from incident to incident, there is a basic structure that frames all restorative justice interactions. It iss as follows:
All involved parties discuss the incident in question.
The victim will be given the opportunity to share their feelings, as will the accused. Restorative practices must provide equal time to each party as the primary goal is not punishment, but restoration.
Teachers/administrators will act as facilitators to the mediation, where they ask open-ended questions in an effort to foster reflection. These group meetings are known as circles and are central to restorative justice practices.
Questions posed to students often include: What can you do to fix this? How would you feel if the same thing happened to you? How did your behavior impact your fellow students?
All involved parties decide on a course of action, and all parties work together to carry out that plan.
What Are the Benefits of Restorative Justice in the Classroom?
While research is still ongoing, there are a number of benefits that many organizations — both schools and other settings — have experienced after shifting to restorative practices. Here are some of the most important:
Reduces exclusionary discipline
Builds stronger interpersonal relationships
Improves respect amongst peers and teachers
Reduces overall stress in the school community
Allows teachers to focus more time on teaching
Narrows racial disparities in disciplinary action
Improves student academic performance
Encourages all parties to take responsibility
Strategies for Implementing Restorative Practices in the Classroom
Implementing restorative practices in your classroom doesn’t have to be done all at once. In fact, it is easier — and you as a teacher will find more success — to add RJ strategies slowly in ways that work for your classroom environment. Here are some steps you can take to start using restorative justice in your class.
Start Using Circles
Circles are one of the pillars of restorative justice in schools, and are a great starting point for teachers looking to use more RJ practices. Circles are a whole class activity designed to help the class community set their expectations and standards of behavior for the environment. During the circle exercise, students and teachers alike are encouraged to share their goals, what worries them, and how they want to interact with their classmates. With circles, students are given the feeling of ownership over class rules that will directly impact them.
Circles are also used after an incident that needs remedying. In a post-event circle, all relevant stakeholders will meet with a teacher who acts as the mediator for the discussion. WIth restorative justice, the conversation follows the same format:
a. Discuss what happened
b. Address the harm, needs, and cause of the conflict
c. Determine acceptable outcomes
d. Act on the plans of action
Implement Focused Communication Practice
Communication is vital in any restorative justice model, so any RJ practices should start with focused communication practice. In your classroom, find ways to demonstrate clear, thorough communication skills. This will help students understand what is expected of them and learn how to effectively listen, learn, and share.
Introduce Restorative Skills
Skills like problem solving, empathy, positivity, and communication are all critical for restorative practices to be effective. And while these things are all introduced through other aspects of your teaching, make an effort to discuss and model these through the lens of restorative justice.
Have Daily Circle Discussions
Restorative justice relies on the classroom truly feeling like a community — a sense of closeness, honesty, trustworthiness, and dependability are all important ingredients. One way to foster these feelings is by holding circle discussions every day. In this environment, students can communicate openly and get to know their classmates, which builds a sense of closeness and strengthens your classroom culture.
5. Encourage Independent Communication
As you know, restorative justice practices involve the perpetrator and the victim (for lack of better terms) resolving issues together. To build a foundation for this type of interaction, allow students to independently communicate about issues that may have been taboo before. Discussing feelings, ideas, and reactions without teacher involvement will help them feel more comfortable in formal RJ interactions.
6. Let Students Share About Themselves
Restorative justice practices take students and their personal lives into account, so it’s only logical that you would take time to get to know more about each pupil in your class. Depending on the age group this can be intimidating or even hard to accomplish, but students at the minimum should know they are encouraged to share. By getting to know the whole student, teachers and classmates can get to understand their behaviors better.
3 Real Examples of Restorative Justice Practices in Schools
To give you proper context around restorative justice in schools, here are three very different school districts who have found success with RJ practices.
Oakland Unified School District
Chicago Public Schools
Primary schools in Australia
Restorative Justice Resources
The best way to move to a restorative justice model in your classroom or school is to improve your knowledge and understanding of its practices in an in-depth manner. At the University of San Diego Division of Professional and Continuing Education (PCE), we offer a Restorative Justice Facilitation and Leadership Certificate that will equip participants with the level of mastery and understanding of restorative justice that empowers them to spearhead any implementation of restorative justice. Available online, this three-course certificate covers everything from the philosophy of RJ to the tenets of restorative leadership.
If you are an educator looking to do more high-level research first, here is an introductory list of restorative justice resources.
FAQs About Restorative Justice in the Classroom
Q: What is restorative justice in education?
A: Put simply, restorative justice in education or schools is a practice that “empowers students to resolve conflicts on their own and in small groups, and it's a growing practice at schools around the country. Essentially, the idea is to bring students together in peer-mediated small groups to talk, ask questions, and air their grievances.”
Q: What are the benefits of restorative justice?
A: Some of the biggest benefits schools can expect when they move to a restorative justice model include:
Building stronger interpersonal relationships
Improving respect amongst peers and teachers
Reducing overall stress in the school community
Narrowing racial disparities in disciplinary action
Improving student academic performance
Q: Where can I learn about using restorative justice in my classroom?
A: There are a number of online resources available to learn about restorative justice, or you can consider pursuing the USD PCE Restorative Justice Facilitation and Leadership Certificate. This certificate is available completely online and covers the theories and skills required to lead restorative justice efforts in a school setting.