I have the honor of collaborating with Kathy Lebrón on this post. We saw a need to address how the system disproportionately disciplines and criminalizes students of color. We wanted to get people thinking about positive alternatives to the traditional forms of behavior management systems and chose to focus on restorative justice and peer mediation as avenues for change.
Behavior and the process to discipline students based on behavior has been a major topic in the educational community. Various forms of intervention have been implemented through schools across the United States. The majority of these methods involve some form of a tiered system, where consequences layer based upon the severity and frequency of student actions. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) systems offer different strategies, most including a point system where students gain or lose points based on behavior. These types of systems usually involve a punishment and reward system for behaviors, rather than immediately addressing the root causes of the behaviors and restoring peace within the community. Restorative Justice provides a positive alternative to these traditional PBIS systems.
Restorative Justice gained popularity in the 1970’s with the introduction of victim-offender mediation programs; however, ancient societies have always used various forms of mediation to address conflict, restore relationships, and build community. Indigenous cultures have generations of experience utilizing restorative practices to mend relationships and repair harm that has occurred within their communities. Restorative Practices are now slowly becoming an integral part of creating healthy, peaceful communities and justice systems.
Differences between Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice
Restorative Practices is the umbrella term for a philosophy that views relationships as an integral component to fostering positive and healthy learning environments. Unlike traditional “zero-tolerance” school policies that often target disenfranchised populations, Restorative Practices enable people to restore relationships, resolve conflicts and build community in proactive and positive ways. These practices have roots in Restorative Justice. Restorative Justice is an approach that focuses on repairing relationships and the harm done to people versus simply punishing offenders. This approach is influenced by ancient and indigenous practices performed in cultures worldwide.
Restorative Practices involve interventions when harm has happened, as well as practices that help to prevent harm and conflict by creating a sense of belonging, safety, and social responsibility within the school community. They also involve “making it right” when a “harm” has occurred.
Relationships are important. When an incident occurs, the focus is on the harm caused to the relationship and how to repair said relationship; rather than what rule has been broken and what consequences will be imposed. We use Restorative Justice to respond to harm that someone has caused and to find ways to repair that harm so that healing and change can take place.
Peace circles, or Restorative Justice circles, can serve many functions and they can be used proactively as well as a means for intervention. When used proactively, circles can help people develop and build relationships. When used as an intervention method, they can help respond to conflicts and wrongdoings. The circle process allows people to share their stories, their perspectives and makes them feel they have an equal say. Circles are a way of bringing people together in which: everyone is respected, everyone gets a chance to talk without interruption, participants explain themselves by telling their stories and everyone is equal – no person is more important than anyone else. Thus, Restorative Circles are excellent practice in shifting the needle toward a POWER WITH instead of a POWER OVER approach. Sharing power creates a win-win situation for members of the circle and allows students to feel empowered.
Typically, circles follow a given structure and contain the following elements:
- Keeper: a neutral facilitator who “keeps” the circle going (i.e. the teacher)
- Talking Piece: an object that people pass around and it signals it’s only their turn to share (can be anything from a ball, a keychain, a toy microphone, etc.)
- Values: identified by everyone in the circle in order to create a respectful atmosphere
- Guidelines: generating guidelines based on shared values
- Ceremony: tradition to open the circle
- Stages: 1) Specific intentions, 2) Intended Outcomes, 3) Activities/Guiding Questions, 4) Keeper techniques
- Consensus: get everyone to offer their perspective
- Storytelling: circle participants share their stories and lived experiences as well as reflect on the present
- Closing ceremony: tradition to close the circle
Sticking to these elements is imperative to preserving the integrity and intentionality of a circle. You can see these elements at play in this video about Restorative Justice in Oakland Schools.
Peace/Restorative Circles can be used for a myriad of situations, including: teaching curriculum, developing shared agreements for classroom behaviors, checking in/out, solving classroom problems, healing from loss, discussing/solving conflict and problems, etc.. When using circles proactively and to prevent harm, you can build relationships with students in positive and meaningful ways. You can find 48 circle prompts in this resource that I, The Radical Maestra, created to get to know your students better and vice-versa. It can also help to proactively guide discussions with students around relationship-building, values, identity and curriculum.
Peer mediation is a restorative practice that provides an opportunity for student accountability. An entire school community gains value in learning how to mediate situations between peers. Peer mediation is a six step process that consists of:
Agree to Mediate: there must be consent from all parties involved, including the mediator, to mediate the conflict
Gathering Points of View: mediators must allow all individuals the opportunity to tell their story, while identifying and understanding the multiple perspectives being discussed
Focus on Needs and Interests: Mediators must center the focus of the conversation on what the involved parties need to resolve the conflict
Create Win-Win Solutions: Focus on creating resolutions that are specific, balanced, reasonable, and thoroughly solve the problem
Evaluate Options: Consider the various solutions and determine the solution that best solves the problem
Create and Sign An Agreement: The involved parties collectively write out the established agreement and sign the agreement.
Individuals can alternate between the role of peer mediator to ensure that all parties have the opportunity to actively participate in this restorative practice. Teaching all individuals to be peer mediators and allowing this participation can help create an environment where students are empowered to manage and have autonomy over their own and their peers actions. For more information about how to implement peer mediation as a restorative practice, download the free conflict resolution and peer mediation toolkit from IREX here.
It is our hope that you reflect on your current behavior management and disciplinarian practices as well as the potential impacts they have on students, especially students of color. How can you implement more collaborative, student-centered, and POWER WITH approaches in your classroom and school to resolve and repair conflicts and harm?
Institute for Restorative Initiatives, Center for Restorative Justice, firstname.lastname@example.org
Circle Forward: Building a Restorative School Community. Boyes-Watson & Pranis. Living Justice Press. 2015. Cambridge, MA.
Restorative Justice Pocketbook. Thorsborne & Vinegrad. 2009.
Conferencing Handbook. The New Real Justice Training Manual. O’Connell and Wachtel. Real Justice. 1999.
Johnson, D. W. and Johnson, R. T. (2012). Restorative justice in the classroom: Necessary roles of cooperative context, constructive conflict, and civic Values. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 5: 4–28