When discussing behavior management approaches with schools and districts, the notion of restorative practices is commonly brought up as an effective school-wide solution. There are many benefits to using restorative approaches, but it is important for school leaders to have a deeper understanding of what restorative practices entail and how they should be implemented. Below we outline the key components of a restorative practices approach along with guidelines for implementation and how to avoid common challenges and pitfalls. Finally, we discuss how these approaches actually impact schools and students and how they work within an MTSS framework.
What are restorative practices?
Restorative practices (RP), also known as restorative justice, is a preventative and responsive approach to discipline focused on building and repairing relationships. It is not just a response to misbehavior, but an inclusive process that engages all members of a school community. Well-implemented RP shifts the focus of discipline from punishment to learning while also working towards building inclusive schools communities grounded in strong relationships among students and staff, where students feel emotionally and physically safe. This includes explicitly identifying a set of core values that are shared by all members of the community.
How do schools implement restorative practices?
In order to be effective, RP should be implemented as a whole-school approach. The practice also needs to be viewed as something beneficial beyond just reducing suspension rates or student misbehavior. Some RP approaches include suspensions alongside other methods. The underlying purpose is to foster positive school culture, strong relationships, and help students gain greater awareness and understanding of how their actions impact others. Students are taught how to take accountability for their actions and how to change or adjust their behaviors moving forward. There are still consequences for student behavior when it violates the school’s core values, but these consequences are not intended to punish the student but help them gain awareness of the effect of their behaviors on individuals in their community. This is why some schools using RP might still use suspensions as a consequence for certain actions, but it is how they implement those suspensions and what is expected of students during their suspension that is important.
Although the underlying theory and framework are consistent, schools can implement their RP approach in different ways. Some schools use restorative circles or conferences as a setting where students can discuss actions that have taken place and learn directly from their peers how their behaviors have impacted others and how to properly make amends. Sometimes the class or peer group that was affected by a student or group of students’ behaviors can work together to decide on the consequences. Teachers serve as facilitators and help support the use of fair consequences. Depending on the grade level, some students may require more help from the facilitator, but the goal is to have students learn how to decide on a consequence as a group. Schools and districts can help integrate restorative practices into their schools using an evidence-based restorative justice program that provides training for teachers and scaffolding for implementation (this article provides a few examples of RP programs).
What are the common pitfalls or challenges with restorative approaches?
One of the biggest challenges with RP is proper implementation. As mentioned above, many districts and schools are overly focused on reducing suspension rates and see RP as a means to an end. In a similar vein, many schools see it solely as a behavior management practice and don’t implement it as a whole-school preventative framework. It is important for students to be aware of common values and behavioral expectations that align with those values. Students will also respond better to consequences that come out of RP when they see themselves as a valued member of the school community and feel supported by their peers and teachers, rather than targeted.
Another common pitfall can occur if schools implement RP using a top-down approach, led predominantly by school and district leaders. Often principals and other school administrators will decide on a specific RP program for their school. It is critical to have input on these programs and approaches from teachers, staff, students, and families. In addition, some RP programs only provide initial training for teachers. Effective RP programs are ones that also provide ongoing coaching and mentoring to help sustain the practice over time. This is also essential for schools that have a high rate of staff turnover and the need to re-train teachers each school year.
A final but critical pitfall to be aware of is not explicitly addressing the role of institutional racism in schools and how it impacts disciplinary practices. All school staff needs to be aware of the inequality in suspensions and other discipline approaches and specifically how students of color are more likely to receive harsher punishments than Caucasian students, even when they engage in the same actions. Students with disabilities are also more likely to receive more punitive disciplinary actions than students without disabilities. One of the goals of RP is to engage in discussion and problem-solving that leads to consequences that are equitable. Schools might need to also revisit their core values and behavioral expectations for students to make sure they are aligned with the cultural values, norms, and expectations of the community they serve. This often requires direct engagement from students and their families, as well as other community members, to gain a better understanding of different cultural values.
How do restorative practices impact school discipline and student outcomes?
One positive finding from research on RP is its potential to address discipline gaps and promote equitable responses to student behavior. Research shows that RP can reduce the discipline gaps across race/ethnicity, gender, and special education status. As mentioned above, typical punish and suspension methods of discipline have been found to be disproportionately used with students of color as well as students with disabilities. When RP is implemented well it has the ability to improve the equitable distribution of consequences. The focus on building a school community and strengthening relationships makes it more likely for students who have previously felt excluded to feel more accepted and have a stronger sense of belonging at school.
When it comes to understanding the impact of RP on school climate and student behavioral and academic outcomes, the findings are a bit mixed. One experimental study did find that the implementation of an RP program led to increased staff perceptions of school climate and reduced suspension rates among elementary students; however, the effects were not seen for middle school students. These outcomes are likely due to the inconsistency in implementation. Also, most of the existing studies were conducted over a 1-2 year period and it might take a while before schools are able to see changes in their school and students; shifting an entire climate and culture of a school can take years. Overall, the research on RP is still in its early phases and as more high-quality studies are done the impacts of this approach will hopefully become more evident.
How can restorative practices fit within an MTSS framework?
One of the benefits of RP is that it can be integrated with existing MTSS practices. An important component of any MTSS model is using data to guide decision-making at both the school and individual student levels. Schools interested in using RP should actively collect student disciplinary and behavior incident data and document what kinds of disciplinary and behavior management practices are currently being used with students. This can be a great starting point to help identify whether there are issues with disproportionality and keep track of any changes in behavior incidents over time.
Restorative practices can also be built into all behavior and social-emotional learning tier levels of support.Tier 1 approaches can include class-wide practices that help teach and promote shared values and promote inclusiveness, a sense of belonging, and relationships among students and teachers. When certain behaviors or actions do occur that violate those shared values, restorative circles can involve the entire class in order to openly discuss these behaviors and how they are affecting the classroom community.
Students who are struggling with their behaviors or social-emotional competencies might also benefit from more focused and strategic RP approaches, consistent with Tier 2 and 3 levels of support in MTSS. These students could meet in small groups to have their own restorative circles or discuss and reflect on decisions made in larger restorative conferences with the entire class. The important part is that students who need additional support have time to reflect on their actions, how it impacted others, and brainstorm next steps for repairing any damaged relationships and preventing these behaviors from occurring in the future. Finally, school leaders should continue to review student behavior and discipline data to help evaluate the effectiveness of RP for the entire school, specific grade levels, and individual students. It helps when schools also use a universal behavioral or social-emotional screener 2-3 times across the year. Evidence-based screeners can reliably show growth social-emotional and behavioral competencies as well as identify students who need additional support (for more information on using social-emotional assessments in MTSS, check out our webinar on the topic). School climate surveys can also be used to evaluate students’ connections to the core school and community values as well as their sense of belonging in school and their relationships with other students and staff.
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Essie Sutton is an Applied Developmental Psychologist and the Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds. Her work brings together the fields of Child Development and Education Psychology to improve learning and development for all students. Dr. Sutton is responsible for studying the impacts of the Branching Minds on students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes. She also leverages MTSS research and best practices to develop and improve the Branching Minds platform.