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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Restorative Justice Is Not Just an Alternative to Discipline

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 07, 2023 14 min read
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Today’s post is Part Two in a series on strategies for implementing restorative practices in schools.

‘Restorative Practices Are Trauma-Informed’

Ivette Stern, LCSW, is the director of operations for the Positive Learning Collaborative. She has over 20 years of experience training and coaching educators at high-need schools, helping them to build communities based on trust, strong relationships, and healing-centered practices.

Caroline Selby, M.S. Ed., has been working as a teacher since 2009, and as a bilingual special education teacher in New York City schools since 2015. Currently, she is a behavior specialist with the Positive Learning Collaborative, focusing on restorative practices.

Gholdy Muhammad is an associate professor at the University of Illinois Chicago. She is also the author of the bestselling books, Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy (Scholastic) and Unearthing Joy: A Guide to Culturally and Historically Responsive Teaching and Learning (Scholastic):

Most of us agree that education in our country is in great need of transformative thinking around policies and pedagogies. With an eye toward making that happen, the authors of this post came together to discuss restorative practices through the lens of culturally and historically responsive education (CHRE).

What Are Restorative Practices?

Restorative practices have a philosophy and mindset of inclusion and community that create equitable, democratic, and socially just classroom environments. They foster trust, understanding, and empathy within those communities by offering an alternative to punitive forms of discipline. Restorative practices honor and value the variety of cultures and identities that show up in our classrooms.

They also ensure that when harm, such as bias-based bullying, does occur, there is a safe community to return to. Restorative practices are most effective in schools where school leadership and educators are trained in implementing them so that the practices are not just something that we do but who we are.

Community building is a foundational restorative practice, and there are many holistic Indigenous traditions that have given rise to modern-day approaches. Those traditions strengthen relationships among individuals within the community. When harm is done, those relationships ensure a space where community members can heal by connecting to one another’s humanity. Healing cannot occur in isolation because as humans we are hardwired to connect.

The goal of restorative practices is collective healing through connection. As Gholdy Muhammad states in Unearthing Joy, “We need humanizing pedagogies that center the genius, justice, joy, love, and humanity of our children.”

Restorative practices are trauma-informed and culturally responsive. That means, for them to be effective, we must see individuals as whole, multidimensional people and not just students, employees of a school or other workplace. We must consider all their strengths, all that is right with them.

Those practices occur on a spectrum, ranging from simply checking in with students to facilitating restorative circles to repair harm or holding a restorative conference. The goal is inclusion and a shift in the power dynamics and structures within a school community. Engaging in restorative practices is one way to humanize pedagogy and disrupt the traditional definitions of roles and identities in the classroom.

What Do CHRE Restorative Practices Look Like?

Because restorative practices in general and community-building circles in particular honor our common humanity, they align with culturally and historically responsive education. One skill we teach students is public speaking. Circles provide a context to teach children how to speak and listen to each other, just by nature of their structure with everyone sitting or standing in a circle.

Here is an example of how a community-building CHRE circle can be structured:

Materials: a talking piece that has significant meaning; a centerpiece that reflects the culture(s) and values of the community

1. Opening Ceremony: Circle keeper rings a chime; students place their hands on their hearts when they can no longer hear it.

2. Sample Prompt(s):

* Talk to us about a cultural tradition that you value and how it helps to define who you are. (skills and identity)

* Tell us the story of your name. (identity)

* What is your genius? (intellect)

* How is your joy? (joy)

* How do you (re)claim your genius and joy when feeling deflated? (criticality)

* Share one or two values you bring to this community and why they’re important to you. (intellect and identity)

3. Closing Ceremony: Circle keeper says, “Good job you! Good job me! Kiss your brains!” (joy)

Everyone wants to be loved and have a sense of belonging. A community-building circle creates that sense of love and belonging in schools. The power of circles comes from storytelling. By telling our stories, we root ourselves in shared experiences, a set of values, and an understanding of who we are, where (and whose) we come from, and where we want to go.

Restorative practices and circles aren’t just for our students. All stakeholders benefit from them, including administrators, educators, and students’ families. In a circle, everyone is seen and heard by all participants, which promotes equity of voice and authentic voice. This, in turn, honors the cultural traditions and experiences that everyone brings to a school community. The circle sets the stage for responding to harm in nonpunitive ways, as opposed to excluding children from the community through disciplinary measures such as suspensions. This is how we disrupt the school-to-prison nexus and systems that support it.

We have always needed to connect to ourselves and others to heal, but certainly now more than ever. As Marcus Garvey said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”


‘An Opportunity for Personal Healing’

Nadine Ebri is an inspirational leader, education technologist, and the executive director of Ebri Education. Offering consulting and educator professional learning, her work spans from the classroom to global ed-tech innovation:

Restorative practices, a term often interchangeably used with restorative justice, is more than just a process to address wrongdoing—it is an opportunity for personal healing and growth. It operates on the principle that “hurt people hurt people.” Meaning, it acknowledges that every disruptive behavior has a root cause, often grounded in personal pain or trauma. The key to modifying such behavior lies in addressing its root rather than merely reacting to its manifestations.

Several years back, while instructing Algebra 1, I encountered two exceptionally brilliant girls who consistently missed my class due to recurring suspensions. The reasoning behind their suspensions was a cycle of repeated confrontations in the school cafeteria. They would engage in a fight, get suspended, return to school, and would fight again.

After their third encounter, I opted not to send them to the cafeteria for their lunch break. Instead, I invited them to remain in my classroom to communicate with one another. Initially, the dialogue was somewhat strained, and both students were reticent. However, after a few minutes, they gradually started to lower their guards.

As they began conversing, their discussion progressively deepened. From initial lighthearted topics, they moved toward discussing the distress they both were grappling with concerning their fathers. It was at this point I fully grasped the hardship they were dealing with—the agony of neglect, of feeling insignificant, and the torment of verbal maltreatment. This was the burden they bore throughout each school day. Overwhelmed by their shared experiences, they began to shed tears and found solace in each other’s arms. It was a truly profound and touching moment. From that day forward, those two students never fought again.

This story of my former students offers a profound illustration of how restorative practices can be transformative. Rather than perpetuating the cycle of punishment, I chose to give these girls a space to express themselves, to expose their vulnerabilities, and to engage in meaningful dialogue. The girls’ realization of their shared pain, their common struggle led to mutual understanding and respect, ultimately breaking their cycle of violence. This instance, among many others, shows how restorative practices, when employed mindfully, can lead to healing and the rectification of harmful behaviors.

Restorative practices in schools could also include activities like regular check-in meetings, peer mediation, restorative circles, and opportunities for students to make amends and repair the harm they have caused. These practices focus on the individual needs of students, understanding their life complexities, and working toward an inclusive school community that values every student.

In essence, restorative practices in schools are about understanding, healing, and guiding. They recognize the profound truth that students, particularly those behaving disruptively, are not problems to be managed but young individuals carrying burdens that need to be understood and addressed. These practices may demand more time, effort, and patience compared to traditional disciplinary actions, but the positive impact they can have on a child’s life is immeasurable.

My passion for restorative practices stems from my own personal experiences. I was once that very child who was regularly removed from classrooms, referred to the dean’s office, and ultimately expelled from middle school. Unbeknownst to my teachers were the dreadful circumstances I was confronted with at home before I stepped foot into school each day. They had no idea about the emotional battles I had to wage just to make it through the day.

Only when we dedicate ourselves to understanding the intricate realities of students can we genuinely reach and support those who need us most.

So, to any student who has faced hardships, who has been reprimanded more than understood, who has been sent out of classrooms instead of being welcomed in, remember that there are educators and systems that believe in the power of restoration over punishment. There are people who understand that your disruptive behaviors are not a reflection of who you are but an expression of the pain you carry. And most importantly, there are those who believe that, through compassion and understanding, healing and change are possible.


‘Restorative Practices Emerge From an Indigenous Worldview’

Tatiana Chaterji is the restorative -justice facilitator at Fremont High School in the Oakland Unified school district in California and contributing author to The Little Book of Youth Engagement in Restorative Justice: Intergenerational Partnerships for Just and Equitable Schools:

“It sounds like you’re really angry with Crystal right now, Shelly. Is that right? I would be upset if I were you. Do you want to have a circle?”

Crystal has been cutting class in order to avoid her former best friend, Shelly, who just posted something about her on Instagram behind her back. We are in the Peace Room at Fremont High School in Oakland, Calif., a space that has been set aside for students to come together to build community, repair harm, heal, or welcome new students through processes of restorative justice. In this situation, Crystal’s name has been called over the radio because she’s wandering the hallways. As the restorative-justice facilitator, I am available to support.

You could say that Crystal is “in trouble” or “got caught” for doing the wrong thing or breaking the rules. But in a restorative-justice framework, we look at the root causes in order to understand what’s really happening and how to develop a sustainable solution. Crystal was too heated at that moment to sit with Shelly and talk through their issues, but I was able to listen to her, validate her emotions, and de-escalate her so she was ready to return to class. We also scheduled a circle for later that week, where the two students could speak face to face.

Restorative practices are tools, techniques, or methods for strengthening the community and the relationships that comprise it. Often, also known as restorative justice, restorative practices center the connections that we have with each other as fellow humans in the world, rather than the transactional nature of how we do business with each other or otherwise interact for a limited purpose.

Restorative practices emerge from an Indigenous worldview of relating to each other with respect for our shared humanity. In school, this means carving out the time and space for students, teachers, staff, parents, and community members to express who they are, not just what they do or what roles they play.

The most common type of restorative practice in schools is as an alternative to punitive discipline. When a student gets into a fight, the school staff hold a mediation or harm circle to address the underlying conflict rather than suspending or taking away privileges. But even more important than an alternative response to misbehavior, restorative practices create a culture of connection, belonging, mutual respect, safety, and trust. These are the ingredients for preventing as many conflicts or harm from occurring, while also empowering people to respond and repair when someone has been hurt. The stronger the relationships, the more resilient we are as a community. We can bounce back and try to mend what was broken because we know and care about each other.

Key takeaways from the power of restorative practices:

  • Create a culture of safety, trust, care, and belonging: This will go a long way toward establishing the conditions for learning to happen.
  • Introduce a “talking piece,” a symbol from Indigenous peacemaking traditions that gives special significance to both the person speaking and those listening, to equalize voice and ensure that students enjoy more agency in the classroom
  • Use advisory class to try out circles and other community-building activities
  • Offer rotating facilitation roles to develop student leadership: students sign up to lead a check in question, an ice-breaker/game, or group appreciations

Crystal and Shelly ended up resolving their issue about the Instagram post, a shaky truce after acknowledging that they both know what it feels like to be betrayed. The restorative process helped facilitate some sweet moments between them throughout the rest of the year, and even as they navigated new issues, they understood what can happen when we make the effort to communicate with one another.


Thanks to Ivette, Caroline, Gholdy, Nadine, and Tatiana for contributing their thoughts!

The new question of the week is:

What are restorative practices and what do they look like in schools?

In Part One, Marie Moreno, Chandra Shaw, Angela M. Ward, and David Upegui shared their experiences.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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