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Teaching Opinion

What It Takes to Apply Restorative Practices in Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 14, 2020 17 min read
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(This is the second post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are practical ways to implement restorative practices?

In Part One, Dr. Sheila Wilson, Maurice McDavid, Timothy Hilton, Ashley McCall, Bryan Harris, and Kara Pranikoff contributed their commentaries. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Sheila, Maurice, and Timothy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Erika Niles, Gina Laura Gullo, Cheryl Staats, Kelly Capatosto, Ricky Robertson, Victoria Romero, and Dr. Laura Greenstein share their recommendations.

The next question-of-the-week can be found at the end of this post.

Suspensions don’t improve school culture

Erika Niles is an instructional coordinator in St. Louis and has served in the field of education for over 20 years as a teacher, instructional coach, and specialist. She works relentlessly to develop systems that ensure all students feel a sense of belonging while learning at high levels:

Suspensions don’t improve school culture, and predetermined consequences don’t change behavior. A growing understanding among educators indicates an increase in concerns about the effectiveness of punitive discipline and suspensions. Most research shows that traditional forms of discipline actually exacerbate bullying, violence, poor academic performance, and a decrease in social-emotional health. Conversely, research shows that restorative approaches can transform student behavior and build healthy school communities. Restorative practice, by simple definition, is a social-science approach that enables those who have been harmed to communicate the impact of the harm to those responsible, and for the person causing the harm to accept responsibility and work to make it right with the person harmed and the community at large. This requires a shift from a zero-tolerance, top-down discipline approach to a relationship-based practice in which teachers help students engage in reflective conversations as a means to understand the harm the actions caused.

While many traditional forms of discipline are focused on the misbehavior and the punishment of the offender, restorative practice focuses on the offender and the victim. Instead of a for or to mentality, there is a shift to working with the offender, helping him or her process as a means to own the wrong and working to make it right with the victim and the community. Because people are the nucleus of restorative practice, a culture that emphasizes the importance of relationships and trust through its messages must be established and felt within the entire community. As a result, one of the greatest challenges to successful implementation of restorative practice is that you need buy-in from the entire community. This is not to say you can’t implement aspects of restorative practice in practical ways with positive results.

Affective statements are a great place to start if you’re looking to implement restorative practice, as they provide the opportunity to teach an empathetic foundation needed for all other parts of RP. Using an “I statement” to make the person causing harm aware of the impact their choice has, affective statements help to shift the dynamic between those who caused harm and those who have been impacted. The typical affective statement is framed as follows: I feel ______ when you ______ because ________. These statements allow the focus to remain on the behavior as opposed to the student making the choice.

Circles are another simple, yet highly-effective way to build community and problem-solve as part of RP. In the proactive sense, circles are structured processes that bring participants together for a variety of reasons: check-in, problem-solving, community building, celebrating. Circles can also be used in response to missteps as a means to repair harm to the classroom community. The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis is a great resource for learning more about circles.

Despite our proactive efforts, which should account for 80 percent of restorative practice implementation, students will take missteps. A shift of language is a practical restorative way to respond to these missteps. For example, when a negative event takes place, rather than asking the student, “What did you do?,” you might ask, “What happened?” Other restorative questions used to process conflict and/or wrong-doing:

  • What happened?
  • How did it happen?
  • What were you thinking?
  • What are you thinking now?
  • What can we do to make it right?

Much like affective statements, restorative questions place emphasis on the incident, allowing the person causing harm to think about the impact of his or her behavior. It’s important to include the victim in these conversations by asking what he/she needs in order to feel safe.

Regardless if you are a teacher, counselor, or building leader, it’s important to remember that it takes about four years to see the impact of restorative practice. The best advice I can give is stick with it. While results won’t be immediate, they will be long lasting.

Restorative practices require modeling

Gina Laura Gullo is an educational equity consultant with GLG Consulting and a researcher of unintentional bias and interventions that serve to lessen the impact of such biases. She also is an adjunct and mentors in educational leadership at several Mid-Atlantic universities.

Kelly Capatosto is a senior research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Kelly’s work focuses on race and cognition—how peoples’ perceptions of race impact our decisionmaking and maintain social inequities.

Cheryl Staats is an education author and researcher with a background in implicit racial/ethnic bias:

Many have done a great job of describing ways to implement restorative practices (also called restorative justice) at the school level including a previous -Classroom Q&A response by Shane Safir in February 2016. But, what can teachers do to implement restorative practices either with their school or independently in their own classroom communities? We based this answer on the suggestions of those before us and our own reflections of several core restorative practices that can occur in any classroom. To implement classroom restorative practices, teachers must remember the focus is on restoring relationships to support the community rather than restoring “order.” A classroom community that supports relationships may or may not look and feel like the current classroom, but it will function as a community where relationships are centrally valued. So, how does a teacher begin?

1. Create a Shared-Values Classroom Community

This first step intentionally reflects Shane Serif’s first step in implementing restorative practices at the school level because it is a critical starting point. The community must be intentionally developed through whole-class discussion and values creation. This includes giving all students a chance to collaborate in the development of core values, writing those core values and posting them where all can read them, and respecting and referring to the values when they are interrupted. (See our book, Implicit Bias in Schools: A Practitioner’s Guide, for some considerations during this process.) When the students can internalize these, they can begin to hold themselves responsible and work with others to restore those values when issues arise.

2. Engage in Proactive Circles

Proactive Circles are a classroom activity where students stand in a circle and discuss topics such as academic goals, emotions, or classroom experiences (Gregory, Clawson, Davis, & Gerewitz, 2016). This daily or weekly activity aims to build a stronger community where students and teachers better understand each other. This process can be gradual, as it will take time for students to get comfortable talking. While each student should have a chance to respond, it is also important to respect students choosing to provide short answers until they are more ready to share.

3. Intervene in Behavioral Infractions Rather Than Responding

Teachers must continue restorative practices when infractions occur, as this is a key point in creating a restorative, rather than punitive, community. Some strategies for intervening in behavior infractions include: (1) restorative questions, (2) responsive circles, and (3) shame management (Gregory, Clawson, Davis, & Gerewitz, 2016, p. 329). Restorative questions ask who was impacted and how that could be fixed; this might occur in a responsive circle that includes all those in the community or only the offender(s) and victim(s). These interventions must include a focus and acknowledgement of the emotions of the victim(s) and the offender(s), including feelings of shame and how to repair the relationship.

4. Center Students’ Leadership in the Community

Communities engaging in restorative practices should allow for students to become leaders in the community. This includes engaging students in decisions made for the community and providing opportunities for affective statements. For example: When the day must be reorganized or rescheduled, allow students to have a voice in the restructuring. Be sure to check in with students about both positive and negative reactions to occurrences using affective statements about emotional reactions. “How did you feel about the change in schedule last Thursday?” or “Seeing students arrive to class late makes me feel like this class is less valued. How do you feel when your classmates arrive late?”

5. Model, Model, Model

Restorative practices require modeling for other teachers and staff, students, and administrators. The teacher must be a representative member of the classroom community. Students should see the classroom values reflected in the way the teacher behaves inside and outside the classroom and be able to learn how to be an ideal community member from watching.

Teachers should be aware that implementing restorative practices may not be as simple as it seems. Avoid being discouraged when a classroom culture shift does not happen overnight. Be patient and persistent. Give yourself and your students time to develop the skills and knowledge needed without rushing the process. Begin the journey one step at a time.

“Talk, Trust, Feel, Repair”

As a consultant and coach, Ricky Robertson assists schools in developing trauma-informed systems of support and Restorative Practices that foster resilience and success for staff and students. Ricky is the co-author of the book, Building Resilience in Students Impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences: A Whole-Staff Approach, published by Corwin.

Victoria Romeo is an educator with over 42 years of experience working as a classroom teacher, principal, consultant, and instructional coach. Victoria is the co-author of the book, Building Resilience in Students Impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences: A Whole-Staff Approach, published by Corwin:

Relationships are the foundation of effective teaching and learning. When we build trust and belonging in our classrooms, our students take risks to learn and grow. However, in every classroom, conflict will inevitably arise. How we respond can either deepen our capacity to connect and teach our students or erode trust and diminish their success as well as our own.

While none of us became educators because we wanted to send our students to prison, we work within a system that has created a school-to-prison pipeline through its reliance on punitive and exclusionary discipline. Restorative Practices are a key component of transforming our education system. Schools have adopted Restorative Practices that keep students in schools, strengthen relationships, and respond to discipline equitably with care for the social-emotional needs of students.

Because implementing Restorative Practices can be difficult, we offer suggestions through a Talk, Trust, Feel, Repair framework, adapted from our book on trauma-informed practices, Building Resilience in Students Impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences: A Whole-Staff Approach (Corwin, 2018).


Through their behavior, many of our students communicate their fundamental need for safety, belonging, and feeling valued. When we understand that behavior is a form of communication, we support students in developing healthy ways to communicate their feelings and needs. Teaching and practicing affective statements helps students to say what they are feeling, their reason for feeling that way, and what can help. Affective statements allow students to express their feelings and needs in ways that are helpful rather than hurtful.


Take a moment to reflect on these questions: How do you build trust with your students? How do you know if a student trusts you?

Trust is integral to healthy relationships and is always tested in times of conflict. We can build and maintain trust through routines, aligning our words and actions, sharing about ourselves in ways that are relevant and helpful, and eliciting and incorporating feedback to show that we value student voice.

Classroom Circles are a valuable practice that foster trust, belonging, and community. They can be used to develop agreements, solve problems, share thoughts and feelings, and build relationships, thereby creating a foundation of trust and connection that is important in resolving conflict when it occurs.


Social-emotional learning is essential to Restorative Practices. When students can name their feelings and express them in healthy ways, they are less likely to act in harmful ways. Knowing how to handle difficult emotions is critical. When a student is overwhelmed by their feelings, they can’t reason and problem-solve. Mindfulness activities, physical movement, deep breathing, drawing, journaling, and other regulating activities help students find their calm before engaging in a Restorative conversation or circle.

As stewards of the restorative process, we must attend to our emotional well-being. If an incident has left us emotionally escalated, it is best to wait before engaging in a restorative conversation or ask a colleague to facilitate it. Ongoing professional development that helps educators explore our beliefs about student learning, unpack our biases, and develop self-care goals to build our resiliency is essential.


When harm occurs, we use the Restorative Questions to facilitate conversations that repair harm and restore relationships. Restorative questions foster self-awareness, empathy, and accountability. They also offer insight into the needs behind a student’s behavior, so that we can prevent the challenging behavior from occurring again.

If you are beginning to implement Restorative Practices:

  • Start small. Don’t begin with your most challenging student or a severe behavior; rather, start with a conflict that feels manageable and gradually take on more challenging incidents.
  • Prepare. Talk with each person involved prior to the restorative conversation to understand each person’s perspective and assess their willingness to participate in the restorative process.
  • Document. When you bring the parties together, document the outcomes of the conversation. Restorative conversations are not just about students saying they are sorry but are intended to result in actions that repair harm.
  • Follow-up. Ensure that the person responsible for the harm has taken the agreed upon action(s) and everyone involved is aware of the outcomes.

Restorative Practices are an investment in our students. They require planning, practice, and patience. However, they have the potential to teach some of our most valuable lessons.

When Assessment Becomes Restorative

A lifelong educator, Dr. Laura Greenstein has served as a teacher and school leader, professor and professional-development specialist. Her passion for excellence in assessment is evident in her numerous books, articles, and blogs on the topic:


The path to restorative assessment began with restorative justice, a set of principles and practices for repairing and responding to conflict and wrongdoing. Restorative justice developed into restorative educational practices that empower students to resolve conflict through peer-mediated conversations. Aligning these restorative principles with educational assessment means re-engaging learners, restoring their control and confidence, refocusing assessment as learning, and respecting all learners as they progress toward mastery.

Assessment becomes restorative when it repairs harm from ineffective practices, engages reluctant learners, builds self-reliance, and encourages progress. Restorative assessment shifts the focus from assessments that indicate deficiencies to ones that illuminate strengths. With appropriate routines, all types of learners, from disengaged to divergent thinkers, can make progress toward mastery. Restorative assessment includes four essential elements


Reciprocal and Purposeful means that learning intentions are visible and understood by both student and teacher. Expectations are clear and exemplars are available. Transparency, authenticity, and accountability form a safety net. When anyone stumbles, be it the teacher, student, or learning partners, interventions and resolutions are prompt, focused, and instructive

Reciprocal conversation starter: Tell me what was clear and/or confusing about your learning and assessment.

Responsive and Balanced (a.k.a. comprehensive) assessment relies on multiple types of evidence of student learning. It responds to strengths and challenges with just-right adjustments to practice, pacing, and depth. A formative approach, embedded throughout teaching and learning, incorporates feedback that is timely, specific, and actionable.

Responsive question for learners: Can you think of other ways to show your learning?

Refocused and Inclusive assessment considers the needs of all learners and sustains students as goal-setters and planners. It is fair and unbiased. Relevant learning intentions and reasonable challenge are combined with transparency, flexibility, and support.

Reciprocal conversation starter: Tell me about what did and didn’t work with your plan and process.

Respectful assessment starts and ends with the learner. It relies on multiple assessment methods throughout the taxonomies of learning, continually monitoring progress. From knowing to creating, students rely on their strengths and overcome setbacks through reflection and self-assessment.

Respectful question: Can you describe steps to improve your grades? How can I help?

Synthesizing and relying on confirmed best practice in assessment improves learning outcomes for all students. This doesn’t require an extreme makeover but rather relies on purposeful practice, complementary pathways, and balanced approaches that engage the whole community and get everyone moving forward on the ramp to success.

Learn more at here.

Next Question!

The next question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways we can support Long-Term English Language Learners?

Your responses are welcome!

Thanks to Erika, Gina, Cheryl, Kelly, Ricky, Victoria, and Laura for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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.

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