Restorative Justice in Practice, Part 2: How to Get Started

February 25 2014


  • William Grace Frost, Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters
    William Grace Frost
    Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters
  • Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters
    Rick Phillips
    Founder, Community Matters

As we wrote about in Part 1, Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices stand as both a philosophy of discipline and an approach whose time has come. Restorative Practices teach social-emotional skills and help build a strong caring community that experiences fewer harmful acts of mistreatment. Restorative Justice moves schools away from punishing students for their harmful acts towards helping them correct their behavior, thus restoring a sense of community and well-being for all those who have been impacted, as well as the school at large.

The restorative approach can be challenging at first since it defies deeply-held notions about the use of power and control, and the urge to punish a student for having misbehaved. In order for restorative practices to take hold and be successful, a series of shifts must first take place.

The First Step - Mistakes are an Opportunity for "Teachable Moments"

The first starts with organizational leadership, where the administration recognizes that students making mistakes is a golden opportunity for learning, a “teachable moment”. Along with that is the understanding and acceptance that it’s normal developmentally for young people to make mistakes in the first place – in thoughts, words and actions. When behaviors are misguided, thoughtless or even mean-spirited, these incidents become opportunities for learning rather than pathways to punishment. Times like these are ideal for practicing and integrating the skills of empathy, accountability and reparation.

The Restorative Circle

In a restorative circle, the offending student is given the chance to hear and to be heard; they are invited to face the person(s) they harmed, accept responsibility for their words or actions, speak words of apology and make things right again. This shift places the importance on the learning opportunity, rather than on the fact that they got into trouble, and on staying connected rather than separating them from the community.

The Second Step - The Role of Adult from Punisher to Circle Facilitator

The second change that must take place is in the role of the adults. In a punitive-based system, the role of the authority figure is to listen to both sides of the story, determine “guilt” or “innocence” and then hand out an appropriate punishment. Typically the student’s response is one of resentment, alienation, shame and possibly an equally troublesome habit of fearing and submitting to authority.

However, in restorative practices the adult’s role is more of a coach or facilitator. In the initial inquiry the facilitator’s role is to help establish what happened and who was involved – those most directly impacted, those who caused the harm, those who may have witnessed the incident and other community members who were affected. The facilitator is the convener of the circle and the guide who helps the students explore facts, judgments, feelings, needs and ideas for how to make things right again. Making this shift keeps the adults out of the typical “judge and jury” roles, and subsequently, helps build the student’s capacity to work things out for himself –  taking the locus of responsibility for the well-being of the community off the shoulders of the adults and placing it firmly where it belongs – on the community itself.


These shifts don’t necessarily come easily. Even when we understand the value and benefits, it can still be very difficult to move from theory to practice. Restorative practices invite us to respond, rather than react in the conditioned ways we have always done (and likely had done to us).

As you consider developing your restorative practices, keep in mind that there are three levels of implementation (the following is adapted from Oakland, CA USD Restorative Justice Resources:

LEVEL 1 is characterized by the use of classroom circles to build relationships, create shared values and guidelines, and promote conversations that decrease behavioral disruption. The goal is to build a caring, intentional, and equitable community with conditions conducive to learning for the entire school population.

LEVEL 2 is characterized by the use of alternatives to suspensions -- restorative processes such as circles, mediation, peer courts or family-group conferencing to respond to disciplinary issues in a non-punitive, restorative manner. This process addresses the root causes of the harm, supports accountability for the offender, and promotes healing for all -- the victim(s), the offender and the school community.

LEVEL 3 supports the successful re-entry of youth following suspension, truancy, expulsion or incarceration. The goal is to welcome youth back to the school community in a manner that provides wraparound support and promotes student accountability and achievement.

Getting started can feel challenging, complex or even overwhelming, but know you are not alone. If you’re ready to move from “catch and punish” to “connect and correct” in your district or at your school, call Community Matters at 707-823-6159. For more information about restorative justice and practices, see the links below and also visit the Tools and Resources page on our website.

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