Restorative Practices: 5 Keys to Successful Implementation - Part 1

February 2 2015


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

In the face of mounting evidence that suspensions decrease connection to school, have long-term negative effects on self-esteem and are detrimental to student achievement, more and more administrators are turning to restorative practices as an alternative to punitive policies and zero tolerance practices.

Research and results have made it abundantly clear that punitive policies and practices disproportionately target students of color and students with disabilities, and they increase the likelihood that students disciplined in this manner will become involved in the juvenile justice system. Students who are suspended - even one time - end up being 3 times more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system the year following that suspension. This unfortunate sequence of events is often referred to as the "school-to-prison pipeline".

Restorative practices offer an alternative solution that creates a more caring, connected and safe school climate. Through restorative practices, schools establish a foundation upon which conflict can be effectively addressed. And it’s done in a way that heals harm, restores relationships, and ultimately, provides the basis for developing healthy, happy and productive human beings.

One simple way to tease out the differences between punitive and restorative processes is by virtue of the questions that are asked in each:

In punitive systems the primary focus is on:

  • what rule was broken or what crime was committed,
  • who is guilty and
  • how shall they be disciplined or penalized?

The restorative approach changes the questions to:

  • who was affected or harmed,
  • what needs have been created by that harm, and
  • what can be done to meet those needs, heal the harm and restore the relationships?

In this 2-part series we outline 5 key strategies for successful implementation of restorative practices (RP). In this first part we will address the first two:

  • Strong Leadership / Leading Restoratively
  • Creating a Learning Organization

And, in Part 2, we will cover:

  • Staff Engagement / Overcoming Resistance
  • Using Systems Thinking
  • Strategic, Incremental Implementation

Strong Leadership / Leading Restoratively

One of the central challenges facing the implementation of RP is that it represents a fundamental shift in core beliefs for many people. The shift from punitive to relational can be very challenging, and hence, the success of a school’s RP program depends heavily on the degree to which administrators model fair process, and commit to practicing inclusive and collaborative leadership. A strong RP leader must be committed to restorative practices as a foundational building block to educational excellence.

To be successful he or she must fully understand and embrace RP, its philosophical roots, key elements, nuances and practices. Leaders must also be committed to engaging and empowering others in the process. It’s important for RP leaders to maintain a high degree of transparency and openness to feedback so that the entire school community – staff, parents, students and community - feels they are a part of the decision-making process.

Creating a Learning Organization

An organization that values and supports an ongoing learning environment is one that focuses on continuous self-improvement toward a shared goal, which has been determined collectively by many stakeholders. Effective leaders understand that the belief systems that people hold are always affecting behavior and should be openly and regularly examined. They also create multiple and ongoing opportunities to consider what the "whole" is and how the "parts" help or hinder positive progress in relation to that "whole".

A learning organization includes all key stakeholders and regularly solicits their feedback. In schools this would include administrators, teachers, classified staff, coaches, after school program staff and parents.

Helpful questions to ask oneself in an organization that is continually learning include: What are we doing here and why are we doing it? What part do I play? What are the interrelationships between the part that I play and the parts that others play? What are areas for improvement? Maintaining an attitude of curiosity and open-mindedness to change will keep your organization strong, adaptable and growing.

Understanding the importance of these two strategies will go a long way to building the buy-in and support needed for successful implementation of Restorative Practices.

In our next blog, Part 2 of the series, we’ll focus on three additional strategies in the successful implementation of restorative practices: Staff Engagement / Overcoming Resistance, Using Systems Thinking and Strategic Incremental Implementation.

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