Using Restorative Practices to Reduce the Need for Discipline

March 14 2016


  • Shari Garn, Restorative Practices Trainer
    Shari Garn
    Restorative Practices Trainer

As lead Restorative Practices trainer for Community Matters, I have repeatedly encountered a common misunderstanding about what Restorative Practices is and why we use it. Many people come to Restorative Practices believing that it is a discipline program, and understandably so. After all, we are looking for ways to keep our chronically misbehaving students in school rather than suspending or expelling them and Restorative Practices has been used as an example by the federal government as a way to do that. It would seem logical then, that Restorative Practices would be an alternative disciplinary process. However, Restorative Practices is not primarily a system of discipline. It is more effective to view Restorative Practices as a way of thinking and a set of proactive strategies and processes that reduce misbehavior, thereby reducing the need for discipline.

When we see Restorative Practices as a discipline program our tendency is to think reactively and to believe that it’s all about the kids. We focus on students’ misbehavior and on what we can do to make it go away. We are using a well-established, and largely unconscious, punitive mindset when we do this. We’re asking, “What rule has been broken? What crime has been committed? Who is guilty? How should they be punished?” The restorative mindset, on the other hand, sees misbehavior as a symptom of a deeper condition.

The Maori of New Zealand and the Navajo of the United States, cultures from which Restorative Practices has drawn important insight, both recognize that when a person commits wrongdoing it is an indication that they have lost sight of their relationships and their connection to their community. Restorative Practices therefore work proactively to strengthen relationships and nurture connections among and between all members of the school community. Schools that are doing this work naturally see less misbehavior, and when misbehavior does occur a strong foundation has been laid. Students and adults care more about how their behavior affects people they have a relationship with. They are more motivated to make amends and are more likely to look for ways to prevent conflict in the future. In these ways, they are shifting from a punitive model to a relational one.

When building relationships in our school communities, we recognize that the relationships among students, and between students and adults, are a direct reflection of the relationships modeled among the adults and between the adults and the children on our campuses. We understand that it is more about us and what our role is in creating the environment we want to see. We recognize that we as adults have the greatest influence on the climates we create at our schools and on the behaviors we see there. Do we prioritize healthy, authentic relationships? Do we trust and respect our students and believe in their ability to change and grow? Do we empower them to do so? Do we stay focused on creating environments where staff and students feel a deep sense of safety, belonging and significance? Do we maintain clear expectations, limits and accountability while providing plenty of support, encouragement and love?

Certainly misbehavior and conflict will occur; it’s only natural. Restorative Practices include processes for responding to these incidents. But in a restorative school community the capacity for problem solving grows primarily out of the caring relationships that are nurtured from the outset and all along the way.

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