What Restorative Practices Look Like in Our School Community

by | 02.9.20

Keeanna Warren is a high school principal in Indiana. Follow her on Twitter @KeeannaWarren.

Recently, one of our students stole a pair of headphones from a peer.

Because our teachers have built such strong relationships with our students, we were able to figure out who had stolen them – which isn’t always the case. When we approached the student, he told us he’d already sold the headphones.

This is a student who has a long history of traumatic experiences. Our team knew the student would benefit from going through our school’s restorative process instead of traditional punitive measures.

What are restorative practices?

Since beginning my career in education, I’ve learned more about structural inequities, such as the disproportionate suspension rates of black and brown males and the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s one thing when you see statistics and numbers, and another thing when you get to know kids and their amazing families. One of the structural changes that is working to interrupt those cycles in my school community is the shift to restorative practices, which we’re using with 100% implementation throughout the school this year.

Beginning this work in our schools requires a lot of training from experienced experts. I first want to give honor to indigenous cultures, both in this country and on the continent of Africa, that developed a lot of the practices we are using.

We rely heavily on Peace Learning Center in Indianapolis, and we committed five whole PD days to training our entire team. Now we meet every morning as a team for a quick circle-up to check in and help make sure we’re on the same page.

Our school’s restorative work is focused predominantly on community-building which serves a preventive function. This allows us to recognize the importance of community, what is helpful and harmful to our community, and how to repair harm once it occurs.

Our prevention work

We make every effort foster collaboration and community. Though it’s not always easy for anyone to see the consequences of their actions, we want our students to see the direct impact their choices have on others. When we create the feeling of a communal society, students can understand how their behaviors affect others, and are more empathetic with each other. This is an imperfect process and every student and staff member develops these skills at their own speed.

We all desire relationships, so we’re working to make sure students are building positive relationships with each other and with adults in the school. Often, the success of our restorative practices relies on the strength of those relationships. Every student in the school needs to have their person. We need to know that when they get upset and escalated, they can find their adult and talk things through, instead of acting out.

In our classrooms, we start every morning off with circle time. We try to use this time to dialogue with students about issues that affect them, things that are affecting this world, things that might be harmful specifically to our community inside and outside the school. We have a teacher-developed curriculum to use during circle time, but teachers know that if the plans don’t fit what their team needs, they can use that time to do something else. We are trying to protect teacher autonomy while still making sure teachers have the resources they need.

Throughout the week, we also teach SEL skills, mindfulness, and habits that create a peaceful culture and strengthen relationships. We give students voice and choice as much as we can. Kids don’t really have a choice in whether they come to school, and at times, students are bucking against the system because they don’t feel like they have control over how they spend their days. We try to avoid escalation: When students get louder, our voices get softer.

With that said, because we are human, we’re going to have interactions in our school communities that may not bring out the best in each other. When harm does occur, our role becomes teaching conflict resolution. We hold back from taking punitive measures and work with students and their families to develop consequences that help the students grow. We want kids to learn from their mistakes, so they aren’t repeating them over and over again.

A harm repaired

During my initial conversation with the student who had stolen his classmate’s headphones, I told him, “We can have a restorative conversation and talk this through.” I explained why I thought it would be beneficial. But I realized I wasn’t getting through to him. I approached the school nurse, who is great with building relationships, and she took over the conversation. Within twenty minutes, she had learned much more background about the student’s situation and he was ready to have the restorative conversation.

From there, we went back to the student who had been wronged. In this case, the student and his mother were open to trying the restorative process. I invited both students’ family members to come to the meeting, but this time, the student who had done the harm wanted to advocate for himself.

I told both students what they could expect during our restorative circle and what would be expected of each of them. A couple hours later, we were in the circle, led by our school counselor. Everyone had a chance to speak their truth and share how the incident affected them – including the teachers. We had so many beautiful moments. I think both students felt really supported.

Together the two students figured out what they wanted to do to fix the harm. The student who stole the headphones was a low-income student, but he did have a job. He was able to pay back the other student. They also identified a need that was important to uncover. We have a diverse community, composed of some families where the adults are unemployed and other families who are more well-off. The students decided our school needed to create a system in which kids could make requests when they have needs and even wants, and other families could volunteer to meet those needs.

The student who had taken the headphones said, “I don’t think I’m ever going to steal again.” I know feelings like that don’t always last forever, but I do think he learned so much more from the experience than he would have if we’d just suspended him.

How we’re measuring progress

Through relationships with my school community, I’ve become more and more invested in the approaches we can take to interrupt oppressive cycles and systems. Any way I can contribute, I want to contribute, and I see restorative practices as a key approach to this work.

We have some data points that enable us to evaluate the shift – like referral numbers. We can compare specific students’ past records with their current behavior. For example, we have some students who used to just run out of the building when they got upset, who now have adults in our school they turn to for support.

Of course, we also have our qualitative observations. When people come to visit our school, they always say the culture feels good. It feels warm. And from my conversations with students, I can tell they feel that, too. They know they’re supported here. They have strong connections with adults in our school community. And they know we care about them. They can feel it – even when they’re involved in our discipline process.

This has been a beautiful, challenging shift. I look forward to continuing to work with families, teachers and students to ensure that we’re all learning alongside each other how to build strong, supportive communities.

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