Image of The Case for Restorative Practice: Building Futures Rooted in Empathy, Understanding and Resilience

The Case for Restorative Practice: Building Futures Rooted in Empathy, Understanding and Resilience

Restorative practice is one of those topics which can divide education professionals. One look at Twitter today showed this clearly in a single thread: some educators were convinced that restorative practice is harmful, yet others that it is the only way to manage behaviour effectively. In this blog, Becky Dawson, coach, educator and facilitator who brings substantial experienced in supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, explores what restorative practice actually means, and the challenges and opportunities it presents for educational establishments.

Restorative practice is an approach to conflict resolution and building positive relationships that focuses on repairing harm and restoring relationships rather than simply punishing individuals for their actions. It aims to create a supportive and inclusive school environment by addressing conflicts, disciplinary issues and harm caused by students or staff.

There are many theories as to the origins of restorative practice. Some suggest it was Marg Thorsborne who first used it in 1994 in education in Australia, but it actually dates back much further, with many indigenous cultures using such techniques to keep communities safe and develop an understanding of expected behaviours amongst peers.

In schools, restorative practice typically involves a structured process that brings together those who have been affected by a conflict or harm, including the individuals responsible for such actions. The process is facilitated by a trained mediator or facilitator who guides the participants through a series of steps:

1. Establishing a safe environment

The process begins by creating a safe and respectful space where everyone feels comfortable about sharing their perspectives and experiences. This may involve setting ground rules and ensuring confidentiality.

2. Building understanding

Each participant is given an opportunity to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences related to the conflict or harm. Active listening and open communication are encouraged to promote empathy and understanding.

3. Taking responsibility

The person responsible for the harm or conflict is encouraged to take ownership of their actions and acknowledge the impact they had on others. This helps foster accountability and encourages personal growth.

4. Repairing harm 

The focus shifts to finding ways to repair the harm caused. This may involve brainstorming and agreeing upon actions or measures that can be taken to make amends and restore relationships. These actions can include apologies, restitution, community service, or other forms of restorative justice.

5. Reintegration and reconciliation

Once the harm has been addressed and amends have been made (which both parties are happy with), the participants work towards rebuilding relationships and reintegration into the school community. The aim is to foster a sense of belonging, promote empathy and prevent future conflicts. The process should help young people build skills and understand how to deal with conflict in their own lives, as well as learn from any negative behaviours they may have demonstrated that led to the process.

In theory, restorative practice emphasises dialogue, active listening and collaboration, allowing individuals to have a voice and actively participate in resolving conflicts. By focusing on repairing relationships and building a sense of community, it aims to create a positive and inclusive school climate that supports the wellbeing and social-emotional development of all members.

Whilst I have outlined one approach to restorative practice, it is an umbrella term which can include many different applications. As we will explore later, this can be a blessing or a curse, but there are several different approaches:

Restorative circles

Restorative circles are a structured process where participants sit in a circle and engage in dialogue facilitated by a trained mediator or facilitator. The circle provides an inclusive space for participants to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences regarding a conflict or harm. Restorative circles are used for conflict resolution, community-building and creating a supportive classroom or school environment.

Restorative conferences

Restorative conferences involve bringing together individuals directly affected by a conflict or harm, along with their supporters, in a facilitated meeting. The conference provides an opportunity for all participants to share their perspectives, discuss the impact of the harm, and collectively develop a plan to repair the harm and restore relationships. Restorative conferences are particularly useful for addressing more significant or complex incidents.

Restorative justice panels

Restorative justice panels typically involve a group of trained community members, including students, teachers and other staff members, who come together to address conflicts or harms within the school. The panel acts as a decision-making body that hears cases, determines appropriate responses, and guides the process of repair and restoration.

Restorative practice in the classroom

Restorative practice can also be integrated into everyday classroom interactions and routines. Teachers can incorporate strategies such as restorative language, restorative questions, and peer mediation to encourage dialogue, problem-solving and positive relationships among students. These practices help to create a supportive and inclusive learning environment.

Restorative discipline

Restorative discipline focuses on shifting away from punitive approaches to discipline and instead emphasises repairing harm and teaching positive behaviour. It involves using restorative practice to address disciplinary incidents, helping students understand the impact of their actions, and involving them in the process of making amends and restoring relationships.

Restorative conversations

These can take place at any time when a member of staff considers them necessary. They can be mediated by a member of staff between two pupils, but can also happen between the teacher, who leads the conversation following a particular structure, and a young person who has been deemed to have behaved inappropriately. Questions might adopt a structure similar to this example, provided by the Education Scotland website:

What happened?

What were your thoughts at the time?

What have been your thoughts since?

Who has been affected by what happened?

How have they been affected?

What do you need to happen now?

Restorative policies and procedures

Schools can adopt restorative principles in their policies and procedures, ensuring that the approach is embedded in the overall school culture. This includes having clear guidelines on how restorative practice is implemented, how conflicts and harms are addressed, and how students, teachers and staff are supported in their restorative efforts.

As with any approach that seeks to influence the behaviour of students in large numbers, there are challenges:

Time and resource constraints

Implementing restorative practice requires time and resources, including training for staff, establishing support systems, and providing appropriate spaces for restorative processes. Limited time and resources can pose challenges for schools, especially when they already face multiple demands and priorities.

Staff training and buy-in

Restorative practice requires proper training for staff members to effectively facilitate and implement the processes. Providing comprehensive training and ensuring staff buy-in can be a challenge, as it may involve changing existing mindsets, attitudes and approaches to discipline. 

Consistency and sustainability

Consistency is crucial for the successful implementation of restorative practice. It can be challenging to maintain consistency across classrooms and the school, especially in larger schools or those with high staff turnover. Sustainability is also an ongoing challenge, as schools need to continually prioritise and reinforce restorative approaches over time.

Cultural shift

Restorative practice often requires a cultural shift in the school community, moving away from traditional punitive approaches to conflict resolution and discipline. Changing deeply ingrained disciplinary practices and attitudes can be met with resistance, scepticism or a lack of understanding. It may take time and effort to build understanding and support for restorative practice among all stakeholders.

Accountability and safety concerns

Some individuals may be concerned that restorative practice might undermine accountability and discipline, particularly if they perceive that consequences of harmful actions are not adequately addressed. It is important to strike a balance between repairing harm and ensuring accountability, as well as addressing any safety concerns that may arise in the restorative process.

Scaling up and integration

Scaling up restorative practice from individual classrooms to entire schools or multi-academy trusts can present challenges. It requires thoughtful planning, collaboration and coordination across various stakeholders. Integrating restorative practice into existing school structures, policies and procedures can also be a complex process that requires time and effort.

With all those challenges in mind, I have seen restorative practice work well and have a positive impact, not just on behaviour, but also on the wellbeing of staff and students. There is much research to suggest that when delivered well, restorative practice can have a positive impact, as explored in Scotland through research conducted in 2005 by the University of Edinburgh. 

There are many reasons why a well-established, whole-school approach to restorative practice can be a force for good. Here are just some of them:

  • Restorative practice can help address the underlying reason for a student's behaviour. Giving students the opportunity to share what may have led to a particular incident may help us better understand their actions and be able to implement appropriate support to prevent a reoccurrence in the future. If our only response is to put them in detention, that is unlikely to happen.
  • Students are encouraged to learn from their choices and mistakes and take ownership of their own behaviour. When we open dialogue with young people about the impact their choices have, we can empower them to make better ones in the future. We also help them recognise their own agency which can often be lost in a top-down education system.
  • Through restorative practice, we are modelling effective conflict management. Pupils can learn how to resolve disagreements, empathise with others, show forgiveness and communicate more effectively.
  • It is argued that we need to move away from the zero-tolerance approach to behaviour management which often disproportionately impacts young people who have experienced trauma, who may be experiencing discrimination, and who have special educational needs. A restorative approach is seen as a more human approach, with a focus on the importance of relationships.

There is often a misconception that restorative practice means no consequences, and that does not have to be the case. Often restorative practice can happen after an appropriate consequence has taken place, but this may differ between schools, and is another indicator that a clear policy and approach is essential for it to work.

Restorative practice is not just about repairing harm; it is about creating a positive and compassionate community that nurtures the wellbeing and social-emotional growth of all its members. If we choose to embrace this approach, we can empower the next generation to build a future rooted in empathy, understanding, and resilience.

If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.