Using Restorative Justice in the Classroom
Restorative justice is a worthwhile and meaningful practice any educator can incorporate into their teaching. This post will explain restorative justice, discuss its origins, and share ideas for using it with learners.
What is restorative justice?
Restorative justice helps everyone involved in wrongdoing or conflict find a way forward. Traditional approaches to classroom and school discipline are retributive. When someone breaks a rule, the response often punishes the transgressor. We know these approaches disproportionately affect Indigenous and racialized learners. When we use it, we no longer seek to punish or place a logical consequence on someone who breaks a rule. Instead, we identify an action that caused harm to an individual or community and try to make things right.
Making things right, or repairing harm, asks us to consider the needs of as many people involved as possible. The focus is not on what happened so much as why it happened and finding solutions that help everyone do better in the future. Essentially, restorative justice is a proactive rather than reactive solution to classroom management. When tensions arise, everyone explains how it affected them, how they feel now and what they want to do to make things right. These conversations can take place in various ways, such as mediation, conferencing and healing circles. These practices all involve active listening, empathy, non-judgement, and empowerment for all participants.
Participation is voluntary. That means you’ll need to build and maintain relationships with learners so they feel like engaging in the process. Even if there are strong relationships in your classroom, it is normal to take action to repair them occasionally.
Where does it come from?
The precise origins of restorative justice are subject to debate. The principles span many cultures. Conflict resolution has not always been retributive. The criminal justice system uses restorative justice widely, often with youth. It has seen increasing popularity in education.
Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars heavily criticize claims that restorative justice is a direct import of Indigenous practices, specifically Maori (Tauri, 2014). While some elements reflect Indigenous worldviews, it is vital to recognize the criminal justice system still operates within a non-Indigenous and colonial system. We can say the same for the current education system in many cases.
Don’t let this deter you from implementing it! Instead, be mindful of which classroom management practices you include. Restorative justice has many merits, but resist using it only because of its links to Indigenous cultures. Reach out and connect if you really want to know how your learners’ cultures and communities manage conflict. Involve local stakeholders when exploring alternatives to retributive justice and traditional disciplinary policies. That is the best way to make your practices meaningful to learners and their communities.
Taking a critical stance and examining why you choose certain practices is an important step toward inclusion. If you choose to use restorative justice, ask yourself if what you are doing reflects the underlying values of this practice. Namely, build, maintain and, in some cases, restore relationships. Using restorative justice may be a step in the right direction. However, it is also an opportunity to consider other steps non-Indigenous allies working within colonial systems can take to support Indigenous Peoples in their efforts to restore their cultures’ forms of governance and education.
How can I implement it in my classroom?
There are no prescriptive rules for how restorative justice looks in an educational setting. Still, you’ll want to consider a few of these suggestions before starting. As with any classroom management practice, planning is crucial for success.
Let go of punishment
The first step is preparing yourself to let go of punishment. Detentions, suspensions, and the like are not part of restorative justice. That is not to say no one is accountable for their actions. However, the emphasis should be on repairing harm rather than punishing transgressions. If there is an incident in your classroom, try thinking of how people felt then and feel now, rather than about the rule they broke.
If you are looking for some reading to give yourself a deeper foundation, try The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr or Justice on Both Sides: Transforming Education Through Restorative Justice by Maisha T. Winn. You might try reading Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen with older learners if you want to learn more about restorative justice together.
Just as you are undergoing a paradigm shift, your learners will probably have to as well! Decide how you will explain restorative justice to them. Prepare for some confusion at first. Learners will need some time to wrap their heads around talking about conflict with one another and solving problems cooperatively and collaboratively instead of relying on punitive measures.
We often create classroom rules with learners at the beginning of the school year. It can be beneficial to introduce restorative justice at this time. Co-creating classroom expectations helps increase learner buy-in and helps them understand the paradigm shift. When discussing harmful actions, prepare for responses like “detention” or “send them to the office.” Ask, “How does that repair the harm caused?” to prompt learners to think of alternatives.
Build bonds and find a way to share
Educators know relationships are the foundation of learning. It is important to build bonds and keep them strong throughout the school year. Restorative justice can help us build, maintain, and repair these bonds more effectively than punishment.
Once you have established relationships, how will you encourage all stakeholders to talk about issues? There are various ways to do this. Some people choose to use a talking object. Others invite family members to participate in conferences. Sometimes educators involve the entire class in a healing circle discussion. What conflict resolution looks like in your practice depends on your skill set and comfort level. Remember, you can always start small and scale up as you become more confident!
Resolving conflict requires all stakeholders to feel heard and respected. How you accomplish this in your classroom and school can vary greatly. It’s all about finding what works best for you and your learners!
Has this inspired you to begin using restorative justice? Are you already implementing it in your classroom? We would love to hear what you are doing today and how it’s working for you.
- Hopkins, B. (2002). Restorative justice in schools. Support for Learning, 17 (3), 144-149.
- Maruna, S. (2014). The role of wounded healing in restorative justice: An appreciation of Albert Eglash. Restorative Justice, 2(1), 9-23.
- McGrath, S. (2020). Decolonizing “justice” in settler-colonial states: A transnational study [preprint PDF]. DOI:10.13140/RG.2.2.17723.36647
- Tauri, J. M. (2014). An Indigenous commentary on the globalization of restorative justice. British Journal of Community Justice, 12(2), 35-55.