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School Discipline: About Restorative Practices

James Paterson

Restorative practices gain acceptance and get good grades.

When Stephen Rodriguez was principal of Pottstown, Pa., High School about a decade ago, he was an advocate of using restorative justice practices to affect school discipline, a concept that had been used for about 25 years in prisons and talked about in education circles, but was still fairly new and untested as an approach to discipline in high school.

Today he is superintendent of the Pottstown School District, and his former school is still having success with the approach – and his attitude about it hasn't changed. In fact, he is more convinced.

“After we introduced and used restorative practices (RP) in our district, it became clear to teachers and administrators that relationship-based discipline models are far more effective at changing student long-term behavior," he says. "The staff members who consistently use this approach aren't just better at managing behavior, they're better at all aspects of their craft.”

When he was at Pottstown High, the school was able to cut incidents of fighting in half, reduce suspensions by one third, and most notably, decrease the number of detentions from 168 to 37 in one year.

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“We saw major results in our first year, and they stuck,” Rodriguez says.

There are critics who most commonly say that RJ makes schools less safe, but Rodriguez is not alone in his praise for the approach. Often it is thought that problems arise when the policy is not thoroughly and patiently followed.

One research report found that there were indications that RL helped with academics, discipline, absenteeism and school climate. Another study showed it had "Positive affects on student behavior, student respect, the number of discipline referrals written, and student autonomy." A step-by-step guide for the process from leading educational groups says it can "Improve school climate, increase academic achievement and reduce racial disparities in school discipline." Other experts say they have concrete results that it does improve school culture and student performance, but also that it only works when there is strong school leadership, buy in, professional development, and even full-time counselors or outside resources to help. Another detailed report about the "Challenges and successes" with RP at three schools suggested that those features made the approach successful – along with time.

School Discipline: Why Restorative Practices Work

While most educators have had some point heard a description of RJ, the Center for Justice & Reconciliation, an international organization that promotes restorative practices, says they primarily should understand that it "Emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior."

"It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders. This can lead to transformation of people, relationships and communities," the center says. "In practice, it means that the harm done is repaired and the perpetrator takes responsibility, and that the best way to repair the harm is for all stakeholders to be involved."

Suspensions and other traditional punishments – especially when students are isolated – remove the problem for a while but don't fix it, Rodriguez and other experts say. There are deeper reasons for the issue that never get addressed.

Off-task students also may be expressing frustration with their inability to succeed or even inciting a power struggle because “They worry that they do not really matter, so they are constantly doing things in an effort to influence others,” says Richard Curwin, author of the book “Discipline with Dignity.” In addition, detentions and suspensions have functioned as “Rewards” for certain students, according to some research.

And, in the end, studies have repeatedly shown that students who are in detention frequently or are suspended, don't improve their behavior, often fall behind and fail and often end up in the criminal justice system.

RJ can be used at different levels, and can be combined with broader programs such as PBIS or trauma informed education.

After the program was implemented in Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin, fewer behavior incidents were reported to the administration, says Superintendent Eric Gallien. It was accompanied by a program that instructed students in social-emotional skills, such as how to resolve problems with peers and get attention in appropriate ways.

"The district took very progressive steps to move away from punitive actions for discipline by placing a significant focus on building the capacity of our staff to utilize more proactive practices, and it paid off," says Gallien.

He says the district provides staff with "The tools that address inappropriate behaviors and how to teach appropriate behaviors" and "Create structures/programs that focus on building relationships" with an emphasis on helping the students and the school community impacted by the behavior.

And, like Rodgriguez, he says along with the emphasis on SEL learning, teacher training and support were emphasized.

"As we continue to improve and expand the training for our teachers we are seeing positive results in schools where implementation is at fidelity. Supporting them is a key element of this."

The Schools of Opportunity project, which honors high schools for successful efforts that improve opportunities for students, has recognized William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colo., for its RP, saying it "Radically improved the school culture" and noting that it was used in a variety of different circumstances and thoroughly throughout the school.

Everyone in the school community participates in RP at Hinkley, including students, teachers, staff and families, "With an eye toward changing rather than just punishing bad behavior choices, talking through conflicts, and repairing harm while improving communication," the organization notes.

The school, where 80 percent of students are below the poverty level, saw an 80 percent decline in aggressive behaviors and managed to obtain one of the lowest rates among all Colorado high schools in disciplinary referrals per student, according to the Schools of Opportunity.

Hinkley, by broadly using the process over four years, and not just in administrative disciplinary action, saw a 43 percent decline in aggressive behaviors and a 47 percent reduction in referrals (446 to 236). Five-year graduation rates increased nearly 12 percent.

"In speaking with teachers, we learned that significant efforts to incorporate restorative practices in the classroom radically improved the school culture. Everyone who teaches and learns at Hinkley participates. Using a systematic, restorative approach to discipline and classroom interactions has significantly reduced behavioral referrals, suspensions, and expulsions."

Students also reported the school culture had improved. Bullying, for instance, was hardly ever witnessed, Schools of Opportunity reported.

The organization reported: "When we asked students about bullying, we were told, 'that doesn’t happen here'. When we asked students what they would do if witnessing someone being bullied, students readily answered, 'RJ'”

A Few Key Points    

Reaching an understanding. RP is intended to have the offending student understand the cause and affect of their actions and change behavior and give victims a voice, often the opportunity to talk with the student who was responsible. It focuses on the student's role in a school culture – being responsible for what they do to its members and promoting the idea that all students are responsible for their action.

In an incident, three questions that are typically asked:

  • What happened?
  • What caused it?
  • What needs to be done to repair the harm that was done?

It's not a quick fix necessarily, experts say. A recent report from the University or Rochester showed that schools in that city who have tried the practice have had success, but that the process takes patience and time.

It has had formal federal support, but … Federal officials had encouraged use of RP, but that may be changing. The Obama administration recommended schools find alternatives to tradition disciplinary systems and to cut suspensions, but the Trump administration has suggested it would like to reverse that direction. Some who are critical of restorative practices say the administration has not acted quickly enough and at the same time, at least 35 states have approved legislation promoting the use of restorative justice in schools and in prison.

Different uses. Experts say RJ can be used in various situations – and should become part of the culture of the school – including concerns about bullying or intimidation or sexual misbehavior, issues between a teacher and a student, or even some circumstances involving conflict with parents or others in the community. The familiar circle, where the process of reconciliation is carried out, is often the most common approach, but the practice can involve less formal action such as the way adults talk to students. A detailed report from a number of top education organizations explains the many ways it can take shape – from community conferencing and circles to peer juries and mediations and other more informal practices. In some cases, community service is involved.

Buy-in is needed. Like any new initiative, RJ requires that a whole school support the approach, and that isn't easy. Experts say discipline is a difficult facet of education to change, and critics have been quick to claim that it lets misbehaving students off the hook and can make a school less safe. Critics also say that schools are being forced to cut suspensions even if behavior isn't improving, so some adults may feel that way and are less likely to be excited about the approach.

Systems promote it. There are several good guides to what schools have done, including from San Francisco, Denver and Baltimore.