Matt Homrich-Knieling February 8, 2023

How Restorative Practices Build Classroom Community

Matt Homrich-Knieling

Writer and Educator

One of my earliest lessons as a classroom teacher was this: behavior is a form of communication. One of the most salient learning moments was when I had a student–typically quiet and hardworking–refusing to complete his classwork. Initially frustrated, I quickly asked a simple, nonjudgmental question: “What’s going on?” The student shared that his mother had recently developed a serious illness, and he was worried and, understandably, distracted. 

So often, actions that teachers read as misbehavior or disrespectful are actually communicating something deeper: personal challenges, mistrust, struggles with emotional regulation, and more. Punishment and consequences, the dominant classroom management tool in schools, usually only exacerbates these underlying causes, leading to ruptures in relationships and greater conflict. 

Restorative justice, a philosophy and an approach to addressing conflict that is rooted in relationships, repair, and accountability, invites educators to move away from punishments and toward restoration. Through activities and processes like proactive community-building, circles, and restorative conferences, restorative justice helps us understand root causes of issues and work towards mending them. It is, in many ways, social-emotional learning put into action.

During the 2021-2022 school year, I was fortunate enough to work as a Restorative Justice Coordinator in a middle school. This role taught me a tremendous amount about the power of restorative practices and how they support and cultivate a healthier school community, in and out of the classroom. 

Read more to learn about how restorative justice can improve your school community and learning environment!

Teaching Students how to Manage Their own Conflicts

Educators often understand their roles primarily as teaching students our academic content. However, there is so much more that we teach our students beyond our curriculum. For example, when we resort solely to punishments as the solution to conflict and disagreements, what are we teaching our students about how to handle conflict in their own lives, now and as adults? 

Moreover, when we manage the solution to conflicts for our students rather than with our students, we take away a tremendous learning opportunity. In the instance of bullying, for example, rather than simply punishing the student who caused harm, we can invite the involved students into a restorative circle. Through this process, we can more deeply understand the causes of this conflict, the needs of the student who was bullied, and the students can participate in creating the solutions moving forward. Gaining these experiences then teaches students strategies for addressing conflicts on their own! 

When I would mediate circles between students involved in bullying, the insights were always generative: sometimes we would learn that the student who bullied was experiencing peer pressure, low self-esteem, or anger issues; other times, we would learn that the student who was bullied contributed–sometimes explicitly, sometimes unintentionally–to the causes of the conflict. Without understanding and addressing these underlying issues, we will never fully resolve the conflict.

If students were participating in age-appropriate versions of conflict resolution as young as elementary school, imagine how school culture and young people’s relationships could flourish! 

Improving Staff Culture

Restorative justice isn’t only about teacher-student conflicts; rather, when schools adopt a holistic approach to conflict resolution, they bring those practices and perspectives into their staff culture. If we only use restorative justice to address conflicts with students but not with our colleagues, we not only continue to harm school culture, but we delegitimize restorative justice as an approach to address conflict. 

One simple action we took when I was a Restorative Justice Coordinator was beginning each staff meeting with an opening circle. These circles allowed staff members–particularly those who don’t often work together–to slow down from the fast pace of teaching, learn more about their colleagues, and build new connections based on common interests. 

As school leaders, it’s important to think about restorative justice as not only a classroom shift, but a school-wide shift. How can we use tools like circles and conferences to mediate conflicts between teachers? How can we establish relationship-building as a priority in staff meetings? Grappling with these questions can help support a healthier school culture, which can improve both teacher morale and students’ experiences in school.

Moving Toward a Trauma-Informed Approach 

Traditional school practices of punishment and consequences are at odds with the principles of trauma-informed practices. Recognizing this, restorative practices can also support moving toward a trauma-informed school. 

Conversations about trauma-informed practices can often lead with who in the school has experienced trauma. This can be problematic because trauma can often be invisible; we don’t always know who has such experiences. Because of this, rather than tailoring trauma-informed practices to specific students, we can imbed trauma-informed practices into our everyday structures and routines. Implementing a restorative justice program is one important way that schools can build a trauma-informed approach.

If you are looking for more resources on trauma-informed schools, I highly recommend Alex Shevrin Venet’s book Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education for critical insights and practical suggestions and strategies!

Looking for more strategies and resources for implementing restorative practices at your school? Join us at our upcoming webinar with Kikori on February 22, 2023.

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