Restorative Practices

The new 3 Rs—respect, responsibility, and relationships.

What does discipline look like in your classroom? In your school? How do those who have been harmed have a voice in the discipline process? How do students with repeated behavioral issues get support?

What Is Restorative Practices?

Restorative Practices is a framework of addressing school discipline and behavior through a lens that honors and places relationships at the center of our work with students. As Bob Costello, International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP) Director of Training and Consulting, stated, “Relationships, not strategies, bring about meaningful change.”

When a Restorative Practices approach is adopted by a school community, the lens shifts from traditional discipline responses to a restorative approach. A question that I commonly hear from educators operating from a traditional response includes, “How will the student be punished?” While restorative practitioners agree that consequences are important, the focus is on repairing harm to those who have been hurt by the offender and working to ensure the student offender gets the support required to make positive behavior choices in the future.

The hypothesis of restorative practices is very simple: people are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them. Using this hypothesis, think about a time that you did something for a student or to a student. Was there a positive long-term outcome? I suspect it may have had a good result in the short term but this approach came up short when seeking continual change. Let’s take an example. A seventh grade teacher is at her wits end with a student who frequently leaves his books and supplies in his locker. A permissive teacher would help this student by providing her own supplies for the student and allowing him return to his locker each day to get his work. A teacher who responds from a more authoritarian mindset would send the student out of class and give him lunch detention. A restorative teacher would have an existing relationship with this student and find a time to meet individually with the student to discuss this behavior pattern, including sharing with the student how his behavior has negatively affected her as well as the entire class. Together they would brainstorm strategies and develop a plan to be implemented with the teacher’s support. During the conversation, the teacher may discover this student lacks organizational skills so she refers him to the school counselor where he can attend a group that focuses on student success skills that can be applied to all aspects of his academic life. In a respectful manner, the teacher aided the student in taking responsibility for his actions and connected the student to resources that may help him develop new skills resulting in a greater chance for long-term change.

Remember this is not a cookie-cutter program that can be purchased; rather, it is a philosophical framework that provides a different way of responding to challenging student behavior in our school communities.


Restorative Practices views the offense through a different lens. It requires that we view our students from a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset. We must believe change is possible and discover the assets within our students. We must take into account the worldview of our students, including any past trauma and negative life events that may be impeding their success. The need for dynamic responses to challenging behaviors is mandatory; no longer can our responses be static or reactive.

In my training sessions with educators I commonly ask if anyone thinks a baby is futile because the baby cannot talk, walk, or read. To date, no one thinks this to be true; they understand the baby hasn’t learned to do so yet. So then I ask, “What leads us to think that our middle school students have been taught how to behave or respond appropriately when faced with adversity?” Many educators have never thought about our students’ behavior from this perspective. Within restorative school responses, students receive support to learn new behaviors as well have the opportunity to sit face to face with the person harmed to hear how this person has been affected. In doing so, we are providing space to heal, and learn new behaviors, as well as build empathy.

Goals and Process

An overall goal of moving to a restorative approach is to create a healthier, more exceptional school community. When implementing and practicing from a restorative lens, we can see multiple positive ripples occurring in our classrooms, schools, and communities. Each incident works to foster an understanding of the influence of the behavior.

Shame is a common feeling associated with misbehavior. In some cases, I witnessed students eventually gain labels from their behavioral choices (e.g., the troubled student, the angry kid, the bully, etc.). Within the restorative response, we work diligently to see and separate the behavior from the student by focusing on the intrinsic worth of the student while rejecting the negative behavior. To be in a position to focus on a student’s value, we must know our students’ assets and strengths.

I frequently ask educators during a training session to make a list of the students they have the most behavioral problems with in their classes. Next, I ask them to write three words to describe each student on the list. We typically discover the identifiers are fairly negative. To conclude this activity, we work to shift the teachers’ thinking about about these students. For example, how can we turn the original “less than positive” descriptive term, argumentative, into an asset? Could this student be persistent? Or maybe this student has strong communication skills? By flipping the frame, we may begin to view this student differently. The student may be surprised or respond tentatively because it may be the first time an educator has shown genuine concern and interest. Stay the course and continue working with the student.

Restorative Practices seeks to repair the harm that was done to people, relationships, and the school. When this is accomplished, educators and students can engage in teaching and learning. Restorative Practices is not merely a discipline approach. Although it is helpful as a means of managing classrooms, when students are actively engaged and allowed to take greater responsibility for their own behavior and responses to harm, teaching and learning will also be enhanced.

Restorative Practices Strategies

One concrete strategy is key when we adopt a restorative approach. First, you will want to become familiar with the affective questions (see below) used when there has been a problem or conflict. These questions view conflict as a learning opportunity and work to rebuild relationships. As students first learn these skills, you will want to be more hands-on and involved. You can also model this approach. You will notice that “why” questions are not included. Students often cannot respond genuinely to “why” they did what they did, but they can answer “how” and “what” questions that generally lead to the heart of the issue.

Figure 1
Restorative Questions

Restorative Questions 1:
Responding to challenging behavior
Restorative Questions 2:
To help those harmed by other’s actions
  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking at the time?
  • What have you thought about since?
  • Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?
  • What do you think you need to do to make things right?
  • What did you think when you realized what had happened?
  • What impact has this incident had on you and others?
  • What has been the hardest thing for you?
  • What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

In summary, Restorative Practices works to place relationships at the core of our classrooms. With an increased understanding and focus on our students, we create environments that are safe, welcoming, and respectful.