In all the talk about the importance of reducing suspensions and other exclusionary discipline practices in schools, one question looms large for most educators and administrators: What do we do instead?
For many people, part of the answer lies in restorative practices (RP), in which the school tries to understand the root cause of the student’s behavior and help them repair the damage through interventions like group discussions, mediations, peer courts, or family group conferences.
Though researchers say restorative practices are more likely to actually change student behavior than expulsion or suspensions, experts also acknowledge that these practices can be tough to implement and take years of work—requiring a shift in mindset to be effective.
A recent report by the Center for Promise, Disciplined and Disconnected, provides insight from school leaders who have done just that sharing best practices that helped them to successfully implement restorative practices in their schools.
Here’s what they had to say:
1. Address staff skepticism.
Exclusionary discipline policies and practices have a long tradition in American public schools, so part of the challenge lies in convincing teachers who may be skeptical to change.
School leaders described the pivotal importance of engaging the skeptics and how impactful it can be to get them on board with the idea of exploring restorative practices.
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“I picked three people to go to, two who I knew would love RP and one that I kind of figured would be a skeptic, ‘cause if she didn’t buy in, nobody’s buying in, because she’s our senior member here,” one principal said.
“She came back, she said, ‘we’re doing it, I’m sold,’ and it’s been a positive thing for our staff all along.”
2. Build trust.
Building trust among staff is also crucial. One principal explained how they use group discussions, or “circles,” to address faculty concerns as well as in their work with students.
“[I]n that staff circle it’s almost like therapy for free, where people can kind of just let it out, what’s going on and how they’re feeling about it, and we encourage that. Because what we do is hard. Whether we’re alternative ed. or in mainstream, it’s hard. It’s hard work.”
3. Get district and state buy-in.
Multiple school leaders also described the importance of support—such as additional staff and training—from district and state policy makers, and the power of that support in generating momentum and excitement.
“Teachers are asking for and need assurances that they will have the resources and backing of a school’s administrators to implement effective restorative justice practices,” said Jon Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise.
Getting this support from district personnel and policymakers paves the way for schools to adopt non-exclusionary discipline practices. It also gives school leaders the latitude to connect with other organizations and people for professional learning and support.
4. Invest in professional learning opportunities.
Each school leader in the report emphasized both the work they did to help their staff learn about them and the importance of getting support from district and state policy makers.
For instance, this principal described bringing a core group of people from their school to a conference to begin building internal knowledge about RP.
“We met during the summer with our rep…who does restorative [practices], and we met with an independent contractor [who] just retired from the Minnesota Department of Corrections [and] has been doing R[P] down there forever.
“So between those two women and my core group, we just met monthly during the summer a couple times. Then we had a two-day training with all staff, which was unbelievable.”
5. Engage students as leaders.
Other principals talked about the importance of engaging students in the process and creating structures to leverage their leadership.
“So we have what’s called student ambassadors who are trained specially to work with our new students, and to assist students in various ways. Whether it be in restorative chats, restorative conversations, restorative circles, always with that ultimate goal of identifying what happened and how can we fix it.”
Another principal expressed this same sentiment, describing how students who have internalized the RP process can help other students understand the RP process.
“Those kids become our shining stars, the ones that have successfully completed R[P]…they know how it works, they know what the impact is and can have, so they’ve been our shining stars here with that.”
6. Build capacity by sharing best practices.
Once schools have the expertise, they can teach others. One principal talked about the support she received from the superintendent and how her school is now hosting trainings for other schools.
She also offered advice for other schools. “So just take it slow, find people that know what they’re doing. Talk to other schools that are trying to do it.”
This story is part of a special series on school discipline. Other stories in the series include Five Youth Quotes on What It’s Like to Be Suspended or Expelled and Youth Voice: Detention Never Stopped Me from Cutting Class. Here’s What Did. For even more information, read the report, Disciplined and Disconnected: How Students Experience Exclusionary Discipline in Minnesota and the Promise of Non-Exclusionary Alternatives.