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Transforming Suspension Practices Using Restorative Justice

Transforming Suspension Practices Using Restorative Justice

Restorative justice—addressing wrongdoing and root causes and making amends—has soared in popularity over the last few years, as traditional suspensions and expulsions are now being viewed as ineffective and damaging to students. Suspensions often cause students to miss out on learning opportunities and fall further behind in their studies than they already are.

As many schools shift to implementation of curriculum and assessment to support the whole learner, restorative practices are a great tie-in to building relationships, managing emotions, and giving students and educators an opportunity to build these skills in a way that is productive and useful to culture and academics.

Let’s dive deeper into what restorative justice is, what the benefits of it are, and how you can work to integrate it into your school’s culture.

What is restorative justice?

Restorative justice is an alternative to traditional student discipline. It’s a way for students to resolve conflicts while at school, usually through peer-mediated small groups. The focus of restorative justice is for students to reflect on the root cause of the behavior that led them to act out in the first place and to focus on repairing the damage to the relationship, whether it’s with another student or an educator.

Restorative justice practices have these common principles, as laid out by the Oakland Unified School District implementation guide:

  • Builds relationships
  • Strives to be respectful to all
  • Provides opportunity for equitable dialogue and participatory decision-making
  • Involves all relevant stakeholders
  • Addresses harm, needs, obligations, and causes of conflict and harm
  • Encourages all to take responsibility
Why implement whole-child teaching into restorative justice practices?

Whole-child teaching recognizes the connections between social, emotional, cognitive, and academic development, as well as physical and mental health. Because both restorative justice practices and whole-child learning are still in their infancy in some schools, many educators may not see the tie-in between these two initiatives. However, the benefits from the pairing of restorative practices and whole-child education are plentiful. Here are a few reasons why schools should teach these two things hand in hand:

1. Improved school climate

Restorative practices and whole-child teaching are complementary strategies that can help you create a schoolwide climate that is safe and supportive. Students who feel like they have both ownership over their behavior and the ability to change it feel empowered. By getting to the root cause of behavior, all students can become more connected to their school. Strong scientific evidence demonstrates that increased student connection to school promotes:

  • Motivation
  • Classroom engagement
  • Improved school attendance

Sounds pretty great, right? Creating a culture at your school that shows supportiveness, encourages kindness, and promotes prosocial behaviors has many lasting impacts on students.

2. Improved student relationships

Restorative practices foster healthy student relationships with teachers and other students. When students are given a chance to develop these healthy relationships, they are less likely to misbehave. Restorative practices help show students that all feelings are valued equally. 

3. Reduced conflicts

Restorative practices with whole-child and social-emotional development components help hold students accountable for their actions. When students acknowledge their behavior and know why it was harmful to others, they can work to fix the behavior and prevent it from happening, reducing overall conflict. Restorative practices give students an opportunity to examine their behavior and provide a framework to fix it, unlike traditional school suspensions or expulsions.

Practical strategies to implement

Like all good things, implementing restorative justice practices will take time and dedication to make them work in your school. Here are a few simple ways to start that process:

1. Morning meetings

Morning classroom meetings are a great way to start the day, checking in with students. Sit your class in a circle or divide it into small groups and begin the day by welcoming students, reviewing the day’s schedule, celebrating student accomplishments, and gauging how the class is feeling that day. Morning meetings provide a transition between home and school and give students a chance to share what’s on their minds that day.

2. Alternative suspensions

Consider implementing an alternative to traditional in-school or out-of-school suspensions. Restorative justice practices are all about giving students a chance to examine and change their behavior to avoid further incidents and function productively within the school community.

One element of a strong alternative to suspension program is evidence-based mental health and wellness curriculum and assessment, such as BASE Education, that gives students a vehicle to connect with their emotions and provides insights that help students and adults respond better to each other. Consider the benefit of addressing conflict and difficult issues within a group or individually, facilitated by modules designed to prioritize opportunities for reflection, skill building, and planning. In programs like this, students learn, connect, and respond, and then they will understand how skills are applicable in their own journey. Early-warning dashboards, tiered student behavior supports, and educator development are just a few of the ways some schools are transforming their current suspension programs.

3. Support and training for teachers

Implementing restorative justice practices into your school can’t be done without the support of your teaching staff. Provide opportunities for training your teachers on the specific practices you want to implement at your school, and continue to follow up with your teachers and get their feedback on how the practices are working (or not working) in the classroom.

It will take time and lots of trial and error to find the practices that work best for both your teachers and students, so be willing to change and adapt as your school gains traction.

Implement professional development like BASE Education’s five-module educator professional development series to aid educators in identifying their own triggers and growth areas and in putting what they have learned into practice in the classroom. Utilizing this powerful series helps drive recognition and self-awareness, allowing educators to better understand themselves and the impact they have on the learning environment and the students they serve.

Transforming your school culture isn’t easy, but it can be so worth it. Try one of these four simple steps to improve your school culture to get started!

This post was originally published April 2019 by Brita Hammer and has been updated.

Sian.Reilly@Edmentum.com's picture
Sian Reilly

Sian joined Edmentum in 2019 and serves as a Senior Marketing Specialist. A former teacher and administrator, Sian believes that individualizing education for the whole learner with quality academic and non-academic curriculum and assessment can powerfully transform students, campuses, and communities. Sian is passionate about connecting educators with content to meet their specific needs in an ever-evolving education environment.