Restorative Justice in the Classroom

Restorative justice is becoming more of a popular phrase and idea when discussing issues of discipline within our schools and classrooms. But what does a restorative classroom or school really look like and how can those of us who are new to this term apply it to our own contexts?

Simply put, restorative justice is a relational and holistic approach to working with young people and shifting away from a retributive form of discipline. We know that much of the research over the last few decades has demonstrated that suspensions don’t necessarily teach the lessons we hope to embed within students and can often contribute to students lack of connection and belonging within the school. Many jurisdictions, such as the Toronto District School Board, have started collecting data in order to understand if disproportionate amounts of black, indigenous and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are facing suspension and expulsion at higher rates than others. In many jurisdictions where this is turning out to be the case, educators are having difficult but necessary conversations about disciplinary policies in schools and classrooms.

I believe it’s important that we use empirical evidence to spur discussion and reflection within our profession in order to grow and continue to improve the ways in which we serve our students. However, I know that through many of the conversations I’ve had with teachers, thinking about large-scale systemic change within education can feel daunting and can leave many of us in despair. I can completely understand this perception but would like to let folks know that we don’t have to wait for the system to change before we start rejecting punitive measures in our classrooms and replace them with a more holistic and relational approach to discipline. Restorative justice can offer us a way forward in not only how we take up issues of discipline in our classroom but also how we interact and set up learning experiences as well.

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Restorative justice is a process that is largely based on Indigenous approaches to law and justice that focus on the impact that individuals have on relationships and the larger society. According to Yattzie, “Navajo justice is a sophisticated system of egalitarian relationships, where group solidarity takes the place of force and coercion. In it, humans are not in ranks or status classifications from top to bottom. Instead, all humans are equals and make decisions as a group” (As cited in Nielsen, M. O., & Zion, J. W., 2005). This structure can have profound impacts on how we envision discipline, belonging and well-being within our classrooms.

Practically speaking, restorative justice in a classroom can look different depending on the context. From my own experience, creating a classroom community where young people have a voice in the rules and expectations that guide classroom pedagogy, behaviour and assessment is essential to building the relationships that are necessary to engage in restorative justice practices. Specifically, holding classroom meetings in a circle on a regular basis allows students to bring up issues that are happening in the classroom and to have a voice on how these issues may be addressed. Teachers may even embrace the circle meeting to a larger extent by practicing a circle process with students who are embroiled in conflict in order to engage in a restorative process where the student(s) hear the issue from various perspectives from those involved and come up with a strategy to repair the harm that was inflicted upon an individual or the larger classroom community.

At its heart, restorative justice is centered around the idea of the importance of relationships between individuals in a community. In my own context as an educator, relationships are the most important part of my teaching practice. If I do not take the time to build relationships and community with my students at the beginning and throughout the year, I will not be able to connect with them in meaningful ways that will ensure they have authentic engagement in the classroom. If a student does not believe that I care about them and their success they will be less likely to engage with me as their teacher and with the content itself. I have often found that building relationships over time with students involves working through conflict and disagreements. It is necessary in many classrooms to have a process where both the student and teacher can express their perspective and both be authentically heard. Restorative justice classroom practices can provide the process for this to take place while ensuring that strong positive relationships are at the center of the student-teacher relationship.

For educators, relationship building does not only lead to more meaningful connections with students but also ensuring that engagement is happening in our classes. If we embrace a restorative justice approach within our classroom it can lead towards a more humane way of educating and working with young people. For educators, this can offer an approach to working in a more equitable and just way with troubled students. For many of us, we take an authoritarian approach to teaching and discipline within our classrooms. For instance, since the role of an educator comes with a certain amount of “power”, educators can often interpret that power as something to hold over students and control the classroom much like a dictator would work to consolidate power and control over a society. Students do not have any decision making power or influence over how the classroom is run. In this traditional scenario, students are rendered as passive and obedient in order to achieve success in the classroom and often those who challenge the status quo receive disciplinary measures, which can lead to the “push out” that many students face in getting suspended, expelled or eventually dropping out.

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Restorative justice can act as an antidote to this framework of discipline within our classrooms. Instead of solely focusing on obedience or punitive measures, teachers, through a restorative justice model, can focus their energies on reaching and teaching the whole student. When we recognize the humanity of young people in our classrooms as those who have complex and interconnected lives we can then begin to understand the power of restorative justice. A restorative justice model in our classrooms can not only help us understand the root causes of student behaviour but it can also help us manage the connected and diverse lives of the students we teach. Allowing students the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions, as well as directly focusing on a harm that has taken place against an individual or classroom community can allow us to address students in a humane way, while also understanding the outside forces that drive their behaviours. Restorative justice allows us the opportunity to see students as complicated human beings who are attempting to make sense of the world, themselves and their place in it. Understanding that they will not only make the best decisions should be commonplace and our role as educators should be to help them navigate this complicated life stage.

Perhaps the most important gift that a restorative justice framework can give educators is that young people who make mistakes have to learn accountability to their school and community but also that we as educators have their back. Holding students accountable to community standards is a necessary lesson for young people to understand their responsibility to others as well as having the opportunity to hear that the adults in their lives are there for them even when they make mistakes. However, it is essential that no matter how student-focused our restorative practices are, we must be cautious of implicit bias. As Evans and Vandering explain, “Even the most student-centered discipline policies too often focus on helping students become more like the dominant majority and fail to address implicit bias that is often woven into curriculum and school practices” (p. 11). We may have the best of intentions in implementing a restorative approach to discipline in our classrooms but we must always be putting in the reflective and critical work to understand our own bias’ and how they may play out in our relationships with students and constructing our learning spaces.

There is not a simple checklist or recipe I can hand anyone in implementing restorative justice practices into their classroom. It is very much a process of valuing authentic relationships, allowing the opportunity for student voice in the structures of the classroom and having a compassionate and empathetic heart for those students who have difficulty finding belonging. I don’t have all the right answers, just a willingness to hope that we can continually improve our practice as educators that will serve students in a more just, equitable and humane way. It’s what I would have wanted as a student, and it’s what I’ll work for as a teacher.

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