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A Fresh Start with Restorative Practices

By Mindy Willard | August 2018

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Schools’ cyclical nature offer a natural opportunity to reflect on the previous year and renew ourselves – and our counseling programs – for the upcoming school year. Last spring, you may have found yourself (and your colleagues) feeling frustrated and at a loss when it came to understanding students and their behaviors. Summer break gives us an opportunity to prepare for a fresh start and implementing restorative practices into your school counseling program is a great way to provide students with that fresh start throughout the entire school year.
Restorative practices, sometimes referred to as restorative justice, are a way to hold students accountable for their actions while building relationships of unconditional positive regard. These practices also allow students to build empathy for those affected by their actions and enable to them to find positive solutions for the problems that they create. In essence, restorative practices are truly built on the belief systems of school counselors.
Fully implementing restorative practices involves multiple components, so I suggest starting small. Incorporate circles and restorative problem solving into your interactions with students and into components of your comprehensive school counseling program. Collect data on your practices and consider approaching your administrator about implementing restorative justice school-wide after you have evidence of its impact on your students. Below are a few components of restorative practices that can easily be integrated into your school counseling program.
Proactive Circles
A circle, by its very nature, creates a sense of connectedness among those sitting in it. Most school counselors provide small group counseling and we often invite our students to sit in a circle when sharing. This is to encourage safety and trust while allowing for participants to have equal voice throughout the discussion. Proactive circles are already used quite often in the form of teachers’ daily classroom meetings or check-ins. Adults in the room should hold a facilitation role during this process, rather than a traditional instructional role. Some organizations call these “talking circles” and others refer to them as “circles of power and respect.” The circle is an opportunity for students and adults to build relationships with one another. These preventative circles set the stage for future circles and conversations focused on repairing harm and relationships.
Prior to beginning the circle process, the group must discuss norms, which should include the right to pass. Another important component of a circle is the talking piece. This can be a feather, a rock or another item that participants will hand around the circle as they share. “The great advantage of a talking piece going around the circle is that each and every student knows that they will have a chance to put their voice into the center, and to be seen by others” (Center for Restorative Process). As students and adults are beginning to get to know one another, questions should remain light and fun. As relationships and trust start to build, circle prompts may dig a bit deeper to encourage participants to open up to the group.
Restorative Conference Circles
Restorative conference circles follow the same structure as proactive circles, but with the end goal of repairing broken relationships. The proactive circles have set the stage for these conversations. A restorative conference circle may be used after a student or group of students has broken school rules, with a group of students who are struggling to get along, or with two students who have had a conflict. These types of circles occur AFTER a problem has occurred.
These conversations may not involve an entire classroom of students, unless all were affected. More often they involve a few students, a facilitator and perhaps parents or other adults affected by the behavior. An essential component for a restorative conference is that all participants are WILLING to have the conversation with the end goal of repairing the relationship and building trust. If a student is not willing, this process will not be successful and could be detrimental to those affected by the behavior.
Guiding questions support the restorative conference process. These questions allow the offender to share their perspective and those impacted to share their experiences. An essential component to this process is that the students/adults are aware of these questions in advance. The facilitator should meet with all participants to provide a picture what the restorative conference will look like. If at any time the offended or the offender is not willing to participate, the process stops.
Keep in mind that the purpose of this conversation is not to punish or shame, but to allow the offender to make amends with those they hurt. Begin by asking the student to respond to the following questions. All others should listen respectfully.
  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking of 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?
The next step is to allow the other participants to share their experiences. Their responses allow them to share their truth, confront the offender’s behavior in a safe space and hopefully repair the relationship. Most important, this process fosters an opportunity for the offender to build empathy for those impacted by his or her choices.
The student(s) who participated in the offense should listen respectfully as the others respond:
  • 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?
Restorative conference circles should be led by a trained facilitator, ideally by two facilitators, people who can manage the circle and quickly build rapport with those involved. Many organizations offer restorative justice trainings and information. A quick YouTube search will allow you to view several examples of restorative practices in action. The links below offer resources to support your professional learning around restorative practices.
Center for Restorative Process - San Francisco Unified School District
International Institute for Restorative Practices
Mindy Willard is the School Counseling and Transitions coordinator for Madison Metropolitan School District in Madison, Wisc. She presented about this topic at the 2017 ASCA Annual Conference.