Practicing Restorative Justice: 5 Tips for Principals

by | Jun 14, 2021


As the body of evidence supporting restorative justice practices in schools continues to grow, you may wonder how to implement a restorative approach in your school’s discipline policies. In this article, we will summarize the evidence about effective restorative justice practices and share tips to help you shift toward a more inclusive school culture.

What is Restorative Justice in Education (RJE)?

Restorative Justice in Education (RJE) practices offer a more equitable, proactive alternative to “zero-tolerance” discipline policies. Rather than punishing students for behavioral issues, restorative justice aims to help students understand how their behavior impacts others and develop more constructive habits for the future.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) explains, “RJE practices are both proactive and responsive in nurturing, healthy relationships, repairing harm, transforming conflict, and promoting justice and equity.”

How Does Restorative Justice in Education (RJE) Promote Equity?

Many schools use exclusionary discipline, including suspensions and expulsions, to address behavioral issues. Sadly, these practices not only remove students temporarily from the classroom; they also often lead to poor academic performance, more behavioral problems, and even an increased likelihood that students will enter the prison system.

Research shows that traditionally underserved students, including students of color and LGBTQ youth, are significantly more likely to be punished with exclusionary discipline than their more privileged peers. For example, Black students are suspended and expelled three times more frequently than white students. Moreover, LGBTQ youth are up to three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment than their heterosexual counterparts.

On the other hand, restorative justice reduces the exclusion of vulnerable student populations by teaching students how to resolve conflict and build relationships in a healthy manner. The National Technical Assistance Center on Transition reports, “The benefits of using restorative practices include, but are not limited to better problem solving, reduced recidivism, improved educational achievement, socio-emotional growth, and increased community interconnectedness.”

5 Tips for Principals to Implement Restorative Justice in Education (RJE)

Here are some tips we gleaned from educational research about effective methods for implementing restorative justice in schools:

  1. Start by addressing institutional biases in society and schools.

One of the key benefits of RJE is its power to promote equity and inclusion. However, NEPC reminds us, “A focus on individuals that ignores the structural racism undergirding policies and practices is ultimately not restorative at all.”

Education Week offers food for thought through eight ideas about how school leaders can help dismantle systemic racism. Consider how institutional power structures in your community and school have traditionally impacted underserved populations. Then speak openly with your team about these systemic issues, and talk about how restorative justice can help close equity gaps.

  1. Commit to whole-school change.

Principals must collaborate closely with teachers, staff, and other stakeholders to make student-centered decisions. NEPC explains that school leaders can take a comprehensive approach to restorative justice by considering “not only student behaviors, but also staff behaviors, policies and procedures, pedagogical choices, curricular decisions, and schoolwide decision-making processes.”

  1. Set norms that build community.

Defining group norms helps teachers, staff, and students understand behavioral expectations. You may start by stating a value and then outline the norms which promote that value.

For instance, respect is a common value that school leaders wish to instill. Use this value as a starting point to ask your leadership team what norms promote a culture of respect. From there, your team may decide that teachers can respect one another in faculty meetings by refraining from interrupting people while they speak. Your group norms should establish ground rules that build an inclusive community.

  1. Be proactive in teaching students (and staff!) to practice positive behavioral skills.

RJE is not just a disciplinary structure. Rather, the best restorative justice systems proactively teach social, emotional, and relational skills that help prevent behavioral issues. For example, your RJE program may help students and staff practice skills like:

  • Self-awareness of one’s own emotional needs
  • Self-regulation
  • Respect and cooperation
  • Empathy
  • Negotiation and conflict management

Consider how a social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculum can be interwoven into your RJE strategy to provide opportunities for practicing these skills.

  1. Provide ongoing professional development for teachers and support staff.

NEPC warns against adopting a “Train and Hope” mindset as you implement restorative justice procedures. Teachers and support staff need more than a one-off training session about RJE. Principals should incorporate ongoing, job-embedded professional development to support sustained positive outcomes. These practices may include:

  • One-on-one coaching to provide immediate feedback as staff practice restorative justice
  • Modeling and demonstrations that allow staff to experience restorative justice procedures
  • Follow-up training to help staff evaluate what has been working and which practices need to be tweaked to better serve students.

The Center for Student Achievement Solutions can help your school leaders develop a whole-school restorative justice strategy and provide ongoing support as you implement new practices. Schedule a free call with one of our expert consultants to learn more about our approach.