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Restorative Practices in Schools: Putting Restorative Circles to Work

A teacher sits cross-legged with her young students in a restorative circle discussing a classroom incident.For decades, research has shown that punitive punishment for students who break classroom rules, start fights or engage in other challenging behavior does not work in the long run. Rather than using suspensions, detentions or some form of corporal punishment, educators serve students better by using restorative practices in schools.

A restorative approach to teaching involves doing away with traditional forms of discipline and replacing them with strategies and methods that support students’ ability to build relationships and resolve challenges together. These strategies include the creation of restorative circles that allow students to talk out problems together.

Fresno Pacific University offers educators a chance to develop expertise in this critical area by earning a Restorative Strategies for the Classroom Certificate. The university offers the course in various ways, including blended training, online training, face-to-face training and consultation. Teachers earn professional development credit while learning restorative strategies for the classroom.

The Case for a Restorative Teaching Approach

Schools have moved away from the type of corporal punishment once considered the hallmark for a disciplined and orderly classroom. Changes arose as research showed punitive punishment leads to deep emotional scars, increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems for students.

Debate on the issue is settled in many, but not all, areas of the country. In the heat of the debate, a decade ago, the American Psychology Association (APA) quoted experts calling corporal punishment ineffective. One called it “a horrible thing that does not work.”

The problems exist with other forms of punitive punishment, as well. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that “when schools rely on suspension or expulsion as discipline methods, they create more problems than they solve.” Those problems include students missing class and falling behind on their lessons. Students in these situations are more likely to drop out, struggle to find jobs and become involved with the juvenile justice system.

Faced with this type of research, educators across the country have adopted different approaches to dealing with disciplinary issues. Restorative practices in schools, including restorative circles, rank among the most effective strategies they can use.

What Is a Restorative Circle?

Restorative circles in the classroom give students the chance to speak freely and listen actively in an environment that promotes equity, decorum and safety. Teachers can use restorative circles to respond to wrongdoing incidents or proactively build a sense of community among students.

Implementing a restorative approach can help teachers close the achievement gap for students. The achievement gap refers to persistent, significant disparities in academic performance between distinct groups of students, such as those identified as the same race or those with similar socio-economic status.

Creating restorative circles can work as part of an overall approach designed to promote equity and inclusion in the classroom. Teachers should keep three key points in mind when creating restorative circles:

  • Invest the time and energy upfront in building relationships and a safe and supportive classroom  
  • Be prepared and plan ahead  
  • Acknowledge, paraphrase, summarize and empathize

Different Restorative Circles

Regardless of the type of restorative circle, teachers should always institute and enforce two primary rules:

First, teachers and the group should only allow one person to speak at a time, without interruption from others. This encourages listening. Second, all listeners should not sit in judgment but rather do all they can to understand the speaker’s problems, why the conflict happened and the impact on everyone in the classroom.

Most teachers use one of the three main types of restorative circles:

Sequential Restorative Circle: The first person speaks, then each person in the circle gets a chance to speak. The order of speakers moves in one direction, clockwise or counterclockwise, from the initial speaker. This gives everyone, including the more quiet and reserved students, a chance to speak.

Real Justice Circle: This circle is designed for use after an incident between two students. The offender, victim and one supporter for each sit in a circle. The order of the speakers is scripted. A facilitator leads the discussion by asking questions that support a restorative conversation. The order of speakers typically follows this order: offender, victim, victim’s supporter and offender’s supporter.

Fishbowl Restorative Circle: Teachers use this circle when they need a large group to participate. The inner circle includes the people who will actively participate. Another group sits in an outer circle around them, silently observing and occasionally getting the chance to speak.

Fresno Pacific’s Restorative Approach Courses 

Fresno Pacific University offers teachers a chance to learn the proven, successful techniques involved with restorative practices in schools. In the university’s Restorative Strategies for the Classroom Certificate program, teachers choose between two of three core courses:

  • Classroom Restorative Discipline
  • PBIS: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support
  • Positive Discipline in the Classroom

They then choose three to four courses from a selection of electives to reach 14 total units. The five elective courses include:

  • Discipline for Today’s Classroom
  • Strategic Planning for Restorative Discipline
  • Peer Mediation and Conflict Resolution 
  • Managing Students Without Coercion
  • Student Mediator Training

Courses in the Restorative Strategies Certificate program give teachers the skills to transform a challenging situation into an opportunity to build partnerships. With the flexibility offered by Fresno Pacific, teachers and students can expand their skills in a way that best suits their needs.