Social Emotional Solutions: February 2023

February 28, 2023

Social Emotional Solutions: A monthly blog showcasing strategies and bright spots for Colorado’s schools

The ‘Restorative’ in Restorative Practices 

By Marcus Bratton, CEI Director of District Implementation and Partnerships  


Fresh out of college, my first job was at an alternative high school for credit recovery, which at the time was seen as a “last chance” for students who had either failed or dropped out of one of the four comprehensive high schools in the district. 

Like almost every new teacher, I struggled with student behavior and classroom management. Desperate to find a way to engage my students, build stronger relationships, and create a sense of shared ownership of a positive learning environment (and willing to try anything), I began to read and implement the tenants of restorative practices. To my pleasant surprise, I slowly but surely noticed the impact it was having in my classroom; and the more I noticed it working, the more I tried to implement it into every part of my instructional practice. This classroom success led to my principal asking me step into an instructional coaching role to assist other teachers in the building with establishing some of the restorative practice elements I had implemented in my own classroom. Eventually, I shifted my focus to schoolwide implementation of restorative practices as a K-8 school administrator. Now at CEI, I have the privilege of supporting, partnering with, and learning from school and district leaders across the state as we pursue our common goal of creating strong supportive learning environments for every student.  

Restorative practices have become especially popular since the return to in-person learning following the pandemic, where many educators are reporting an increase in physical altercations and classroom disruptions. This intentional shift to a more restorative manner of addressing student behavior is promising and long overdue. However, because of the urgency educators (including myself) often feel to make everything better, for every student, as quickly as possible, we are seeing one of the more crucial elements of restorative practices slip through the cracks. 

For restorative practices to work effectively in any classroom, school, or district there are three components that must be present: Proactive Structures, Responsive Structures, and Reintegrative Structures.  

It has been my experience that most professional development, articles, and lectures on the topic of restorative practices focus almost exclusively on that second component: Responsive Structures. In other words, what a teacher, school, or district does in response to student behavior that violates expectations to help a student acknowledge and repair the harm they have caused. Of course, Responsive Structures are critical to shifting from traditional discipline practices to restorative practices, so it makes sense that those new to implementation tend to gravitate toward this component. However, when we narrow our focus on restorative practices and only apply it as a response to behavior, we drastically limit its impact. As Delinda Passas, Associate Director at The Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University puts it: 

Many school districts give up on restorative practices because it is implemented as a response to harm rather than a way of being and interacting with one another. It simply does not work as an alternative response to punishment in isolation and is completely ineffective as an afterthought or a reaction. 

What schools and districts must understand is that the effectiveness of restorative practices relies on having students who want to repair the harm they have caused. This is where the first component, Proactive Structures, becomes critical – this is the focus of our February blog.  

Proactive Structures focus on creating a community that students want to be part of. In our social emotional development work at CEI, we define strong learning environments as ones that are physically, emotionally, and identity safe, as well as relationship rich and filled with trust. Before we ask a student to consider how they might repair any harm caused by their behavior and restore their relationship to the community, we must first ask ourselves if it is a community that honors and celebrates that student’s identity and if it is a community where the student feels connected to their peers and teachers through strong developmental relationships. If the answer to those questions is not a definite “yes,” then the next logical question is: Why would a student want to repair harm and restore their place in a community where they feel they are not valued?

The kinds of connections students need to have for restorative practices to be successful require time and intentionality. While there are several strategies individual teachers can implement immediately in their classroom to build stronger classroom communities, this post is focused on long-term, school-wide strategies designed to ensure every student can develop several strong connections within the school community. We know that some of the pushback against a restorative approach is that there becomes a sense of fewer and fewer “true consequences” for undesired behaviors. Comprehensive approaches are never all or nothing, and we also remind educators that the out-of-school suspension, for students who don’t feel attached to school, is the ultimate lack of a true consequence

Certainly, these are not the only strategies that create opportunities for connection, but they can be a good starting place for schools and districts who are looking to invest in structures that create relationships that students view as worth restoring. 

1. Advisory

Also referred to as Crew, Affinity Groups, or simply Homeroom (though with more purpose than homeroom generally is assigned). The purpose of advisory, when done well, is to provide small group opportunities for students to connect with a group of peers and at least one adult. Advisory groups usually meet in the morning, but they don’t necessarily have to. We have seen schools convene advisory groups after lunch to bring everyone back together and set the tone for the rest of the day, or before dismissal to make sure every student gets the space to connect before leaving for the day. There are three priorities to ensuring a successful advisory period. First, keep the groups small, the ratio should be no more than about 15 students for every adult. If this is difficult to do with only classroom teachers, consider including counselors, deans, and administrators. The larger the group, the less opportunities there are for connection. Second, this time must be held sacred. When the intention for this time is not made clear it can quickly become a glorified study hall. Third, teachers need support and professional development on how to use this time intentionally. 

2. Proactive Circles

One way to ensure your advisory period is structured and productive is to use proactive circles. Proactive circles can be used with any group of students who meet on a regular basis. They are based on topics that are intentionally selected and sequenced to increase risk taking over time. For instance, an appropriate topic for August might be “What was your favorite thing about summer and what are you most looking forward to this school year?” While a topic for February might be “Describe a situation where you really felt included, and one where you felt excluded. What was the difference?” Proactive circles can be a great way to give every student a voice and create a sense of shared ownership for the community. Regular practice with proactive circles can also really come in handy when adults need to pull together a responsive circle to help students process and have a voice when something potentially damaging to the community occurs.

3. Peer-to-peer Mentors

Again, this can look many ways, but peer mentoring programs usually involve pairing trained older students with 1-3 younger students. Peer mentoring programs can be an excellent way to provide leadership opportunities to your older students, while ensuring that younger students, or students newer to your community, have a trusted peer to connect with. Additionally, it can be powerful to see students transition from mentee to mentor as they progress. As with the other strategies described here, the key to a strong peer mentoring program is consistency and intentionality. Time for mentors and mentees to connect should be built into the schedule and mentor students should have an adult point person to ensure they also feel heard and supported. 

4. Student Clubs

When I say “Student Clubs” I don’t only mean the more traditional clubs we might think of such as Yearbook, or Debate Team. Though those kinds of clubs (along with other extra-curricular activities like sports, drama, or band) can be great ways for students to connect with their peers and feel a sense of belonging to their school community, it’s important to remember that there are many other types of clubs to help students connect and feel a sense of belonging. Student affinity groups based on a component of shared identity can help students feel seen and heard and provide a place to connect over common experiences. It can also be very effective for schools to have a process for developing student-led clubs formed around a shared hobby or interest. Student-led clubs are a great way to build student choice and a sense of shared ownership. 

Strategies like these create a sense of belonging and shared ownership of the community. When students have multiple connection points to help them feel safe, welcomed, and celebrated at school they are compelled to preserve, and when necessary, restore, that sense of community.  Only then is it possible to effectively implement restorative practices in response to behavior.