3 Pillars for Building a Restorative Practices Culture

My journey with restorative practices is similar to that of a lot of folks who believe in the power of student relationships. 

After years as a teacher, assistant principal and then as a principal in Baltimore, I’d seen the impact that investing in relationships can have on school culture and on students’ futures, and I was proud of the way my team empowered students and assured that their dignity was upheld in all interactions. But I didn’t have a name for the approach my colleagues and I were taking. I didn’t have a framework for articulating our beliefs. And I didn’t know how our successes could be replicated.

Then I went on a five-hour whitewater rafting trip, and one of my companions happened to be a juvenile court judge from Tennessee. The more he told me about restorative practices, the more I thought: “That’s what they call it. That’s the name. That’s the theory I’m missing.”

The core principle of restorative practices is simple: “Human beings are happier, more cooperative, more productive and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.” I recognized right away that this idea was at the heart of my work with students, and learning more about restorative practices helped me see ways my colleagues and I could expand our work in building mutual accountability among members of our school communities. 

I’ve since gone on to found an organization supporting other school communities in implementing restorative practices, trauma-informed care, equity and strengths-based approaches. We’ve had the privilege to work with hundreds of schools across the nation and internationally, including more than 50 schools in Baltimore. We are fortunate enough to support school leaders like you with implementation, consensus building and cultural change. 

Throughout those experiences, we’ve uncovered three major pillars for successfully using restorative practices within a school community. 

Think Outside the Trainings

One of my biggest aha moments was that, instead of taking more of our time and increasing our workload, restorative practices simply allow us to live within our own integrity. But to get to that aha moment, I had to face the reality that restorative-practices trainings just weren’t enough. 

As a trainer, I saw that people wanted to use restorative practices. But educators are already so pressed for time. And so the school year would begin as usual – with all its competing demands – and the notes everyone took from our trainings would sit in a folder under the growing piles of regular work. With educators already stretched thin by the regular workload, restorative-practices work kept falling out of the realm of possibility and back into the realm of good intentions. Perfectly understandable! But unfortunate nonetheless.

Gradually, my team and I accepted that this cycle would keep repeating. No matter how enthusiastic educators and school leaders were during training itself, the one-time trainings would never be sufficient. So then we began exploring how to ground restorative practices inside the culture of our schools. 

Build Your Team of Champions

Instead of one-off trainings, we approached this challenge in the most intuitive way we could as educators – by teaching and practicing together. To accomplish that, we developed the “champion” model, which allowed us to tap folks with moral authority in our schools, build consensus among these folks and work with them to organically promote the culture shift to restorative practices through their interactions with students and the wider school community

For us, a champion isn’t someone leading the charge or carrying extra responsibility on their shoulders. A champion is simply a staff member who is a believer – committed to learning, exploring and integrating restorative practices into their everyday life. In this model, we’re always organically increasing the number of champions because that’s how we build enthusiasm and momentum and influence school culture from the inside out. We begin by identifying champions among the administration and leadership team, and then expand to instructional and non-instructional educators. And as our champions grow in number, we’re continually practicing together and strengthening their collective accountability and support. 

Importantly, we’re not asking champions to turn around and lead a lot of professional development training. We’re really asking them to emerge as exemplars of the restorative approach. The key is to put these champions within arm’s reach of all school community members. But their ability to influence depends to some extent on their ability to mirror the larger staff. So it’s vitally important that your group of champions is representative of all positions in the school. 

Become the Living Proof

At some point, you will face doubt and maybe even outright skepticism from your colleagues. Those reactions are totally understandable – but they don’t have to halt your process. The real constraints of time and resources that we face as school communities can push all of us into black-and-white thinking. We’ve got so many balls in the air at once, we assume that if we’re going to pick up restorative practices, we have to drop something else to make it work. Truly, that is not the case. But it may take proof of concept to build the consensus that your team of champions relies on. 

I’ve found one question in particular very helpful in shifting our approach to consensus building, and that is: What are our communities asking us to be? Our schools are microcosms of the larger community, so as leaders, we’re showing up to be the types of leaders our whole community needs. That means, if we want to see restorative practices in our communities and throughout our schools, we must model restorative practices in our own leadership.

As school leaders, how we engage with staff, lead our teams and build community all needs to be reflective of restorative work. Because these practices aren’t just for students. They can reduce burnout, build collaborative teams and nurture relationships among the adults. 

So when difficult moments arise among colleagues, and they will, we can shift our focus away from warnings and write-ups – and toward understanding the impact of our behaviors on one another. We can feel the difference that shift makes in the quality of our interactions and in how we function as a team. And then, when we meet resistance or doubt about whether restorative practices can work in our school, we can point to the differences already emerging in our own relationships. 

Having experienced the difference in our own interactions, we can resolutely insist that our students deserve access to the same – including the same positive results. From this firm grounding, we can tackle all the details of implementation. But – as years of limited trainings have shown us – we cannot skip this step. We must be the living proof that restorative practices are integral to the school communities we want to build.