How to get all-staff buy-in on restorative practices

As you lean into planning for a new year, I know you are thinking through how best to support students in what will hopefully be a more normal year. I’ve worked in several schools as a leader, and what I’ve learned is we have to teach to the heart before we can teach to the mind. A big part of that is getting away from traditional “behavior management” and “discipline” and instead focusing on conflict resolution and healing.

Behavior is a form of communication, and the way we respond to student behavior is a form of teaching. I believe the best way toward a school culture that teaches communication and reaches the heart is to embrace restorative practices (RP). 

Full-school implementation of RP is a major undertaking, and some school communities are more ready and receptive than others. In some schools, traditional discipline practices are still the norm, and I want to share what I’ve learned about making the shift to restorative practices in an incremental way that fosters trust and full community buy-in.

Start with your own learning and seek out partners. 

If you’ve been working within a traditional discipline framework, you need to identify the ways you need to shift your own thinking to become more reflective. You want to make sure you internalize the difference between traditional discipline and RP so you don’t confuse your staff once you begin to model and talk about these practices. 

I recommend working to find local organizations doing restorative practice work – I was lucky to be able to partner with the Baltimore Open Society Institute, but as districts and communities increasingly lean into the value of restorative practices, you may be surprised to find a local organization doing similar work in your community. If not, the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice is a good place to start.

Move into modeling.

The first step in moving into action with restorative practices is to model the behaviors that you want to see. My experience with restorative practices began when I was a dean of students, leading restorative circles – not with a big school-wide effort. 

When conflicts arose, I would hold a circle, with a teacher present, and invite the students to tell me what had happened. I’d ask both sides to describe how they felt, and then we’d problem-solve together. One thing that teachers could see right away was that kids were less defensive when we asked, “How did you feel?” instead of, “Why did you do that?” 

These conversations were slow – a far cry from the process teachers were used to seeing at that time: students going to the office and often getting suspended. Teachers would say, “Wow, you’re really getting into these issues.” Being a part of these conversations started to shift teachers’ thinking and fostered a growing curiosity about restorative practices. 

Bring your team along on the learning journey. 

As teachers expressed more curiosity about the restorative approach, we conducted some school-wide book studies, using Restorative Practices in Action and some texts on using circles effectively. 

I made it a goal to refer to the books constantly in conversation. When a teacher emailed me about an issue with a student, I would respond with a quote from the book so that the teachers could see I was serious about bringing the restorative approach into our day-to-day work. 

I also continued to model the approach in my interactions with both students and educators. Sometimes, a teacher would be frustrated by a student interaction, and I’d walk down the hallway with the teachers and say, “Let’s calm down. I need you to be reflective so we can do this work together.” 

Roll out a school-wide experience for students. 

Once teachers are on the same page, messaging to students becomes consistent, and restorative practices become part of the school wide culture – both through check-in circles and circles that help restore harm done. 

Soon, with support and training, the teachers I worked with were implementing restorative practices independently. Seeing them take more leeway with the work, rather than waiting for my guidance, was powerful. They began to hold restorative circles without me, and even began holding circles with students’ families. 

Now, I feel we are teaching to the heart and responding to students’ behavior as communication. When students get into an altercation, we explain to them this altercation is a form of communication – even a physical altercation. We might say: “You were hurt by something that this person said, and you felt the need to use your hands or your feet. You wanted to communicate something, and instead of using your body, you need to use your words. Communicate.”

It’s important to teach kids that it’s OK for them to communicate how they feel – and that can be hard to hear, especially with middle school students. Sometimes you have to let them say what they really want to say. And what they say may not align with values of respect, but you can use that moment to work toward a repair. We teach them that it’s possible to be expressive without being disrespectful.

We’re teaching them every step of the way, and that means letting them know, number one: we accept you, we love you. And we need you to communicate by using your words.

The impact on students and our community. 

Restorative practices have transformed the way people in our school interact – with students and adults. I see a difference in the way teachers work with each other. Relationships with students’ families have changed, too. A teacher might come to me and say, “Principal Pinkney, I had a rough conversation with John’s mom. Can you lead a circle with us? I really want to repair the harm, and I want to understand her better and her point of view.”

I’ve seen restorative practices extend from the school into homes. Parents, when they’re frustrated, now come in saying, “Principal Pinkney, I need to have a circle.” 

And of course it has also changed the way students experience our school. Every day, I tell students, “I love you. I love you, but I’m also going to hold you accountable for your actions.” I’ve had a student tell me, “I never heard a principal say that they love a student, and you really show that you love us. I’ve never been to a school like this before.”

RP has changed the dynamics between teachers and teachers, teachers and students, teachers and parents, parents and parents. I’ve seen it all. You just have to put effort into it and know that it takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight. But it really works.