In 18 years of being a principal, implementing restorative practices is the most valuable thing I’ve done.

Summary: Restorative practices begin with a focus on community building. In Principal Matt Hornbeck’s school community, implementing restorative practices reduced detentions, suspensions and office referrals and increased teacher retention. Read on to understand what a restorative system looks like and how to get a school community started.

This is part of our series on Restorative Practices in Baltimore City Schools. You can see the first post here.

When you look at the mission statement of almost every school, you’ll find a word that speaks to the concept of “joy.” We all want students and teachers to experience joy in our school communities. Joy can be a hard thing to manufacture, but in my 18 years as a principal, I’ve found that restorative practices have come closer than any other component of our work. 

My school community came to restorative practices because discipline was feeling very cyclical. Maybe a teacher would send a kid to the office, and I would talk with the kid and take them back to class. Often, nothing would feel resolved. Soon, I’d see that same kid in the office again. We were also troubled by our discipline data – both by our total numbers of suspensions and office referrals, and by the ways they were disproportionately impacting Black and Hispanic boys. We needed a change. We took a look at all the programs out there, and we decided to give restorative practices a try. 

Implementing restorative practices is not a quick fix: It takes a huge amount of time and energy up front, requires some budget and demands a long-term commitment. You and your leadership team have to be all in, and you need to get full buy-in from your staff. But I can promise you: If you’re all in for restorative practices, the investment will pay off in transformation and joy.

What do restorative practices look like on an everyday basis?

The foundation of restorative practices is a strong community, which you build by making restorative circles part of your routines. We hold circles at the beginning of every staff meeting, and our teachers lead students in circles at least three times a week in homeroom.

In a circle dialogue, the participants usually pass around a talking stick or object and answer simple community-building questions: What sports or activities do you do? Who is your hero? If you could be any age forever, what would it be and why? What’s your favorite holiday food? 

As the community gets closer, the questions can become more serious, and if you’re conducting a circle dialogue with teachers, the questions may frame an issue you’re tackling together. Alternatively, you might use a circle to engage in a breathing exercise together: just seven minutes of guided breathing, and 30 people feel connected. 

Circles make sure that community members learn about each other and, inevitably, discover points of connection. Then, when something goes wrong in the community, you can rely on the relationships you’ve built to work things out. 

What does discipline look like in a school with restorative practices?

When a student engages in harmful behavior, teachers and parents often ask them, “Why did you do that?” But what is the kid supposed to say – “Because I’m a terrible person”? There usually isn’t a great answer to the question, “Why did you do that?” 

I love the way restorative practices reframe this conversation. When there’s a harm, we hold a formal restorative circle or restorative conference, which brings together everyone who was impacted by the harm to discuss three questions:

  1. What happened? All sides get to tell their story. 
  1. Who was affected? This helps build empathy. Everyone answers. If I’m leading the circle, I’ll say, “I’m sitting there talking to you, so I’m affected. Your parents are going to be affected when I call them. The teacher couldn’t get through their lesson, so they’re affected.” All of the affected students will share the impact they’ve experienced.
  1. What do you need to move on? This is the most beautiful question I’ve come across as a principal. Kids will sometimes say something practical, like, “I need my locker moved” or “I need a new seat in the lunchroom.” Sometimes, they’ll say, “I just wanted to say that, and I don’t need anything else.” The answers to this question are often a reminder of the power of this work: People just want to be seen and heard.

What does it take to launch restorative practices? 

To launch restorative practices, we took our whole, 100-person staff offsite for two days of training. We sat in circles together and learned how to lead circles – and circles became ingrained in our culture. We do them at faculty meetings. We do them with parents. They are a part of the fabric of the school. 

Individual teachers can use circle dialogues, but for restorative practices to have a real, transformative impact, you need coordination across the school. As the principal, you’re the only person who can orchestrate that kind of building-wide change. Before you start, make sure you’re fully invested and can communicate that investment to your leadership team and staff.

Initially, some teachers might be skeptical. They might feel like restorative practices are another thing added to their plates. I’ve heard teachers say, “Well, what would you like me to give up in order to make time for circles?” – as if it’s a net-zero equation. Teachers are so pressed for time, and to get buy-in, you need to help them understand that investing in circles will ultimately free up time. Their classrooms will run more smoothly. They won’t be dealing with nearly as many discipline issues.  

What kinds of results can we expect when we implement Restorative Practices?

Of course, schools are complex, but since implementing restorative practices, we’ve had more success in reducing our detentions, office referrals and suspensions. We’ve had more success with teacher retention. And you can feel that the community has more pure love for each other. More joy.

To monitor the impact of  restorative practices, we keep track of how many circles are taking place. It’s already part of our culture for teachers to turn in “lesson progress charts” on Fridays, which capture the progress they made with students that week. We use this information in coaching meetings and when we analyze data. As a part of that, we also ask for circle logs, in which teachers record the questions they invited students to answer in that week’s circles. 

Circle logs allow us to count the number of circles that are happening in the school and compare that to other data gathered over the same period, such as suspension data. We’ve begun to notice that, as the circles go up, the suspensions go down. Making circle logs a part of data culture reframes our conversations around growth.

There are also qualitative results, of course. Our school feels different. In this pandemic, I feel that the power of restorative practices is the reason our community has even a semblance of feeling whole. We offered virtual middle school community circles on Fridays – outside the schedule and completely voluntary for students. We thought maybe 25 kids would come, but we have 240 students logging in every Friday. 

People in our school communities want to feel seen by each other. Our community members crave meaningful connection. Restorative practices give us a vocabulary and a system for continuing to work toward that, always. 

Thinking about trying restorative practices? Check out these resources:

Matt Hornbeck is a principal in Baltimore. You can follow him on Twitter @PrincipalMattH