How restorative practices are transforming Baltimore City Public Schools – and where to start in your school community

Over the past several years, Baltimore City Schools has been working to transform our schools and communities by fully implementing restorative practices (RP). We’ve learned that restorative practices are not just another thing you “do” or some new thing to “try out.” They’re a way of being. 

Restorative Practices emanate from the use of problem-solving and community-building circles in Indigenous communities around the world. We have modeled the RP implementation in our schools on the teachings of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, which are based on the idea that people “are happier, more cooperative and 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.” 

This post is for school leaders who want to envision how RP would work across your community. In the tabs below, you’ll find:

  • Descriptions of 4 communication techniques underpinning RP, as part of a tiered approach to behavior interventions.
  • Ideas for finding resources to begin this work. RP is most effective when implemented as a whole-school approach, with all staff attending intensive RP trainings.

We have a new report and implementation guide out now, and over the coming weeks, we’ll be partnering with #PrincipalProject to share highlights from our schools, so check back for more.

Our district’s work with Restorative Practices has been one of our primary tools in working to end the school-to-prison pipeline, in advocating for students in crisis, and in reducing arrests and suspensions across the city. This practice has become increasingly important as a tool for educators who are struggling to meet the educational and social-emotional needs of children surviving a pandemic. Little by little, we are changing the narrative and telling a different story about what is possible for our students and in our schools. 

– Karen Webber, Director of Education and Youth Development

Communication Techniques

Communication Technique 1

Circle dialogues

Restorative Circles are a powerful tool to facilitate group dialogue and build a sense of community. In a typical circle process, all participants form a circle, usually sitting in chairs or on the floor, without any desks. The circle facilitator presents a question or a circle prompt, and all participants are given the opportunity to respond. Everyone then takes turns sharing perspectives on the question. 

During in-person learning, facilitators will sometimes pass around a “talking piece” of the group’s choice to remind everyone that the person holding the “talking piece” has the floor, and everyone else should listen respectfully. The talking piece can be any object that can withstand being passed from hand to hand, such as a stick, a stone or a toy. Participants are given the option to pass and simply listen to others’ responses. Circles can also be done over video during distance learning. (Check out this #PrincipalProject blog post to learn how principal Keeanna Warren sustains RP during virtual learning.)

Teachers may use circles to integrate instructional content, providing a more engaged and interactive way for all students to participate. Circles may also be used to address minor conflicts or misconduct, helping those involved to resolve the issue and develop a collaborative plan to repair any harm done.

Circles foster a sense of voice, belonging and respect, helping to develop a strong sense of trust and community within the classroom that impacts the whole school community. A restorative school does not limit circles to interactions with students. Restorative schools often use circle processes to facilitate conversation at faculty and staff meetings, with parents, and in other contexts. For examples of circle prompts, click here.

Communication Technique 2

Affective statements

Affective statements are “expressions related to feelings and emotions that can be used for specific positive and negative feedback.” An affective statement gives educators an “in-the-moment” communication technique to reinforce positive behavior and redirect negative behavior. Often in the form of an “I-statement,” an educator would share how the behavior in question affects them, an explanation why and a call to action. For example, a teacher might say, “When you spoke to John that way, I felt disappointed, because I really want everyone in our classroom to feel included as part of our class community. How can we make sure our classroom is an inclusive space for everyone?” 

This informal communication tool builds empathy and provides immediate feedback about the impact of one’s conduct, encouraging students to repeat positive behaviors and to rethink and stop negative behaviors. One study found that teachers whom students perceive as frequently using affective statements had fewer disciplinary referrals of Black and Brown students.

Communication Technique 3

Affective or restorative questions

Affective, or restorative, questions are posed when challenging behavior or harm has occurred. This inquiry explores the perspectives of those involved, the impact of the behavior and the steps which need to be taken to “make things right” or repair the harm. Restorative questions encourage a dialogue and take a problem-solving approach to addressing negative behavior.

Restorative conversations are designed to occur informally, immediately after a harmful incident has occurred. The restorative questions below, developed by the International Institute for Restorative Practices, can also be used during planned, informal circles.

Questions to pose in response to challenging behavior:

  1. What happened?
  2. What were you thinking at the time?
  3. What have you thought about since?
  4. Who has been affected? In what way?
  5. What do you think you need to do to make things right?

Questions to give voice to those harmed by another’s actions:

  1. What did you think when you realized what had happened?
  2. What impact has this incident had on you and others?
  3. What has been the hardest for you?
  4. What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

Communication Technique 4

Formal restorative conferences

In contrast to informal restorative conversations, formal restorative conferences are “structured, facilitated meetings that bring together all individuals involved in an incident, together with any supporters (including parents or guardians) or relevant school staff.” These conferences typically involve more serious infractions and require advanced preparation.

Restorative conferences are conducted by a trained, neutral conference facilitator who does not have a direct stake in the matter at hand. During the restorative conference, all invited parties are given the opportunity to share their perspectives on the situation, and those who caused the harm have an opportunity to take responsibility and make amends. Collectively, the group creates a plan for moving forward to repair the harm. Restorative conferences should always be voluntary processes and require agreement to participate by all involved.

When using RP to resolve student conflicts, all parties in the dispute sit in a circle to talk through what occurred. Each party is asked what can be done to resolve the matter. A written document memorializes the agreed-upon recommendations, and the adult facilitator checks in with students at a later date to ensure that the recommendations have been followed.

The restorative approach to discipline is reflective, inclusive and rehabilitative. The goal is to hold students accountable in a way that will help them internalize behavioral expectations and prevent reoccurrence. In addition, a restorative process helps to give voice to those impacted by an incident, giving them a sense of empowerment in resolving the conflict and articulating their needs. Finally, the goal in a restorative disciplinary process is to resolve the underlying conflict by repairing the harm done and reintegrating everyone involved back into the school community or classroom with shared expectations about how to move forward in a positive way.

More resources

Interested in implementing RP in your community? 

While some of the techniques described here can be used by educators in informal conversation, a full implementation of RP requires specialized training.

To seek out training, consider the following resources, or connect with local PD providers.

Keep an eye out for more #PrincipalProject posts on how restorative practices look in Baltimore City Schools – from elementary to secondary – with tips from leaders on ways to implement bite-sized strategies in the service of a more inclusive community. In the meantime, you can explore our approach further in Restorative Practices in Baltimore City Schools: Implementation Status Report and Guide.