In today’s international school landscape, systems have shifted in focus from punitive disciplinary measures to more proactive and transformative approaches. One such approach gaining traction is the implementation of restorative practices in schools. Restorative practices (RP) emphasize repairing harm and fostering positive relationships within the school community. However, some critics argue that restorative practices undermine the importance of consequences. This article explores the relationship between restorative practices and consequences in schools, highlighting how these two elements can work in synergy to create a safe and inclusive learning environment.
An increasing concern of teaching staff has to do with the relationship between RP and consequences. Critical voices may accuse RP of undermining the role of consequences, resulting in a permissive learning environment and a toothless school behavior policy. Whilst it is true that a poorly implemented RP approach could result in such outcomes, it is crucial to understand the fundamental concepts of restorative practices. RP does not dismiss consequences; rather, it emphasizes repairing harm and holding individuals accountable for their actions. It is essential to strike a balance between understanding human nature and acknowledging the need for individuals to face the consequences of their behavior.
Understanding Restorative Practices
Traditional punitive approaches focus on shame and stigmatizing those who have caused harm. Restorative practices in schools are rooted in the principles of restorative justice, a philosophy that aims to address the needs of those affected by harm and to repair the harm done to the community. These practices focus on building relationships, resolving conflicts, and restoring a sense of belonging among students, teachers, and administrators. Restorative practices aim to shift the focus from punishment to accountability, allowing individuals to take responsibility for their actions and learn from their mistakes.
Research from Dr. Daniel Goleman, the leading academic who coined the phrase “emotional intelligence,” has shown that pro-social behaviors such as attendance, liking school, and good behavior in classes all increase when social-emotional learning (SEL) is infused effectively into the classroom. Meanwhile, drug use, violence, and bullying decrease. It is noteworthy that academic achievement is raised, and the achievement gap is narrowed, creating equity and enabling the students who need it the most. SEL shapes children into responsible citizens who can relate well to one another, manage impulses and deal with issues in a healthy manner. This research has identified a causal relationship between success in life and a student's feeling of “connection” towards school. A safe environment with positive relationships is vital if a school is seeking to promote such connections.
Importance of Consequences
Most international educators would agree that adopting a “punitive” approach is not consistent with our SEL goals. However, in doing so there is a risk that they may go to the other extreme and adopt a permissive classroom approach, viewing this as the only alternative. The restorative model suggests that the traditional punitive versus permissive approach is a false dichotomy.
Psychologists affirm that consequences play a crucial role, whether it be in the home or at school. Consequences set boundaries, reinforce expectations, and act as deterrents. They can at times ensure the immediate safety of others. Without consequences, students would lack a framework for understanding the impact of their actions, resulting in a lower likelihood of them taking responsibility for their actions. Research conducted by the International Institute for Restorative Practices suggests that the traditional punitive model fails to address the root of the behavior and can often exacerbate the issue, leading to an ongoing cycle of misbehavior.
The Complementary Nature of Restorative Practices and Consequences
RP and consequences are not polar opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive. RP does not seek to replace consequences. Rather, it seeks to improve the effectiveness of measures taken to resolve conflict by providing a supportive framework. RP and consequences can work together in tandem to help foster a positive school climate. Neglecting the role of consequences altogether can be a form of ruthless idealism. For practitioners of education, this is deeply unhelpful.
RP offers a variety of approaches. Circle discussions, peer mediation, restorative conferences, affective language - this allows for students to engage in dialogue that is open, allows for the expression of emotions as well as an emphasis on listening to the experience of others, which builds empathy, accountability, understanding and ultimately, personal growth. In this context, there is ownership over behaviors. Consequences are not arbitrarily imposed. Instead, they are part of a collaborative process.
Restorative consequences focus on repairing harm and should always directly relate to that harm. Fostering responsibility and accountability for behavior is the foundation. Consequences can range from behavior reflection sessions to restitution. Immediate logical consequences may include changing a student's seat, asking the student to take a five-minute walk to reflect on their actions, arranging time after school for a behavior reflection session, or participating in a restorative conference when harm has occurred. From the RP paradigm, consequences must always have restorative intent. Without consequences, it is very difficult to talk meaningfully about equity. We must be thoughtful and intentional in our efforts to avoid being either punitive or permissive. RP, when working in synergy with fair and equitable consequences, can help focus on understanding and addressing the root causes of behavior, rather than relying on punitive measures alone.
In the event of a serious incident and in extreme cases, school suspension may be the logical consequence. Although never desirable, schools need to consider the safety of the community as well as consider deterrence for extreme behaviors. However, when a student returns, a reintegration circle would be an appropriate follow-up. The purpose of such a circle is to reintegrate students back into the community by addressing any unresolved issues and rebuilding trust. This circle may include a group of supportive peers, teachers, and other adults. Questions asked may include: What has changed since we last met? What are your hopes (our hopes) for your return to class? What might success look like for you (from the perspective of both the student and the group)? What do you need to succeed? Suspension may be necessary, but reintegration afterward is essential. In holding such a circle, self-management is reinforced and accountability is fostered.
As we seek to build relationships, identify underlying issues, and take an approach that can vary for each individual, research indicates RP will work for most people most of the time. However, on the rare occasions where students are deliberately not participating in restorative processes or appear to be exploiting the goodwill of the people around them by manipulating systems, then the emphasis needs to be on consequences until such a time that the student is willing to engage in good faith with restorative approaches.
RP and consequences are not opposing forces, rather, they should complement one another in fostering a relational and healthy learning environment. The synergy between these two approaches is essential for effective school systems and for cultivating a sense of belonging, safety, and empathy within a school community.
Schools need clear policies, ideally infused with RP principles, that clearly define expectations, procedures, and consequences for students' behavior. The formation of such policies should involve all stakeholders and tap into the collective wisdom and experience that exists in the school community. The result is expectation clarity for all, with clear and effective systems.
It is not enough to just practice the methods. Ultimately, we must live the RP philosophy in our school communities. Restorative must become a way of being in order to be fully effective. If we do not lead with care and good intentions, then shame, humiliation, and blame may manifest even through the RP toolkit, which is contradictory to restorative philosophy. Dignity and respect need to be at the core of our approach. Consequences play an important role in stimulating reflection, accountability, fairness, and individual growth, all of which increase the likelihood of positive behavior and change. Punitive consequences alone destroy relationships. Restorative consequences, on the other hand, place retaining the relationship between teacher and student at the very center of the focus.
Alistair is the founder of Restorative360 and is a passionate advocate for restorative practices in education. A graduate of both Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities, Alistair is in his eighteenth year of teaching and his fourth year at the International School of Kenya where he teaches social sciences, International Baccalaureate global politics, and theory of knowledge and is a grade-level leader. Prior to that he taught history and was the theory of knowledge coordinator for nine years at the British International School of Jeddah.
LinkedIn: Alistair G.