Restorative Discipline is Not a “Program,” It’s a Mindset

Back when my co-founders and I first started The Community for Learning, we had already worked as teachers for several years in a variety of schools with differing philosophies. As part of that experience, we’d seen far too many discipline programs fail and knew we did not want to handle discipline through punishment. Instead, we decided early on to focus on reflection, repair, and change in behavior. You can read about how we did that here.

We weren’t familiar with “restorative practices at the time, but later on, once we learned more about it, we realized the term perfectly describes our philosophy. We don’t punish, we restore. We restore relationships, respect for others, and a feeling of self worth. Restorative discipline is not about punishment. It’s about community, relationships, and mutual respect. It focuses on reflecting on why a misdeed happened in the first place, taking responsibility for what happened, and repairing the harm done.

But, for most teachers this does not come naturally. Many of us were raised with punitive discipline and making this change feels counter-intuitive. When students misbehave we tend to blame them rather than looking at our own practice to see how we could improve the classroom environment. When working with student behavior, the first steps we should take are preventative measures that help avoid misbehavior.

Preventative measures

  • Teachers avoid discipline issues by making classes interesting and having clear classroom procedures in place.
  • They build positive relationships with students by honoring and respecting them, understanding them, and connecting with them.
  • Students discuss their emotions and create a feeling of community in listening circles. 
  • Teachers consistently let students know their expectations for behavior.

If in spite of these measures, students still misbehave or bully others, the teacher should work to help the student reflect and try to make changes.

First steps in dealing with misbehavior

  • Use hand signals or gentle reminders. When students are having trouble sitting still and working, putting a gentle hand on their shoulder can help them focus. For students who struggle with touch, talk to them privately and decide on a hand signal you can give them to remind them to focus on their work again.
  • Privately discuss issues. “I’ve noticed you’re talking a lot in class. What’s going on? Can we come up with some strategies that will help you concentrate on your work?”
  • Meet with students to reflect on their behavior and think of how they could do things differently. 

If students continue to have problems with behavior, a teacher may eventually send them to the school psychologist or principal to write a reflection letter, in which students are guided to consider why their behavior hurt others and how they can make amends. This letter then goes home to the student’s parents or guardians so that they are also included in the conversation. Through this process of conversation and reflection, students usually begin to take charge of their own behavior.

Restorative practices require support and training

In order to use restorative practices, most teachers need direct coaching and one-on-one teaching. Having been brought up with punitive discipline, they’ll often fall back on anger and punishment in times of stress. They may skip the preventative steps and the relationship-building conversations and simply send students for reflection letters. After all, taking the student out of the class is easier. It immediately solves the problem for the teacher, so they can carry on teaching without disruption.

But if we don’t use all of the other tools in our restorative toolbox (prevention and discussions), the reflection letter becomes a meaningless exercise. Even worse, it becomes a form of punishment rather than a way to reflect and change. Strong relationships are the basis of restorative practices. If those relationships haven’t been developed, the teacher seems like the enemy. The student doesn’t take responsibility for his or her actions, but instead focuses on blaming the teacher: “It’s not fair. S/he didn’t even warn me. S/he always picks on me.” And when a student doesn’t reflect and take responsibility for his or her actions, change doesn’t happen.

Teachers often ask for a “discipline protocol” enumerating the “steps” they should take before sending students for a discipline letter. But, when we just mechanically follow steps, we tend to lose sight of the underlying principles of good teaching. Every student is different, so we can’t use a cookie-cutter model of discipline if we want them to learn from their mistakes. And teaching students to reflect on their behavior and manage their emotions is just like teaching anything else: we need to use different strategies to differentiate our teaching in order to help each individual child.

Restorative discipline can’t be a protocol, it has to be a mindset founded on love and respect. Because most of us were brought up with punitive discipline, we have to consistently and mindfully apply restorative practices. Below are some switches we can make as we move from a punitive to a restorative mindset:

When we truly understand where a student is coming from, we can show love and empathy rather than reacting to misbehavior with anger.  It’s important to remember that no student wants to “be bad.” Sometimes they misbehave because they want attention and even negative attention is better than no attention at all. Sometimes they feel inadequate and they’d rather be thought of as the class clown or the bully than the “stupid one” who doesn’t understand the lesson. Sometimes they’re facing an emotional issue like a divorce or the death of a loved one or a friend who has rejected them. Sometimes they struggle with learning disabilities that frustrate them. Building strong relationships helps us gain insight into our students’ emotions and a deeper understanding of their problems. When we show our students respect and open our hearts to them, we can help them become the best versions of themselves.

We have to constantly remind ourselves that restorative discipline is not a program with rigid steps to follow — it’s a relationship based on respect and love rather than anger and fear. 

Because there are no clear rules to follow, as we dive into applying restorative practices, most of us struggle. We face difficult situations, we may lose our patience, and sometimes we fall back into old habits. It can feel scary to make these changes, so we need a supportive community to help us face our challenges and improve. I’d love to hear your concerns and comments so we can learn and grow together.

7 Comments

  1. This is a great blog post, an eye opener on how to effectively approach learners when misbehaving. I agree we can’t just follow a protocol, each case is different and definetly creating a relationship with each student is important and will make the difference. I will definetly keep on developing a restorative mindset because as you say, we can easily go back into old habits,this is a change that will gradually improve with support, patience and practice.

  2. Marilyn D McAlister January 5, 2019 at 10:43 am

    Carla, I absolutely love the community you’ve built. The restorative discipline approach is an intentional work of art that needs to be constantly honed. Here in CA we have what’s called #PBIS Positive Behavioral Interventions &Supports. It looks like you’ve perfected it. Best wishes to you and your staff in 2019. -Marilyn

  3. Wow!!! Me encantó este artículo. Aún cuando esta es la filosofía de disciplina que siempre hemos puesto en práctica en el TCFL, llamarla RESTORATIVE es la primera vez que lo escucho y me parece perfecto. Restaurar lo bueno que cada niño tiene para dar, restaurar su capacidad de reaccionar a las situaciones, y para las profesoras, restaurar la percepción de que los niños son esencialmente buenos. Gracias por explicar asertivamente, en unas páginas, lo extenso y eficaz que es nuestro “mindset” de disciplina.

    • in my school we ve started the restorative practice and been doing it for 7 months now but it doesn’t t seem to work. Children do not listen to adults, their behaviour seems to deteriorate, it seems kids has gone wild. They realised there are no consequences of the bad choices. This school is in a VERY deprived area and families struggle with a lot of problems such as poverty, abuse. It seems that children in an “average” school will respond positive to the Restorative Practice and it is feasible, but in the classroom when half of the children have emotional/SEN difficulties it doesn’t t seem to work.

      • I’m not a specialist on this and can only speak from my own experience, but I don’t think 7 months is enough time to judge whether restorative practices work. It takes time to build positive relationships and trust. Reflecting on behavior and making changes doesn’t give quick results, the way punishment seems to (but the changes are real). And it’s a misconception to think that there are no consequences in restorative practices – it’s not a free for all. But often the students themselves decide on the consequence and how they will make amends for their actions.

        I understand how frustrating this can feel for teachers. Most of us have always used punishment and rewards to make students comply and switching to restorative practices can be very hard. I agree that this can be harder when students have emotional difficulties, but those students desperately need love, respect and understanding to help them become their best selves. It takes a LOT of training and support to make this work.

  4. I love these ideas, but what happens when a student hits another child, or breaks out in a fight? What about the times students feel it is ok to yell at an adult or refuse to adhere to normal respect….. stop playing rough, taking turns and refusing others to play, etc. I would love to support those that act out and find out why, but the children that do well because they are taught boundaries are missing out on feeling supported as well.

    • Susan, I think these are important questions to consider as schools begin to use restorative practices. We’ve been using them for 22 years now and in that time have only had one fight break out and only about ten cases of a student hitting another child. In all of these cases, students reflect on their behavior and make amends. If they take responsibility for their actions, we rarely see the aggressive behavior happen again. In some cases we have to do deeper work – the child may need to work with a therapist to learn anger management techniques or there may be deeper family issues going on that need to be worked on. But in any case, the chances of positive change happening are better with reflection, understanding and support, than they are with a punitive approach. As for disrespect, playing rough, and refusing to take turns – these are social norms that we actively teach. We also find that by holding community circles, students share with each other and get to know each other. Children who feel cared for and listened to, tend to behave better. In our circles a child who does well, may voice their feelings about behaviors in the class like, “I can’t concentrate during writing workshop if people are talking,” The class will try to come up with solutions together and the students who don’t have behavioral issues, do feel supported. Of course, nothing is perfect, but restorative practices help children learn to behave in a way that punishment doesn’t.

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