Restorative Practices

An Alternative to Punitive Discipline That Really Holds Students Accountable

True restorative practices call on students to repair what they’ve damaged and earn forgiveness from those they’ve harmed.

March 29, 2024
SeventyFour / iStock

“Mike” is misbehaving in class. The teacher does not want the flow of the lesson derailed. The teacher calls the main office to remove Mike from the room.

Assistant Principal “Lee” arrives, determined that Mike be held accountable for the misbehavior, and assigns Mike to an in-school suspension for the rest of the day. The message is clear that Mike is being held accountable for his behavior.

Or so we might believe.

Mike serves his time. He fills out the in-school suspension form, writing that he will “try to do better.” Mike is unable to do the classwork that has been sent to the suspension room. He feels remorse, but nothing that he can put into words or that an adult helps him articulate. He concludes that his main problem was getting caught.

Assistant Principal Lee tells Mike that the next time he misbehaves, he will be sent to in-school suspension again, perhaps for a longer period of time. But the time spent in suspension did not teach Mike to care about the impact he has had on others or give him skills to better handle his boredom and frustration. Mike assumes that he will end up in suspension again. Assistant Principal Lee thinks so, too.

Traditional punishment, such as Mike is experiencing, isn’t holding him accountable to his peers, his teachers, or his evolving sense of responsibility. There is no curriculum for punishment.

A Better Road to Accountability

Changing schools from cultures of punishment to restoration does not mean that students will “get away” with anything, but few adults have seen a better response to misbehavior than threats, shaming, and exclusion. They are reluctant to give up punishments, a tool they all know well.

A common first step in developing full staff buy-in to restorative discipline is to clarify which student misbehaviors demand administrative interventions and oversight, such as when students fight or break the law; teachers have neither the time nor the authority to get such critical situations under control and then do the follow-up process. Some schools will explicitly include cheating, self-harm, destruction of school property, and insulting language in their list of behaviors that must always be dealt with by administrators.

In the event of significant disruptions to the safety of the learning environment, administrators in restorative-discipline systems still can assign short-term detentions and suspensions. A school needs time to hear from those impacted by the incident and craft a unique restorative plan for each student because automatic punishments such as a fixed number of days of suspension are problematic. They don’t provide options to meet the needs of all those involved, and they don’t predict success.

Why four days of suspension and not three, five, or six? What number of days equals accountability? Ultimately, accountability happens only where students can repair the harm done, back in school and classes—when safety plans are in place.

Making Things Right

Accountability must allow students to repair the harm done, earn forgiveness, and be restored to their community. An apology, especially forced, is usually not sufficient for students to earn back trust. Students need to contribute positively to the school in a way equal to their transgressions. They need to even the score.

Some restorative practices are obvious: If a student kicks over a trash can, the student cleans up the trash. In the case of Mike disrupting the lesson, he will sit with a friend in the classroom during lunch, instead of going to the cafeteria; his friend, who has volunteered to help, will catch him up on the work he missed.

Other options for restorative discipline include meetings with adults in the family; working with the maintenance staff to improve the school in a measure equal to the harm done; meeting with peers to hear their feedback and make direct amends; temporary loss of privileges, always with a clear and reasonable plan to earn them back; helping a teacher with their daily setup and cleanup routines—which is also a great time to build a relationship that can prevent further incidents.

The misbehaving students know that when they even the score between harm and repair, they are earning forgiveness, through doing the right thing. Punishment does not create this outcome.

It is important that the misbehaving students’ peers know they have worked to even the score. Students can be given the option to tell their peers, or a teacher can share the news. In this fashion, schools subvert the shaming culture of punishment: The misbehaving students model making the effort to be restored to good standing. Punishment does not create this outcome.

Chill-Out Plans

In addition to the work that students do to even the score, they work with staff to create a “chill-out” plan to remove themselves from escalating trouble in the future. For Mike, his plan is to listen to music on headphones; others will need to walk, water the plants, write in a journal, or talk to a counselor. If teachers feel a student is too often using their plan as a way to avoid work, the staff will come together to rework that student’s plan. Teachers will prompt students to use chill-out plans when they are escalating; students can choose on their own to use their plans, as they learn to recognize their escalating inner turmoil. Contrast this with the passive time Mike spent in the suspension room, filling out a form to “try to do better.” Now he practices with tools to do better.

Restorative practices do not guarantee that students will never misbehave again. The culture of punishment has guaranteed even less—except perhaps contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline, with no attempt to restore a student’s standing in the school community.

Our students’ futures are embedded in communities: in families, on the street, at their jobs, in places of worship, at the local Y. Restorative discipline prepares them to understand their true accountability to those communities.

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  • Restorative Practices
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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