George Lucas Educational Foundation
Restorative Practices

Using Restorative Communication as a Classroom Management Tool

By avoiding communication blockers, teachers can help students talk through disruptive behavior in the classroom.

April 12, 2024
Gary Waters / The iSpot

As educators, we often find ourselves in the all-too-familiar power struggle with a student. When this struggle occurs, we tend to resort to communication blockers when feeling overwhelmed or undervalued by students. However, we can instead leverage a restorative communication process to respond to children’s behavior.

Communication Blockers

Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist and the author of Nonviolent Communication, describes several communication blockers, which I approach in terms of how educators might use them (note that students use them as well, but I’m focusing on us as adults here):

  • Judgment occurs when we as educators automatically place judgment on the student without understanding their perspective.
  • Comparisons looks like an educator expecting a student to have the same perspectives or feelings as other students.
  • Demand can be seen when an educator demands that students treat them a certain way in a situation.
  • Denial of responsibility occurs when a teacher lacks the ability to take personal responsibility for how their own actions may have affected a situation. 

As humans, we tend to lean on communication blockers because they provide us with quick fixes or justifications. However, they erode relationships with students and do not provide learning opportunities for students to truly reflect on how their actions affect others. As a classroom educator, I often resorted to communication blockers when responding to behaviors, as my own teacher toolbox did not yet have the resources to approach situations from a restorative lens. 

Communication Enhancers 

To avoid these hamster wheel–like struggles, we can look to communication enhancers, also known as restorative language. Thanks to Rosenberg’s book, I learned how to utilize restorative language in my own classroom communication. I quickly saw the positive impact it had on my relationships with students and the community that was then able to flourish in our classroom. 

The Restorative Practices Guide and Toolkit, published by the Chicago Public Schools, provides resources for how to use restorative language. There is a useful conversation guide you can follow on pages 59 and 60. As a behavioral specialist, I used this guide to come up with a process to address everyday scenarios that I often saw arise in school settings with students. With this combination, I was able to train educators and staff on ways to acknowledge their own communication blockers and use restorative language when responding to behaviors. 

A 7-Step restorative language process

1. Notice the student’s body language, tone, and volume. A student’s body language alone may let you know if they are able to engage in a restorative conversation. Restorative language works wonders, but if a student is not in a place to be able to digest what is being said or share their own experience, it loses its effectiveness. 

If you are unsure whether a student is ready to engage in a restorative conversation, you could leverage communicating through visuals on a lanyard for students. As a classroom educator, I had two laminated cards on my lanyard—one with 10 different pictures of emotions and one with both red and green boxes. I would ask the student to point to their emotions and then to indicate whether they wanted to talk in two minutes by pointing to the red or green box. I found success with this communication tool, as many students simply needed to know they could take a few moments for themselves before having a conversation. 

2. Check your own body language, tone, and volume. Educators multitask, often out of necessity. Yet if you truly want to engage in a restorative conversation, being present makes all the difference. A student will feel valued and become more likely to engage if they have your undivided attention during the conversation. Additionally, getting on a student’s level and using a conversational tone can help students feel safe and valued. 

3. Let the student know your investment in the situation. Through appreciating the student’s decision to be part of the conversation, you acknowledge the safe space that values student choice. An educator could start the conversation by stating, “Thank you for choosing to meet with me. I know it may not have been an easy thing to do.”

4. Ask the student if they would like to share their own experience and feelings about the situation. This part of the conversation can serve as a point of entry for students to feel seen and heard. Be sure to not interrupt and to give them space to provide their narrative, even if it does not always align with your version of the event. You can present an opportunity for sharing by stating, “Can you tell me what happened?” and then follow up with “How did you feel when…?” or “What was that like for you?” to ensure that they are also expressing their feelings around the event.  

5. Mirror what the student said. This allows students to know you are actively listening. This can start with examples like “What I hear you saying is…” or “Am I correct that you were saying…?” Allow them to respond and provide feedback on your interpretation. You may find that there were errors in your interpretation, or the student may notice inconsistencies in their own recollection of the event. Regardless, it helps to solidify facts so that the conversation can move forward. 

6. Present an affirmative statement to the student about the situation. This allows them to know how you are feeling and why you are feeling that way. For example, a teacher may say, “When you pushed the student in line, I felt sad because I did not want to see anyone getting hurt.” By letting the student know you come from a place of caring, it shows the student that they are still part of the community.

7. Support the student to make actionable steps in repairing the situation.  As educators, we often want to deliver the consequence, yet it often creates a missed opportunity for learning. Teachers can guide the student’s action planning through questions like “What could we do next time?” or “How can we try to stop this from happening again?” However, it is the student’s responsibility to take ownership in this process.

This is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but it is a road map that can enhance a student’s empathetic understanding of the situation as well as their role in it. The hope is that with these steps of restorative language, you can spend less time on that hamster wheel of power struggles and more time creating meaningful relationships with your students.

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