Using Talking Circles for Restorative Justice
This framework provides elementary teachers with a way to discuss student behavior with care and concern.
In the wake of the pandemic, many teachers are seeing a gap in critical social and behavioral skills due to disruptions in traditional schooling. In my classroom, I wondered how I could address this issue while instilling the important values of respect and kindness in students.
Unable to find resources that fit these specifications, I began to think about various talking circle frameworks I’d taken part in throughout my life. I became inspired to develop my pedagogy and began to use what I call the Respect Circle.
Respect Circles are designed to build community and scaffold conversations about student behavior. While the impetus for the approach was to promote kindness and conflict resolution in our classroom, I have come to consistently turn to this procedure as a way to practice restorative justice. Here’s how.
Establishing Consistency and Care
Respect Circles rely on both teachers and students cultivating a safe and trusting culture before students can be asked to speak truthfully and effectively about themselves. Before using Respect Circles for restorative justice or behavior intervention, you can use the framework to build community, familiarize students with the format, and foster connection.
To begin setting up a Respect Circle, share all expectations clearly with students. This framework makes use of a talking stick, and students should know that they may talk when it is their turn to hold it. When sharing, the goal is for everyone to be open and honest. And when discussing classroom challenges, students should talk only about themselves, their actions, and how they can personally improve, rather than call out their classmates. This is an important expectation to have in order to uphold the culture of respect and trust that makes Respect Circles work. If students feel as though fingers are pointing at them, they may be defensive rather than responsive.
In my classroom, I ask students to repeat our list of expectations out loud to emphasize the importance for both educators and students to consistently uphold these agreements in order to make everyone feel safe and respected, and that their time and words are valued.
Once we establish expectations, I pose questions for students to respond to. Students usually pass the talking stick around the circle until everyone has had an opportunity to answer each question, but you can adjust this process to best meet the needs of your group. In order to familiarize everyone with the circle process, I might invite the class to go around in order and compliment the person next to them or share what they love about the classroom.
When I feel that the classroom culture is strong enough, I can then move to more self-reflective inquiries. I may ask students how they’re feeling, how they think a classroom should make them feel, or how they personally can be positive members of the class community. This is where questions can become more precise, and the opportunity for restorative justice comes in.
Respect Circles for Restorative Justice
If students have had a chatty or disruptive day—a situation that has happened in my classroom—I might form a Respect Circle and inquire, “Why is it important to listen when at school?” and “What can you do tomorrow to try to be a better listener?”
I encourage students to show that they understand why their behavior was inappropriate for the classroom, and together we brainstorm ways to change for the better. Doing so has motivated students to share with others why they were having a difficult time listening, and their honesty and earnestness in wanting to improve has created an even stronger classroom culture. Talking openly and reflecting deeply requires both vulnerability and empathy, and those things allow us all to be thoughtful rather than reactive.
When using Respect Circles to talk about classroom conduct, it can be useful to mention that everyone has both good days and bad days and that we can support one another as we grow. Students who are meeting expectations are able to serve as role models to peers and share strategies that can help others. This system holds everyone accountable, as students are not only self-reflecting but sharing their thoughts within the classroom community.
While Respect Circles may involve challenging questions and serious self-reflection, my students have really enjoyed taking part in this process. When asked why they like Respect Circles, I’ve had students tell me, “We let out our bad feelings” and “I feel respected.” Students have also said that Respect Circles are “good for saying your emotions” and that “they make people happy in different ways.”
My students have shared that Respect Circles are the one time they feel truly heard by their classmates, and I’ve been impressed to witness how my third graders have built their self-awareness skills to the point that they now request a Respect Circle when needed.
Respect Circles are a practice that any educator can implement in their context to help cultivate a positive environment among students, as well as to address challenging behaviors. There are many possibilities for adjusting this framework to fit the needs of students, which is why it works well across grades and subjects, leaving room for teachers to infuse the practice with their own creativity and knowledge of their classroom community.