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Restorative schools: Building healthy relationships and a better society

Today, many schools are using a more punitive measure to control misbehaviour or conflict among students or between students and teachers. In advance of RJ4All Publications forthcoming edited collection "Restorative Justice in Educational Settings & Policies: Bridging the East & West", I took time to reflect on the implementation of restorative justice in schools.

I argue that schools' punitive measures are the result of the introduction of “zero tolerance” policies since the early 1990s. As a result of this policy, expulsion and suspension increased, and that has led to the expansion of the “school to prison pipeline” seen across many schools around the world. Such exclusionary policies have devastating effects on the student because they disturb their training for society and we end up with emotionally and socially stunted students who find it hard to fit in society after their school years. I believe that socialbonds and a senseof belonging aredefining factors as to whether a person is a decent human being or not. This article argues that schools are a direct pipeline to society and that restorative schools ensurethat what comes out of that pipeline will help build a better society. If schools were to encourage their student to practice good values and ensure healthy relationships in the wider school community. We will get back into society decent human beings who might be influential leaders that promote, equality and social cohesion in all spheres of society. To get my argument across I will first discuss the role of schoolsin the lives of its students. Secondly, I will briefly discuss restorative justice and its movement to educational settings, and also, touch on the differences between schools that use restorative practices and restorative schools. Lastly, I will discuss the impact that restorative schools have on students.


Traditionally, schools have always seen themselves as strictly providing academic training and have nothing to do with emotional and social intelligence (Marshall, 2018). By neglecting the emotional and social growth of their students, schools became more and more obsessed with maintaining order and started to rely onpunitive measures for punishment. Since the 1990s the US has been dominated by the philosophy of zero tolerance when it comes to school discipline. The term was originally developedas an approach to drug enforcement (Skiba & Rausch, 2006), the term became widely accepted in the 1990s. The policy determined consequences to misbehavior which were punitive in nature, and the policy was applied regardless of the gravity or the nature of the misbehavior (APA, 2008). Untastefully, schoolshave to do whatever means necessary to maintain a safe and disciplined environment (Ibid).

Punishment is meant to teach a good lesson that actions have consequences, and those consequences are not desired. But does punishment reallywork? And at what cost? Punishment neglects the emotional and social intelligence that students need to come to terms with their own emotions and the emotions of those around them. As a result, they end up not being able to manage conflicts with others,andthey constantly fail to recognize how their actions affect others and vice versa. The problem with a punitive measure as a disciplineis that it is stigmatizing, leaving students feeling like outcasts (Marshall, 2018). Moreover, stigmatized students tendto get more in trouble with the law hence, the school to prison pipeline. Punishment does not address the root cause of misbehavior, itstirs up fear in students while it remains ineffective. The problem with punishment is that, when it doesnot work, schools tend to up the dosage instead of finding alternative solutions to behavior (Blood & Thorsbone, 2005). Unlike rehabilitative measures, punishment fails to address the needs of the victim of school misconduct (Suvall, 2009). One know measure becoming popular to schools is restorative justice.

Restorative justice offers students a possibility to a restorative approach to their misdemeanors. Moreover, restorative justice proposes inclusiveness to the school community, giving students a sense of belonging and a feeling of being part of a social structure. The scope of restorative justice expands way beyond responses to criminal offending to include a wide range of conflict resolution, decision-making, and community building activities (Marshall, 2018). There is an abundance of literatureon the effectiveness of restorative justice in educational settings, and its effectiveness is no longer in question. Meanwhile, restorative practices focused only on reactive responses to misbehavior has limited effectiveness on achieving change (Blood & Thorsbone, 2005). Therefore, applying restorative practices to the wider school culture is most effective because students get to internalize the norms and values and, as a consequence, rendering positive social change.

To dive deeper into the advantages of restorative justice at schools, this article will first discuss the role of the school in the lives of students. After that, restorative justice and its movement to education settings will be discussed. Here also the difference between restorative schools and schools that use restorative justice will be outlined. Lastly, the article will discuss the impact that restorative schools have on students.

The role of the school

A school is more than just a place parents send theirkids to obtain an education. School is a big communal environment where students and teachers daily interact with one another (Marshall, 2018). With such interaction,lifetimerelationships are built. Therefore, schools are social systems and they are created and controlled to enable students to become effective in any life situation in which they must participate in (Jensen, 1954). A school exist to prepare students for adult roles; it isa place where society transform its members into well-adjusted functioning citizens (Bozkus, 2014). The natural outcome of this social system is thatindividuals interact, share values, beliefs, andhabits, and gain an identity as a group (Ibid). Unfortunately, a lot of schools see their role as providing academic training and neglect the emotionalsocial intelligence of theirstudents (Marshall, 2018).

The school is characterized by structure and by norms/culture (Willower & Carr, 1995). Simplydefined, culture refers to “the way we do things around here” (Simpson, 2004). Culture is the core of the social system/organization, and it is present in the school community. Culture significantly affects behavior by establishing a commitmentto shared norms and values among individuals (Bezkus, 2014). Therefore, schools play animportant role in social change. Marshall (2018) in his online course mentions thatthere is a direct link from schools to households and families from which the students come, and this affects their attitude on how they view their parents. He goes on to say that there is also a direct link from school to the workplace or any community association that students go to after their education (ibid), with this, what student learn in school, and the culture and values of the school reflectin many areas of the civil society. In one way or another, everyone is affected bytheir school experiences, and those experiences follow us to society and into the workplace, and that indirectly determines social change.

Alternative measures

An approach rooted in the values of restorative justice is a better alternative to punitive discipline measures (Suvall, 2009). Schools have a significant effect on students, andtheir school experiences affect their attitude later in life. Thismakes schools the perfect place for restorative initiatives to take place. Restorative justice is an approach to problem-solvingbased on the idea that when crime/wrongdoing occurs, the focus is on repairing the harm done to people and mending the broken relationships. Restorative justice is of the idea that, when harm is doneto someone, it created obligations and liabilities. As a result, the way forward involves the offender, the victim and the community in efforts to heal the harm and put things right (Zehr &Mika, 2003). It is called restorative because it seeks restorative outcomes for all parties involved (Marshall, 2018). Restorative justice is rooted in values, and those values are always consideredwhen applying its principles. Among others, restorative justice values includerespect, solidarity, participation, active responsibility, honest dialogue, accountability, and empowerment.

Restorative justice in schools came as a way to introduce new measures of dealing with misbehavior at school. Thisgrew as more and more as people because concerned about the school to prison pipeline as a result of expulsion and suspensions from schools which excluded rule-breakers from the community and labeling them as outcasts. The emergence of restorative justice in educational settings has flourished since the first school-basedconference was heldin a Queensland (Australia) school in 199 (Blood & Thorsbone, 2005). As restorative justice moved more and more into other social expects of the community(work or school), it changed to be called restorative practices todistinguish it from that used in a criminalmatter by the justice system. Restorative practices are definedas practices of not only relationship, but building the relationship, feeding the relationship, strengthening the relationship and, also, mending the relationship when some things go awry (Marshall, 2018). Moreover, practitioners, usually use the term restorative practices when they use the principles and values of restorative justice (IPR, 2019). Restorative practices helpsminimizingrule breaking and misbehavior/conflict among students and teachers. With this, students get to thrive in an environment suitable for the development of healthy relationships (Blood & Thorsbone, 2005).

Employing restorative practices at school to deal with rule-breaking or misbehavior, or to mend broken relationships is different from a restorative school. Unlike using restorative practices to solve misbehavior or to react to a broken rule, restorative schools use restorative practices in the whole foundation of the school way before they are needed to deal with conflict, and not just as a reaction to undesired behavior. Not that using restorative practices in reaction to rule-breaking is wrong or insufficient, it’s just that restorative schools goanextra mile with restorative practices. The term restorative school thusmeans that the school uses a restorative form of discipline when dealing with misbehavior instead of suspending or expelling students. Furthermore, in some cases, restorative schools display a commitment to a restorative climate throughout the whole school community (Payne & Welch, 2013). They put efforts to promote a climate where students and teachers respect one another; itgives students a sense of belonging regardless of misbehavior. A restorative school uses circles to develop positive connections between students by involving the whole-m school in activities that aim to develop positive relationships and improves students’ social and emotional growth (Marshal, 2018).

Afterhealthy relationships are built, a restorative school aims to maintain those relationships by encouraging students to engage in a wide range of activities that promote respect and solidarity. Therefore, if a school employs restorative practices to resolve conflict and repair broken relationships, it is important that they think about the wayto maintain such a relationship. Restorative practice “involves reallytransforming the culture of a place, building relationshipsand having those relationships that lead to the ability to trust each other and hold each other accountable” (Ward, 2014. p2). Restorative practices at school focusmainly on building healthy relationships and repairing any harm causedby the acts of misbehavior (Payne & Welch, 2013). Student misbehavior is then viewedas a violation of a relationship and not a mare breaking of a rule. Therefore, in order tomend the broken relationship, the offender and the student whose trust has been violatedneed to reconcile through honestdialogue. Restorative values are the core and priority of a restorative school. In a restorative school, students in a class get together to decide on the class rules, andthen they collectively take ownership of those rules or established norms.

A restorative school starts with the principles of restorative justice from the beginning of the year as students come to school. From the first day,they have a circle meeting. Students get to have a say in how the school community runs. The school takes on board what students want for their community. Parents are active participants in school activities, and the school constantly have activities that teach restorative values.

Restorative schools’ students

In a restorative school, teachers have a good relationship with the parents of its student as well as school management. A restorative school empowers its students to develop healthy and meaningful relationships with one another. The relationships they develop don’t end at school, they take them to society andthey fosterrespect of each other even when they meet in the street after school hours. Thisdoes not mean that these healthy relationships they develop won’t come under stress, but because they are builton a foundation of strong norms and values,when conflict rises among students, the problem is not dealt with in a top-down manner like it’s donein traditional schools. In a restorative school, students are giventhe opportunity to resolve the conflict on their own, and of course, with the help of a facilitator who monitors the process. Therefore, a restorative school equips its student with social problem-solvingskill, and that helps them grow emotionally through the realization of the harm that their action and the action of others may cause. Repairing the harm causedby conflict/misbehavior further helps students to examine and reflect on the experience and attitudes that have led to the behavior.

Restorative schools help children improve in their education because it looks at the deeper cause of misbehavior, instead of stigmatizing and expelling them from school, it integrates the student into the school community and gives him a sense of belonging and a sense of accountability to the school community. As a consequence, students get to think more and more about the school as a collective system in the sensethat the misbehavior of one person can have effects to others. The restorativeschool implements restorative values to the whole functioning of the school, andthat helps students internalize those positive values which they then take with them to society and totheir workplace. Students become more empathetic with others and far non-judgmental of other people.In a restorative school, students learn that it is normal to desire personal achievement and success, but learn that in so doing, they ought to be careful not harm anyone on their way to success. A restorative school addresses the needs of the victims of misbehavior. It gives a student the opportunity to express their experience of the victimization. It offers support to the offender in positive behavior change (Suvall, 2009).


Punitive school disciplinary measures exclude students from the school community, and exclusion has a devastating effect on students. Punishment fails to address the needs of the victims of school misconduct and neglects the systemic problems that lead to the misbehavior. With the dissatisfaction with the traditional school system when dealing with misbehavior, people learnmore and more toward restorative measures. With restorative practices, we don’t have to worry about endless disputes between student and with teachers, and we won’t have to worry so much about the school to prison pipeline. Students and teacherswould become more reconciliatory in the way we treat one another likedecent human beings. A restorative school assessesthe full extent of the harm that violence can cause within a school, with a deep assessment, students become more sensitive to the harmthey cause. This, compels students to act in ways that doesnot cause harm to others or disrupts the functioning of the school community. With a restorative school, society gets back well-adjusted and functioning people after the school years. This behavior they take to work, andthey become advocates of positive social change and promote societal unity. If we want to change the world, it is important that we work on our future leaders and instill good values that we hope they have as leaders. Changing a traditional school to a restorative one is not without challenges; theteachers and the management will have to be on board with the ides, sometimes parents need to be on board as well. A restorative school provides a promising way to help school communitiesgrow in emotional and social intelligence which will empower students to be able to stand up against anything that does not promote positive social change.


Thandiwe Mncina is an intern at RJ4All


APA (American Psychological Association [Zero tolerance task force]: are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools?: An evidentiary review and recommendation. Retrieved from: http://www/

Bozkuz, K. (2014). School as a social system. Sakarya university journal of education, 49-61.

Blood, P., & Thorsbone, M. (2005). Embedding restorative practices in schools. International conference on conferencing, circles and other restorative practices. Building global alliance for restorative practices and family empowerment. Sydney Australia, 3-5 March.

IPR (Restorative Justice Practices International). Retrieved from accessed 07-03-2019

Jansen, G. (1954). The school as a social system. Published by Tailor Francis, 38-46.

Marshall, C, (2018) Is restorative justice applicable in schools? Retrieved from

Simpson, S. (2004) Unwritten ground rules: the way we really do things around here in Barker, C & Coy, R (eds) the power of culture: driving todays organization. McGraw Hill, Australia.

Suvall, C. (2009). Restorative justice in schools: learning from Jena High school. Havard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Review. 44(1) 547-569

Ward, S.F. (2014): Schools start to rethink zero tolerance policies. Retrieved from http://www.abajournal/magazine/article/schools_start_to_rethink_zero_toleracne _policies?utm_source=maestro&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=default-email

Willower, D. &. (1995). the school as a social organization.

Zehr, H. &. (2003). A restorative framework for community justice practice. In K. &. McEvoy, Criminology conflict resolution and restorative justice(pp. 135-152). Basingtoke Hampshire and New York: Palgrave MacMillan.


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