Restorative Practices Can Teach Students How to Handle Difficult Conversations

I recently had a conversation with a few friends about the advice we had received growing up from adults (mostly parents and teachers) when another kid picked on us. The wisdom and guidance we had received varied widely and included among others, “hit him back,” “ignore him” “she is just jealous,” “laugh it off,” “tell the teacher,” and “he must have a crush on you.”

Adults often end up intervening in conflict between children, which is certainly sometimes necessary, but there is also great value in providing kids and teenagers with the necessary tools and confidence to have these difficult conversations themselves.

A 2016 article from Psychology Today highlights some of the benefits of implementing restorative practices in schools. The first benefit listed is that restorative practices give students the tools they need to resolve conflict themselves. This quote from a student at a school in Virginia (you can read the full report here) illustrates the empowering impact of this method.

“Me and my friend were playing around in class and we actually solved [a conflict using] the Circle. It was fun but it was serious too and we did it all by ourselves. Cause my friend that used to be in the facilitator circle training, me and her we was just playing at first but my other friend, the girl I’ll call my friend and the girl I’ll call my sister, they was arguing about something or whatever. So me and X said, ‘let’s have a circle.’ and then we was playing – we was playing though, and then it actually solved their problem. Now they talk. So we actually did a Circle, all by ourselves.” -12th grade female

In addition to teaching students how to facilitate a circle process, the foundational restorative questions alone also provide young people (and adults!) with a framework through which to view and ultimately discuss conflict. Rather than ignoring a behavior, telling someone to stop because they are breaking a rule, or punishing them (either yourself or through an authority), a restoratively framed conversation focuses on the impacts of that is happening and what is needed to make things right. The three central questions are:

  1. What happened?
  2. Who was affected and how?
  3. What is needed to repair the harm and make things right?

School is a place for academic learning, but it is also a place for learning how to be with other people and to resolve conflict in a healthy way when it arises. Taking the time to teach students the tools of restorative practices can have a huge impact on their life in school and beyond.

New Zealand has done an impressive job of implementing restorative practices in schools. Many of the Ministry of Education resources are available online and can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “Restorative Practices Can Teach Students How to Handle Difficult Conversations

  1. I wish I would have known about restorative justice….the circle and questions. I know I have said all of the examples you mentioned.

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  2. In my three year experience of teaching (what I called ‘Circle Speak’) to dysfunctional classes and their harassed teachers in a secondary school, my biggest obstacle was that it scared the living bejesus out of the teachers. ‘Rod,’ they would say, ‘you are giving too much power to the kids.’ This exact statement is also replicated in some English research, indicating a certain generic quality to teachers everywhere. It often took four hours for students to feel totally comfortable with the process so that they could use it seamlessly, but the teachers, my god, the teachers; they resisted with all the dynamic conservatism that they could muster. The two teachers who took it up most enthusiastically both lost their jobs.

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    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Rod! It can certainly be a scary thing to open up a space for equal voice and to use a process that you don’t have complete control over the outcome of in the classroom. When I’m getting ready to facilitate a circle, regardless of the context, I still often feel that same fear and have to move through it reminding myself to trust the process and all of the great outcomes I have seen it produce again and again. I’ve found that reminding new facilitators that they always have the power and the responsibility to uphold ground rules including respectful listening and speech can help with some of those nerves, but there is certainly an element of just trusting the process and going for it!
      Thank you for your years of great work teaching teachers how to use circles!!

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