Restorative Justice – Humanising Education

Restorative Justice – What is it and how can it make our education systems more human?

School discipline has for the most part based the criminal justice system. A compelling idea for many elements of society (and a great vote catcher)  we punish wrongdoers with the aim of enforcing behaviours that are safe and non-disruptive. One of the biggest flaws with this system is that it assumes that the perpetrators when punished have the will and capacity to change their behaviour.  This works very well for the majority of people, but not for those ‘now orientated’  ones incapable of delaying gratification. (ie the ones most likely to get into trouble)  The products of upbringings where actions were rarely questioned, with very poor role models. When punishment does not work, misbehaving students may be excluded through suspension or expulsion, with possibly serious long-term harmful consequences to them and society. There is little or no opportunity for any social and emotional learning. We cast these students adrift, they don’t feel part of our wider community and so feel no responsibility to it.  Instead they may find acceptance in a different and antisocial community.


I worked with young offenders before I became a teacher and what was very clear was how ineffective at changing behaviour punishment was for most of my charges.  Punishment was a way of life for these children.  Its easy to forget when you see them strutting around with their gang mates that they are children.  On their own, out of their gang, you would realise how emotionally vulnerable they were, kids who had needed to be hugged and to be told they were loved by parents.   Often they were simply amoral with no understanding of the impact of their actions.  The biggest sanction society could impose was removing their liberty, but for many their life conditions were massively improved when they were incarcerated, safer, better fed.  Some of my charges went into Borstal (it was a while ago) as daft petty offenders and came out as hardened well connected criminals.  The rise of the structure of ISIS may well have been massively facilitated by imprisoning large numbers of people with a similar mindset to create their own communities. There is an interesting article here

Restorative practices in schools are based on restorative justice principles instead of punishment. They aim first to build classroom communities that are supported by clear agreements, authentic communication, and specific tools to bring issues and conflicts forward in a helpful way. They provide specific pathways to repair harms by bringing together those who are affected by misbehaviour in a dialogue to address concerns, achieve understanding, and come to agreement about setting things right.In addition to serving the cause of fairness and justice, restorative approaches make safer schools and contribute to social and emotional learning

Restorative justice is not a ‘cup of tea and a hug’ approach to changing behaviour.  The first time I saw it used was with a couple of our students who had set fire to the local heath. The people who had been affected came and sat in a circle, a fireman, heath warden, dog walker, local resident whose house was next to the heath and a policeman.  The students were as uncomfortable as it was possible for them to be. They would have taken any punishment rather than sit through something that forced them to consider the consequences of their actions on others. Each in turn spoke about the effect the fire had had on them without blame or anger.  These were apparently ‘hard’ kids, they reflected anger with anger, its the only defence mechanism they had. But make them try and explain why they did it in front of others without emotion and it was clear how poorly equipped these children were to make good decisions.  We didn’t talk about punishment, we talked about how to put things right and they negotiated that they would work with the warden pulling up bracken – the bracken grows faster than the heather and can choke it if left unattended. The result of this was something that genuinely changed the behaviour of the students and built relationships with the community. A win-win compared to the possibility of alienation and further divisions.

On a smaller scale two of my students broke a school picnic table, so the restorative justice was to work with the site manager fixing it.  Not only did they build a good relationship with him, I also caught them berating another student they found jumping on ‘their’ picnic table. They had come from outside the system to feeling part of it.

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What shifts are needed – These are all about empowering the students and making them feel part of a community that they share responsible for.

The first shift acknowledges that troublesome behaviour is normal, and when students behave in troublesome ways they create opportunities to learn important social and emotional skills. What is important is not so much that they got into trouble in the first place, but what they learn along the way. Making things right is a powerful learning experience.

The second shift is a departure from the retributive model in which an authority, after taking testimony from the aggrieved party, decides guilt and assigns punishment. In restorative practices the authority figure acts more as a convener and facilitator. The initial investigation is concerned with identifying who was significantly affected by the incident. The facilitator invites them into a circle dialogue and, if they accept the invitation, helps prepare them. During the circle dialogue the problem and its impacts are explored and the group comes up with ideas on how to make things right. Usually this means the students who were the source of the trouble take specific actions that address the consequences of their choices. Consider the difference in outcomes between the authoritarian/punitive approach and the restorative approach: the first breeds resentment, alienation and shame and/or possibly an equally troublesome habit of fearing and submitting to authority; the second builds empathy, responsibility and helps restore relationships.

The third shift moves the locus of responsibility for well-being of the community from the shoulders of the experts to the community itself.  While counselling and similar strategies have their place and are often helpful by themselves, they are immeasurably strengthened when complemented by restorative practices that challenge those who are in the circle dialogue to share information with each other and to come to agreements as a group.

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Is Restorative justice the answer to all our problems?

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Clearly not, it is simply another tool that is very effective in most cases but there will always be those that it has little impact on.

It is a step forward in humanising our education system though link

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