Why Restorative Practice Makes Sense

Bridget Gwinnett (January 2020)

My journey to school counseling was a wonky one; it was never my goal. I was quite comfortable in my private practice working with families and children. There is a satisfaction in witnessing a family work through a crisis, coming out stronger in the end. I enjoyed my work as a parenting coach of sorts, teaching families how to engage with their children in ways that would prevent crises. When I decided I would go “back to school,” I didn’t realize how much I would learn. 

Several years ago, I participated in a training on restorative practice. The International Institute of Restorative Practice’s definition of restorative practices includes the “use of informal and formal processes that precede wrongdoing, those that proactively build relationships and a sense of community to prevent conflict and wrongdoing.” Our school had begun to develop a Philosophy of Discipline, and we were looking for structure to add some weight to our policies. Self-Determination Theory (SDT), the grounding of Heart of Character, is the foundation of our work with the children and families who make up our school community. Belonging, autonomy, and competence absolutely have their place in our discipline philosophy. 

Restorative practice just makes sense. The training was full of “aha” moments for me, and I quickly saw how closely restorative practice aligns with both SDT and my own practice as a counselor. In my work, I often focus on prevention. Children thrive in environments where they feel authentic connections to the adults around them; when these connections are healthy, we can always manage any mistakes that happen along the way. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…or punishment.

A true feeling of belonging in a community is critical to restorative practice. Most of restorative practice is proactive in building authentic relationships among children and adults because we are all more likely to respond positively to authority when there is a relationship of trust and a sense of belonging. These happen when adults are able to communicate the impact of a behavior rather than assigning blame, set boundaries, and teach empathy.  Restorative practice is intentional, explicit, and often intuitive. 

Likewise, the principles of fair process are critical to restorative practice. To build trust and commitment with children, we must give them autonomy by involving them in the decisions that affect them. We need to listen to their opinions, and explain our rationale behind any decision to those affected. This creates a feeling of competence and voluntary cooperation. 

What about when things go wrong, when a rule has been broken, and discipline requires a punishment? That is going to happen – they are children. Restorative practice provides a safe opportunity for this meaningful work. Through restorative practice, we show children how to repair any relationships that may have been damaged. Because we have proactively developed relationships, children know they belong. I have seen it and I know it works. Restorative practice is critical to belonging in a community. It just makes sense.

When your focus is providing your students with the essentials of autonomy, belonging, and competence, you are restorative.