Restorative Practices for Children in Grades K-5

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More and more educational institutions are adopting behavior models that encourage students to take responsibility for their actions.

During their primary school years, all students, even the best behaved, can find themselves in trouble after committing misbehaving acts.

The way these incidents are handled vary from school to school and also within schools, depending on the severity of the behavior and the teacher who witnesses the behavior.

While many schools still use traditional punishments, such as withholding recess or sending them to the principal’s office, but there is a growing number of institutions that are adopting restorative practices to improve the behavior choices of their students.

In a system led by rules, it is up to the teacher to tell the child what they’ve done wrong and how they’re going to correct it, for instance, by sending them out of the classroom if they’re disrupting the lesson.

The problem with this system is that children don’t learn about responsibility they had in that situation and how it affected other people, because an adult has intervened and told them what they’d done wrong.’

Restorative practice, on the other hand, involves helping the child think through their behavior, its consequences, and what they can do to make it better.

It’s all about developing, maintaining, and repairing relationships, building a community based around empathy and self-learning, where children take responsibility for their behavior.

But the problem starts even way before students enter the classroom. Consider these two scenarios an educational system with no tolerance, the students get in the building passing through a metal detector, and a grumpy guard checks them.

He walks down to his class, and his teacher scolds him for being 2 minutes late in-front of the whole class and threatens him that he will not be allowed back in class, if he’s ever late again without even asking the student what the problem was in the first place.

If the student talks back, he either has to leave the classroom or have to see the principal for his behavior, and no one knows the back story of what triggered the series of events and how he ended up in detention.

This method of controlling behavior leads to withering more disruptions or back talking without helping either the kid or the environment. Consider another scenario where the same kid is welcomed by the administration and teacher. They ask him how he is doing or if he seems upset, they inquire what the reason for him being upset is. His teacher waits for the class to be over and asks about his problems in confidence and advises a visit to the school counselor.

His peers support him in his crisis to help him feel better, and with this non-bully environment, he gets enough space to think about the reason why he was feeling upset.

This is called the restorative approach, where teachers try to fix the issue at its root cause.

What are restorative practices, though?

Restorative practices are a mindset, a set of beliefs about why people choose positive behavior, and the power of relationships. Restorative practices are also a set of strategies for schools and teachers can use.

They are rooted in building and repairing relationships. And restorative practices aid in student empowerment. This student empowerment also serves to develop intrinsic motivation, something I know we’re all wanting to instill in our students.

International Institute for Restorative Practices developed a social discipline window. It shows different types of discipline based on the amount of CONTROL and the amount of SUPPORT involved in the process.

When there’s very little control or support, it is neglectful; essentially, it’s not there at all. When our control is high, but our support is low, discipline is something we are doing to the students, and it’s correctional.

And, when our support is high, but our control is low, it’s a permissive style. Our goal should be high control and high support. An environment and style of discipline that holds students accountable to high expectations while providing them the support they need to achieve it. These are restorative practices.

Restorative practices are NOT a quick fix scheme; they can be used if something else is not working and can easily be flipped with the primal technique since results do not turn about overnight.

They work hand in hand with trauma-informed practices, with social-emotional learning, and even with PBIS. Restorative practices are also not about letting students get away with things.

Student accountability and responsibility, and consequences are still present, but shame and punitive punishment are not.

In traditional discipline, the focus was on asking what rule was broken? Who did it? And how should they be punished?.

Restorative practices ask about who was harmed, how they were harmed, and what needs to happen to fix it. Traditional discipline says:

“I found this pair of headphones that were broken! Someone snapped them. Who did it? They are going to have some consequences for this!”

Restorative practices say: “This pair of headphones were broken. Now not as many people can use our listening center. I need to talk to the person who did it so we can try to remedy this situation.”

There are lots of ways to build relationships between teachers and students, and this probably comes naturally to you as a teacher.

Building relationships between students is just as important as it is for the students to trust their mentors!

Intentionally finding and naming commonalities. Try to engage students in low-pressure activities where they can find information about their interests and disinterests.

Ask students to find classmates they have things in common with. You can point out positive or neutral things you see as similar between students.

By having shared fun experiences promotes relationship development. When you do a messy science project together, when you do a silly brain break, when you do a lesson outside, doing things together as a class that makes students smile and laugh, you’re helping them to connect.

Facilitating discussions and activities with your class where they create goals, class expectations, or future visions together, you’re building class relationships. When people are working together towards a common goal, there’s something called “positive interdependence” that occurs.

Even upper elementary students are not too old for show and tell. It’s a way to share something of themselves that they may not ordinarily get a chance to.

Changing up the seating plan also serves to build relationships between students because they have the chance to connect with more of one another.

When a student has engaged in inappropriate behavior or not followed the agreed-upon expectations, the focus turns to identifying and repairing the harm. Asking WHO or WHAT was harmed or wronged, and then taking action. Harm can be repaired through apologies, cleaning up, providing help, giving positive/kind words, or redoing the action/behavior correctly.

Restorative practices absolutely serve to help students develop important social-emotional skills.

Especially in an elementary school, students need some social-emotional skills in order to really engage with restorative practices.

Most books and articles, and videos on restorative practices are focused on the secondary level and just assume that students already have some basic social skills mastered. The truth is, elementary Students, are often lacking in the social-emotional skill area.

Using these practices will help develop them, but it may also be the case that your class needs some lessons or practice with these skills explicitly in order to really engage with and understand them.

These are some of the skills that are part of restorative practices. On the one hand, this sounds like extra work for you as teachers already have enough on their plate. On the other hand, these skills will make your students better learners and better citizens, so they’re be extremely helpful outside of class too.

One of the social-emotional skills really embedded in restorative practices are I-statements, which are also called affective statements in terms of the Restorative practice.

This is how adults and students alike can share their feelings and needs, while those around them are developing empathy. I-statements are incredibly helpful in both developing AND repairing relationships.

Circles are another incredibly powerful tool; when people sit or stand in a circle, there is an increased sense of equality, shared responsibility, ownership, safety and trust, and connections.

And the best part is that circles can be used in so many situations. Proactively, responsively, for academics, for social-emotional skills.

Any time you have the kids sitting on the rug facing you, sit in a circle. It may look like a small change, but it makes a huge impact.

There are three main models of having a discussion in a circle.

Sequential model

In this model, you go around the circle, and each person has the chance to participate by answering a question or adding a comment.

This model is great for getting an equal amount of participation and is best used when the prompt is something that allows for short answers.

Second is non-sequential model

In the non-sequential model, people participate just by raising their hand and getting the chance to express their opinion.

This works great when not everyone needs to share an idea or when responses might be longer.

And finally, the fishbowl model

Fishbowl is another circle discussion model where a few students sit in the center of a circle and have a discussion while those on the outside listen and observe.

Another thing to practice is Curiosity Questions

These are genuine questions you would ask someone to learn more about their situation. Imagine a student just does not seem to be having a good day.

You can pull them aside and ask some curiosity questions to find out more. Simple questions like, “How are you doing today?” Or, “You seem kind of off today, is everything OK?” These questions help dive into an issue, but curiosity questions can also help resolve a conflict, “How did it make you feel when Tommy hit you?” or “What do you need Tommy to say to you to feel better?” These are just some very surface-level examples, but many more can be found online and in print resources.

Teachers who use restorative discipline practices find that behavior in their classroom improves dramatically.

They have better relationships with their students and, therefore, less stress from unresolved conflicts. Restorative discipline improved my relationships with students. Instead of making the relationships more difficult, it brought us together and improved our interactions.”

Teachers spend less time on discipline and have more time for teaching and interaction when you use restorative practices.

Students aren’t afraid to admit when they’ve done something wrong as they are in a punitive environment, so you save a lot of time investigating who did what.

When you have a punitive system, the automatic response is to deny responsibility because you know you’ll get punished. With a restorative justice system, the incentive is to admit what you did because you know there’s going to be a restorative process to make things right.

Statistics show that using restorative practices keeps kids in school. Punitive systems often remove students from the classroom, even for minor offenses. With restorative justice, everyone works together to keep kids in the classroom where they can learn. Children who are expelled from school often end up in what education reform activists call the school-to-prison pipeline.

Restorative justice wants to stop this cycle and keep kids on track with their education.

Even if there isn’t a major underlying problem, getting kids to talk about what they did and why they did it is a more constructive way to handle disciplinary problems.

The restorative process teaches students how to resolve conflict in a positive way.

It helps them develop rational skills—to understand a situation, follow a process, and resolve it. These are life skills they can take with them into the real-world.

So to quickly recap: The traditional approach to discipline is more “punitive,” whereas Restorative practices assign responsibility, accountability, and consequences.

Well, I hope you found a “golden-nugget or two” that you can use in your classrooms.

Steve Hiles

I am a retired military and elementary school teacher living in Tennessee. I am an avid reader and love to write. I am very passionate about helping teachers. I hope you find my educational tips and strategies useful,and enjoy hearing about my personal journey.



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Steve Hiles

I am a retired military and elementary school teacher living in Tennessee. I am an avid reader and love to write. I am very passionate about helping teachers. I hope you find my educational tips and strategies useful and enjoy hearing about my personal journey. Thanks for visiting!

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