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Beyond Discipline: A Holistic Approach of Restorative Practices, Justice, and Systems in Schools


I’ve noticed a trend lately when talking to educators and leaders who share that they are working on integrating restorative practices at their schools. When I ask them to give more details on what it looks like and how it is going at their school, the responses usually divide into two groups. They either focus exclusively on how they use it as an alternative system to school-wide discipline, or teachers share they are supposed to use circles in class but don’t feel they have time for it. One thing seems to be common in both scenarios: they like the idea of restorative practices but need some help implementing it effectively.

I’m not surprised to see many educators and leaders struggling to implement restorative practices in schools. To me, the root of the problem arises when people fail to recognize the vast and valuable nature of restorative practices and instead equate it with restorative justice alone. You see, when schools state they are using it as an alternative discipline system, they are solely focusing on the justice aspect of restorative conversations. This can lead to student resistance because students may associate these conversations only with negative experiences and some form of punishment. Although the intention is to conduct these difficult conversations with more dignity, there is no positive association for the students and teachers alike. However, we should not reduce restorative practices and justice to disciplinary actions and conversations. Instead, it needs to be the gateway to a school culture where every student’s voice is heard and valued.

However, we should not reduce restorative practices and justice to disciplinary actions and conversations. Instead, it needs to be the gateway to a school culture where every student’s voice is heard and valued.

Go Beyond Buzzwords

The rapid adoption of educational trends like restorative practices and restorative justice often outpaces the necessary training for effective implementation, leading to many teachers rolling their eyes even at the mention of it. I am not going to lie; when I was trained in restorative practices over ten years ago, I was one of them. For these initiatives to succeed, school leaders must prioritize comprehensive professional development. Unfortunately, when such training becomes a one-off event rather than a sustained effort, educators usually question its effectiveness in fostering community and resolving conflicts because they need more practice and understanding. This was the exact case for me. I liked the concept, but it didn’t feel practical in my high school social studies class based on my one professional development experience. It wasn’t until I researched and sought additional training that I saw the how and why for restorative practices in my classroom. After witnessing its positive impact on my students, I cannot recommend it enough for use in schools.

So, what can be done to help something I deeply believe in? Well, besides arguing for more professional learning around it, I propose that we acknowledge and embrace the differences between restorative practices, restorative justice, and restorative systems. By doing so, we can better understand their unique characteristics and work towards implementing them more comprehensively in educational settings. These frameworks, which have roots in both ancient traditions and contemporary practices, are essential for repairing relationships, healing wounds, and strengthening community bonds.

These frameworks, which have roots in both ancient traditions and contemporary practices, are essential for repairing relationships, healing wounds, and strengthening community bonds.

To fully realize their potential in education, it is crucial to take a holistic approach to implementing them and to understand their unique histories, shared principles, and distinct roles. By doing so, we can create more supportive, inclusive, and equitable environments for our students rather than focusing on discipline.

Historical Foundations and Shared Principles

Restorative approaches have a long history, dating back to the indigenous communities of America, Africa, China, and New Zealand, among others. These communities have been practicing circle processes and other communal methods to address conflict and harm as well as to build community. The focus of these methods is on healing and reparation instead of punishment. However, when explaining each restorative approach below, we will use a more modern context to show how they gained momentum up to the present day.

The modern era of Restorative Justice, greatly influenced by Dr. Howard Zehr, emerged in the 1970s, starting in Ontario, Canada, with the "Elmira Case." In the Elmira Case, two minors were encouraged to meet their victims directly, resulting in a positive outcome that sparked interest in alternative dispute resolution methods and has grown in popularity ever since. It aims to correct the weaknesses of our current legal system by focusing on the needs of the victims rather than just holding offenders accountable. It emphasizes repairing the harm caused by crime and involving individuals and community members.

A Restorative System is a community-created set of agreements that provides the structured application of restorative practice and justice principles within organizations and communities, including schools, aiming for a comprehensive approach to conflict and overall well-being. The Maori traditions strongly influenced these principles, leading to significant reforms to the juvenile justice system in New Zealand during the 1980s. Having a concrete restorative system in place can make implementing restorative practices and justice in the classroom easier because it provides teachers with guidance on when and how to use them in their everyday teaching environment.

Restorative Practices is an emerging social science that aims to strengthen individual relationships and form stronger communal bonds to prevent conflict from happening. While the roots can be traced back to indigenous communities worldwide, the formal adoption and use of restorative practices in non-criminal contexts, particularly in schools, gained significant traction in the 1990s. This was after positive results were observed in restorative justice programs implemented in juvenile detention centers. While restorative practices do include aspects of restorative justice and systems in their scope, the primary focus here is on fostering positive relationships and connections within a community.

All three restorative approaches share the principles of healing, inclusion, and accountability. These principles guide their application in educational settings, prioritizing empathy, understanding, and collective well-being over punitive measures. Despite this, the reality in most schools is a narrow focus on discipline or justice within the restorative process, causing the intended benefits to be lost.

Compounding this issue, the pandemic has impacted our natural human instinct to form connections, which I would argue is one of the leading causes of the rise in school absences nationwide. I believe this suggests that many students feel detached from each other and the broader school community, highlighting the necessity for a holistic restorative approach in schools to cultivate a supportive and inclusive environment for all students.

Three Pillars of Restorative Education: Their Distinct Roles

With each restorative approach uniquely contributing to nurturing educational environments, we need to start understanding their role within our schools to lead to better implementation success. To illustrate the unique contributions of restorative practices, restorative justice, and restorative systems, let’s consider a visual representation that encapsulates their core principles and applications within schools.

The image displays an infographic titled "Three Pillars of Restorative Education," with a logo of what appears to be a columned building at the top. It lists three key components as follows:  Restorative Practices  The main point: Foster positive relationships, prevent conflicts, and enhance the community. Examples provided include circle time, affective language, peer discussions, community service projects, creation of classroom norms, and student-led conferences. Restorative Justice  The main point: Prioritizes accountability, repair, and involving affected parties in healing and rebuilding trust after conflicts or misconduct. Noted as effective for addressing issues like bullying, vandalism, and conflict. Restorative Systems  The main point: Integrate restorative principles into the school's culture, policies, and practices. Described as involving staff training, policy adjustments, and a commitment to a school-wide culture of dignity, respect, and mutual support to make restorative practices and justice the standard. At the bottom, there's a footer with a URL for '', indicating the source of the infographic.

Click here to get a PDF download of the above image

The above infographic encapsulates the essence of each pillar:

  • Restorative Practices in schools encompass techniques for positive relationship building, conflict prevention, and community enhancement. Circle time, affective language, community service projects, and restorative conversations are examples of how these practices facilitate communication and empathy among students and teachers, contributing to a more conducive learning atmosphere. The focus here lies on the environment we build in our classrooms and schools. It’s about intentionally creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for all our students. We must strive to create positive associations that help our students feel comfortable and at ease in the classroom. This involves more than just implementing specific strategies. It also requires developing a way of being that cultivates a positive culture so that every student feels cared for and supported even when harm inevitably occurs.

  • Restorative Justice addresses and repairs harm from conflicts or misconduct within schools. It shifts the focus from punishment to meaningful accountability and repair, involving affected parties in a process that heals and rebuilds trust. This approach proves especially effective in managing bullying, vandalism, and similar issues, emphasizing the importance of understanding, restitution, and healing. While the restorative justice process may seem more time-consuming initially, it ultimately creates a stronger and more positive school culture in the long term. This is because restorative justice recognizes that conflict is unavoidable and that most people lack the skills to handle it effectively. By providing students with a clear and structured approach to recognizing and recovering from harm, they develop the essential skills to manage conflicts sooner and more positively rather than holding onto resentment, which can have harmful consequences for the school environment.

  • Restorative Systems ensure that restorative principles are embedded into the school’s culture, policies, and practices. This systemic shift towards restorative responses entails staff training, policy adjustments, and a commitment to a school-wide culture of dignity, respect, and mutual support. It’s about creating an infrastructure where restorative practices and justice are the norm, not the exception. By having a systems approach, it helps staff and students understand context and accountability on a larger scale. When people have this context, they become aware of the need to be inclusive of all within that system. Though it may seem daunting, a systems-based approach ends up being quicker and more effective because we become stronger when we organize and work together rather than being isolated to only certain pockets in schools.

Each restorative pillar can help create a nurturing, inclusive, and empathetic school culture. By embracing these principles, schools enhance the learning environment and equip students with the necessary life skills to build just and compassionate communities in the “real world.”


We need to update the way we communicate in our schools to align with the restorative values we uphold. Take a closer look at a school’s mission, vision statement, or graduate profile. You will notice that most of them prioritize similar traits such as empathy, resilience, and the ability to work collaboratively to solve problems. However, many of our school systems fail to provide students with an opportunity to acquire those traits. Elie Wiesel said, “People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell”—let our schools tell the stories of empathy, growth, and community above all else.

Let our schools tell the stories of empathy, growth, and community above all else.

By adopting a holistic approach that encompasses restorative practices and focuses on justice, we can transform our education system and create a more compassionate society. Let’s fully commit to this transformative approach, moving away from temporary initiatives and towards lasting change that fosters a nurturing and equitable school community for every student.



  1. Boyes-Watson, Carolyn, and Kay Pranis. Circle Forward: Building a Restorative School Community. Living Justice Press, 2015.

  2. Costello, Bob, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. Restorative Practices Handbook for Teachers, Disciplinarians and Administrators. Piper’s Press, 2009.

  3. Evans, Katherine, and Dorothy Vaandering. The Little Book of Restorative Justice in Education: Fostering Responsibility, Healing, and Hope in Schools. Good Books, 2016.

  4. Mervosh, Sarah, and Francesca Paris. "Why School Absences Have ‘Exploded’ Almost Everywhere." The New York Times, 29 Mar. 2024,

  5. Peletz, Alicia. "Restorative Systems & How It Can Help Bring Change." Applied Coaching, 19 Mar. 2021,

  6. Smith, Dominique, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey. Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management. ASCD, 2015.

  7. Thorsborne, Margaret, and Peta Blood. Implementing Restorative Practice in Schools: A Practical Guide to Transforming School Communities. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013.

  8. Zehr, Howard. "Restorative Justice? What’s That?" Zehr Institute, n.d.,


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