Three Practical Ways of Leading Restoratively in Schools

Restorative leadership refers to all the things we do to lead, guide and partner with our community (staff, students, parents, and community partners) to create the culture needed for every student to succeed socially and academically. Restorative leaders master the art of holding ourselves and others to a high level of accountability while providing a high level of support. Therefore, leading restoratively does not require more time. Instead, it requires a shift in how we spend our time and interact with our community. Some simple ways of leading restoratively can be summed up in three words: welcoming, present, and visible. In so doing, community members will be more transparent, open, and honest enabling us to build trust, learn creative ideas, and get to the root of problems quickly.

Having a welcoming presence requires authenticity, openness, and a genuine appreciation for all community members. When we are welcoming to others, they will be welcoming to us and one another. It’s contagious! Some signs of a welcoming presence include a warm and inviting smile, a sincere greeting, and a sense of comfort when interacting with others.

Being present requires a conscious effort and refers to all the things we do to be in the moment. It means giving the person/group our undivided attention and typically results in more effective and efficient conversations. Human beings, regardless of age, know if we are present or not. When we are not present, people are either repetitive causing longer conversations or shut down causing us to miss their thoughts/perspective. When we make the conscious decision to be in the moment, we show our community members that they are valued and important. In turn, they value us and one another.

Being visible refers to physically being wherever our community members are (e.g. in the halls, outside, in the classroom, at a school function etc.) with the goal of building trust. I am not referring to the times that we are visible to complete our leadership duties (e.g. evaluate teachers, conduct walk-throughs, address a behavior concern). Instead, we are visible to show we care and are with them.

I used to work at a high school that served students at-risk of dropping out school, returning from incarceration or expulsion. While at this school for over 4 years, I never saw a physical fight and rarely heard a verbal altercation though most students entered with significant behavioral records. Our biggest asset was being welcoming, present, and visible because it helped us build the relationships needed to create the safe and supportive culture necessary for student success.

Most school leaders would agree that being welcoming, present, and visible are not innovative ideas, just good practice. However, we can get caught up in the “busy-ness of leading” causing us to forget the simple things. Therefore, let’s make a conscious effort to be and give ourselves gentle reminders (e.g. self-talk, note to self, wearing a band etc.). Since we interact with people throughout the day, the opportunities to practice are endless. So, let your light shine and your school community will help you create the culture needed for student success.

The Five Key Components of a Restorative Circle

Restorative TCS Centerpiece

As an experienced circle keeper, I have learned a lot from my mistakes. One of my most impactful lessons was learning the value of what I call the “The five key components of restorative circle.” These components help create the physical space needed for safety and support regardless of who is in the circle (e.g. students, parents, staff, administrators etc.) or the type of circle (e.g. curriculum circle, circle of understanding, check-in circle, staff meeting etc.).

The five key components are:

Sitting in circle – Sitting in circle is a structured way of bringing people together and is one of the most common forms of restorative practices. The circle represents equity and community as everyone can be seen, are the same height, and the circle shape is continuous/unbroken. The act of sitting in circle alone, does not make it restorative. In restorative circles, community members work together to create the safe and supportive space needed for authentic dialogue.

Circle keeper – Circle keepers are responsible for emphasizing equity, setting a safe and respectful tone, keeping the flow moving, and introducing prompts/instructions. Instead of using punitive approaches, circle keepers address concerns in a supportive and respectful way that holds community members accountable for their actions.

Talking Piece – The talking piece is an object used to let people know whose turn it is to talk while everyone else listens. Only the person who has the talking piece is talking which increases respectful listening and models the importance of every voice. Restorative practices are not forced on people. Therefore, everyone has the right to pass. A talking piece is even more meaningful when it is something of value to circle participants.

Centerpiece – The centerpiece represents the center of the community, reminds us of our collective nature, and provides a place for participants to rest their eyes. Like the talking piece, center pieces are even more meaningful when they represent something of value.

Shared Agreements – Unlike rules which are forced upon individuals/groups, shared agreements represent the things participants are personally willing to do in their time together. Everyone is accountable for upholding the shared agreements. Groups that meet regularly are encouraged to create their own agreement and limit them to 5 or less so participants can remember them. When I hold circle, I start with the following:

o Listen with Respect
o Speak with Respect
o Assume Good Intent
o Confidentiality

Remember restorative circles are structured but, not rigid. For example, the talking piece can be suspended or participants can share as they choose to (popcorn style). If multiple people begin to talk at once, anyone can pick up the talking piece and everyone will know whose turn it is to talk and whose turn it is to listen.

Also, remember the importance of training. Anyone can sit in circle and pass a talking piece. Restorative circles are strength-based, value every person, and include holistic ways of redirecting behavior.

Restorative Practices and Social-Emotional Learning

Chauna-in-circle-wirh-students has been addressing the use of Restorative Practices in schools. In November, 2016, Maurice J. Elias wrote a blog interviewing Dr. Brian Smith who is a research scientist with the Committee for Children. In this blog, Dr. Smith explains how punitive approaches to discipline impact students (particularly students of color), why Restorative approaches support students, and how Restorative approaches connect to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).
Dr. Smith makes many great points. However, I question if “Restorative practices that build positive school climate and healthy relationships depend on the foundation provided by SEL.” Instead, I suggest regular use of the circle process with existing practices and programs naturally increases students’ Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) competencies evidenced by my experience in a school serving at-risk students where staff and students participated in circle every two weeks. Students also created and led many of the circle discussions.

The circle process also encourages students to operate out of the Social and Emotional Learning competencies they have. Students are defiant at times and for a variety of reasons. That defiance can be as simple as making an irresponsible decision to talk at a time when they shouldn’t or as complex as a trauma trigger that causes defiant behavior. I remember being contacted toward the end of the school year to support a school where disruptive behavior had been the norm. After meeting with staff, we decided to use circles in 3 different classrooms for 4 weeks. Upon completion of the 1st circle, students completed a survey to determine if we should continue and 94.83% of students stated circles should continue. After talking with staff, I learned that student behavior exhibited in circle was far better than their behavior during instruction. At the end of the four-week session, students completed another survey and 87.93% indicated that circles should continue the following school year.

Therefore, I ask educators to consider using the practices regularly to increase SEL skills and use the practices with existing practices (e.g. lesson plans) and programs (e.g. Second Step) to increase participation, engagement, and critical thinking.