Ask the Keeper

Answers to your questions about restorative practices in schools

Photo © Carolina Kroon

How can we get students to share in circle?


"We've been doing circles at my school as a study skills course since the start of the year. It's been challenging when students pass, pass, and pass again. This passing seems to get contagious at times. Do you think it would work to tell students that they can't pass for more than a go round or two? How can we get some of those students to talk?"
– Christina Kittle, Jefferson School librarian and 6th grade study skills course facilitator, Warren, Ohio

I've been in circles with students who pass many times before they finally choose to speak. This can make keepers uncomfortable, and I’ve been asked before about trying to limit the number of times a student is allowed to pass before they have to share. I understand where that is coming from, but I find this to go against the spirit of the circle and that of the talking piece as invitation.  Here is why:

As the circle keeper, I don’t necessarily know why a student chooses not to share. I don’t want to impose myself or make assumptions. Circles are about creating a space that is inviting and safe enough for people to want to step in. Part of the safety in a circle resides in the knowledge that the decision to share or not to share will be honored.    

There are many reasons a student may not be ready to share. They may feel insecure. They may feel they have nothing of value to add to the dialogue. They may be anxious about speaking in large(r) groups or uncomfortable with this new circle approach, which asks them to share more personally of themselves than is often the case in school. They might even be suspicious about why we, adults, are asking more personal of questions. How does it fit into academics? And what happens with the information they decide to share? 

When restorative circles are first introduced in a school setting, students may also be afraid to make mistakes. So often in the classroom, students think they have to come up with the one right answer. Even if they are in an encouraging environment that celebrates effort (rather than simply having the right answer), students can be wary or afraid of being wrong. It can take time for students to get used to the circle process and the idea that in the circle there are no wrong answers, perspectives, or experiences.  

In short, the most persuasive way to get students to participate fully is to give them time, space and, more than anything, a choice over whether they will share or pass. Then, when students finally choose to speak, it can be an empowering and reassuring experience. 

This is hard work and it requires patience. But it’s worth it. Once students see that what they share in a circle is respected and understood, they often surprise themselves and their teachers by speaking up more in other settings like academic classes as well. Their silence has been broken by the attention and care they received in the circle. We may end up seeing a whole new side of a student we never really knew or understood.


A Restorative Interventions Toolkit


Our students do circles once a week on our special Friday schedule. I haven't run any of them because I am teaching at that time. I've seen them done very well, but in some circles students simply cannot be managed. We also have "responsibility time," when we can request to speak with a child after school and follow up with behavior. We have a set of questions that we’ve been told to use with students to reflect on their behavior. This works with some, not so much with others.  Do you have any suggestions?
– Reynaldo Punzalan, Jr., 7th grade math teacher


The Keeper:

Many of the teachers who write us are implementing restorative circles to build and deepen community connections in advisory or in their homerooms. In some cases, they use circles to explicitly teach and practice social and emotional skills and mindful awareness. But there are also those who use circles in their content area. Regardless of the kind of circles used, all require participants to practice some of the social and emotional skills needed to be successful in school and life – the kind of skills we also draw upon when attempting to resolve conflict, repair harm and/or deal with disciplinary issues.

What we know is that restorative practices are more successful in schools when they are not simply in response to harmful behavior or as disciplinary interventions, but when restorative principles and practices are in place throughout the school day.  

Having said that, I think it's important for educators to understand that there is no one tool necessarily that works for everyone, in all situations. It's for this reason that we prefer to talk about a toolkit of restorative interventions. I outline these below.

If the harm is fairly minor, people may try to work things out themselves by having a restorative conversation or by using their negotiation skills. The goal is to give the student a chance to explain what happened, what they might have been thinking and why. We also want to give them an opportunity to reflect on their behavior, the impact of their actions, and make amends if needed. Finally, encouraging students to consider different choices for next time can help set them up for success going forward.  

I always find that asking students to think about what might get in the way of making better choices is a useful exercise as well. This can help students focus on overcoming obstacles, and possibly seek out support.  

Having a relationship with the student beyond addressing challenging behavior is important, as is coming at the issue with a restorative mindset. It’s useful to remind ourselves to remain calm and respectful in talking with a student who has been acting out. It might help to remember the mantra "the problem is the problem, the person is not the problem” – especially if a student’s behaviors frustrate us. Understanding the root causes of a student’s acting out, being off task or disruptive, can be helpful. So can a set of guiding questions to ask when an incident occurs. Ultimately though, we need to work with the particular student, the context, and the issue at hand. So it helps to be open and flexible when having a restorative conversation.

We’re all human and ultimately we all make mistakes that may end up harming others, whether we intend to or not. Sometimes the level of harm done elevates emotions to the point of requiring a third-party intervention.

This is where restorative circles to address harm come into play, along with other restorative interventions, including restorative conferences, mediation, fairness committees, etc. Of these approaches, only restorative circles and restorative conferences have people sitting in a circle.

Although a “restorative conference” is sometimes (confusingly) referred to as a “circle,” it uses a very different process than a restorative circle. This chart provides an overview of how restorative circles and restorative conferences differ. For comparison's sake, we've also included mediation.

This “medicine wheel is another way of showing how restorative circles differ from restorative conferences and other approaches for addressing harm. 

The restorative circle calls for a balanced process. The quadrants on the right are considered as important as those on the left, and deserve equal time in the process of restoration. It’s why in circles we start the process with getting acquainted and building relationships. In this way we build a foundation for addressing issues and developing action plans. 

Restorative conferences (and mediation for that matter) focus only the left part of the medicine wheel. After the facilitator sets the stage for the conference, the main focus is on addressing issues and developing action plans.

Do you have questions about using circles or restorative practices in your school? Send them to the Keeper!