Many educators come to our Restore360 trainings interested in new ways to handle disciplinary issues in school. They may have found the punitive approach doesn’t work particularly well and want to limit suspensions, which can be harmful to our young people. They’ve been told that restorative circles are the answer. This might be true in a larger sense but I tell people off the bat: “You can’t restore what you haven’t built.”
This is why building community is an integral part of restoration, and our starting point in schools. We spend much of our time in classrooms strengthening relationships and helping both young people and adults develop the skills needed to have the kind of healthy relationships that make for a supportive, encouraging school community. We work on communication skills; managing thoughts and feelings; awareness of self and others; understanding diverse perspectives; problem solving; etc.
So how is this related to discipline?
We see that in schools where students and staff have strong relationships and the social and emotional skills to maintain them, much harm-doing is nipped in the bud. In schools like these, people can problem solve and work things out before they harm each other to point of needing a third-party intervention.
Building community and the skills to maintain and strengthen that community also helps when a more serious harm occurs. “Restorative discipline” includes a range of approaches for addressing such harms. These include formal restorative conversations, restorative conferences, mediation, fairness committees – as well as restorative circles in response to harm-doing.
This restorative approach to discipline returns us to the word’s original meaning: The word discipline comes from the Latin disciplina, which means “instruction” and derives from the root discere, which means “to learn” (not “to punish”).
The community and skills we build in our regular circles can determine whether or not a restorative intervention succeeds. When people feel supported and safe, they’re more likely to be willing to participate in a restorative intervention to address harm-doing. This is true for the person who was harmed as much as for the person who inflicted the harm.
In a restorative intervention, we all bring and use the skills we have developed over time. We can listen to perspectives that are different from ours, sometimes conflicting ones at that. We can manage strong feelings that might come up, and assert ourselves in ways that respect others as well as ourselves. We can take responsibility for our actions and the possible harm we inflicted, intentionally or not. We can problem solve and make things right, in a collaborative process that involves the community, not in judgment but in support and encouragement.