The role of restorative practice in reducing violence in schools

How do you change the culture of a school and where do you start?

Mark Finnis
After getting vaccinated, Nguyen Thi Hai Yen, 12, came to Post-injection monitoring room where she got a big hug from her Literature teacher Nguyen Thu Thuy.
29 June 2022

Restorative practice describes a way of being, an underpinning ethos, which enables us to build and maintain healthy relationships. It provides a strong framework within which we can promote a whole-school ethos founded on the importance of relationships. This includes a range of approaches to managing conflict and tensions in a way that repairs harm and mends relationships if and when those relationships do break down.

I’m sure that few teachers would disagree that the relationships they have with their students matter, but I know that many feel they don’t have the time to invest in them thanks to the stresses of our results-focused system, our crowded classrooms and our overcrowded curriculum.

What’s more, relationships are both simple and hard in equal measure, so it’s easy to direct our focus onto the more tangible areas of school life – such as results – and, in doing so, fall into the trap of forgetting that not everything we count counts, and that not everything that counts can be counted.

Do we hit the target but miss the point? After all, it is said often enough that the quality of a student’s learning can’t exceed the quality of their teachers. But I suggest that neither the quality of the teaching nor of the learning can exceed the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the student.

Every day, in lots of different ways, our students ask: do I matter to you, do you notice me, do I belong here? And, if we aren’t careful – because actions speak louder than words – the answer will be seen in the behaviours that play out. It’s not always what we say or what we do, but how we do it and how students end up feeling.

Schools that explicitly put a greater focus on proactively building and maintaining relationships will find that there will be fewer occasions when relationships break down and, therefore, there is less need for them to be repaired.

For students to feel able to talk, you need adults who are willing to listen.

It’s better to be more proactive and get involved earlier in the life of a problem and earlier in the journey of a student’s day. Preventing things from escalating into more serious and complex situations, including how we respond to violence in and around our schools, and beyond.

Paperwork doesn’t keep students safe, people do; interventions don’t change lives, people do. That doesn’t mean we don’t need good quality interventions, we do, but the quality of the relationship will determine the quality of the outcome.

Removing threats doesn’t mean we have created safety. For students to feel able to talk, you need adults who are willing to listen.

Such an undertaking needs everyone to act explicitly, across the whole school, with these goals in mind. This entails keeping a close eye on our own behaviours and habitual practices – which speak louder than any list of values on a lanyard, poster or school website – and ensure that we treat everyone with respect. We must involve all members of the school community in decisions that affect them, listen actively to each other, be empathic and deal with conflicts and tensions in a way that seeks to repair harm and sustain relationships. This is the core of restorative practice.

Restorative practice is not about replacing traditional behaviour management systems in our schools. It’s certainly not about being soft or turning a blind eye to poor behaviour. It’s about elevating the culture of a school or organization so students are pulled in, not pushed out, about fostering a greater sense of community and communal ownership.

Although its roots are clearly in restorative justice – as a way of repairing the harm done to the community and relationships within it – restorative practice has the bolder ambition of proactively developing the sense of community and seeking to increase the social capital between people and across the school and, from there, into the wider community.

Our students need connection as well as important content.

Put simply, restorative justice is what you do; restorative practice is what you are.

If we aren’t careful, we put our focus on the content and forget to simply connect. Our students need connection as well as important content. The connection creates the space to then be able to explore the content. Connections can happen by themselves, but wouldn’t you want them to happen intentionally?

Remember the old joke about the pub on the moon that shut down because there was no atmosphere? How does your classroom compare? If your classroom or office was a coffee shop, would you be a regular? Having people leave your presence feeling better than when they arrived is one thing, but what about helping people feel better just by coming through the door?

Greeting students at the school gate with a smile (remember, smiling at students is good for you both), a ‘good morning’, or a ‘How are you?’, will give you a quick temperature check to see how their day might work out. Most of all, it’s important that we start the day on a positive note. Waiting for students at the classroom door gives us another opportunity to connect, saying their name correctly – that’s the subtle difference – and remembering things about them.

If you’re not modelling what you’re teaching, you’re teaching something different.

Modelling is like breathing. You can’t not do it. You are modelling behaviour for your students, whether you mean to or not. So, if you’re not modelling what you’re teaching, then you’re not really teaching what you think you’re teaching. Students see whether you’re showing warmth and respect toward them and to the other students and adults in your school. Often, they will model their own behaviour after your behaviour, albeit subconsciously.

So, how do you change the culture of a school? One classroom at a time. Where do you start? In the one you’re in now.


About the author: 

Mark Finnis is a leading author on restorative practice and Director, L30 relational systems.

Reproduced from Safe To Learn: an essay collection examining different forms of violence in and around schools, its impact – and the solutions. 



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