2 ways to include students and their families in restorative justice work

I’ve previously written about restorative justice (RJ) and have offered insights into the various factors that school administrators and other educators should consider when implementing RJ. In this post, I hope to offer more insights about how students and families should be factored into RJ implementation in schools, as well as some concluding thoughts about the status of RJ programs in the future.

One of the more promising features of the RJ philosophy is the value of power sharing and providing space for all stakeholders to shape their community values and practices. So far, I’ve discussed the importance of incorporating staff voice, but students and families should be an integral part of any RJ program.

Historically, schools have often faced the problem of connecting with students and community members, especially in contexts where educator staff may differ from students along class or racial identities. While merely having an RJ program will not inherently address this disconnect, RJ practices do allow schools to set the stage for bridging this gap by encouraging educators to allow students and families to help shape their school communities rather than solely experiencing their school environment as something that is created for them (and often created with a limited awareness of community needs).

Here are two things to try.

1. Engage students with developmentally appropriate restorative practices

Students can take part in RJ by becoming active participants in shaping how RJ practices are incorporated into their schools—even facilitating restorative circles with their peers and joining activities that help them design and create things that happen in their buildings. In this way, students have the framework to transition school cultures from being something external that they experience into something that they have the agency to create and shape.

Particularly as students age and seek out opportunities to become more involved in their school environment, RJ programs can provide platforms for students to have a larger presence in school cultures through leading restorative conferencing, helping schools respond to community events that impact student well-being, and advocating for changes to school policies that would benefit students. A key benefit of this approach is also the compatibility of RJ practices with other developmentally appropriate student activities, including opportunities for social-emotional learning, creativity, and student leadership opportunities as kids age.

2. Invite families into the school community

Family engagement has historically been a challenge for schools, particularly those that are racially diverse or socioeconomically disadvantaged. Not only is there inequality in parental participation, but research indicates that educators perceive parental engagement to be challenging. RJ will not inherently solve these problems, but it does foreground equity and inclusion in a way that can provide a space for schools to begin to bridge this gap.

Rather than solely relying on individual educator desire, student conferences, behavioral issues, or other challenges to engage parents and other caregivers, designing RJ programming that is aimed at families can help to welcome communities into the school space in ways that help them become more active in their child’s schooling both on site and at home. This is important because promoting this level of activity is not typically how many communities—especially low-income or communities of color—have experienced school.

While RJ programs alone will not immediately repair this disconnect, they can place schools and communities on a trajectory where the future of schooling is co-led, rather than merely a space where educational experiences (and inequality) are shaped without an inclusive community voice.

Restorative justice moving forward

While I’ve spent several posts providing guidance about implementing RJ, I want to conclude by offering some parting thoughts about the status of RJ and other behavioral interventions in the pandemic era of schooling.

As many have documented, COVID-19 has brought about a variety of challenges for students, including social challenges that have increased the need for developmentally appropriate support for student behavior. While RJ is not just about responding to behavioral challenges, it does provide a nuanced and holistic framework for supporting schools through this difficult period.

As I explained in previous posts, RJ programs are slow-moving, difficult to implement, and may take three or more years to show tangible results. I have also acknowledged how difficult—and seemingly unrealistic—it is to promote RJ implementation at a time when many educators and policymakers are grappling with the reality that academic recovery from the pandemic will also be a years-long process. As such, it is worth considering how school districts and educators who want to practice RJ can integrate the practices within their existing academic recovery strategies, or even with other interventions like MTSS or social-emotional learning.

RJ is compatible with many other concurrent school practices because, at its core, it is more of a value system and set of practices that help reinforce those values, rather than a traditional policy or intervention approach. Because of this, it may not ever be feasible to completely replace existing systems with RJ, from a policy perspective. However, over a period of time, it is possible to shift values in a way to where the value of RJ, equity, and inclusivity become more entrenched in normative practice, which will decrease the need for the same amount of resources and attention to these issues than we have now.

RJ may not be the only pathway to reaching that future, but of the current approaches commonly used, it is the one that offers the most holistic systemic framework for not only addressing student needs individually but also changing the conditions that lead to many of the challenges and inequities we see in schools in the first place. In a time where students arguably need more support than ever, we should consider how incorporating RJ—at whatever scale possible—may assist in the road to recovery.


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