By Andrew McGeehan and Alistair Goold
Educational institutions have long been exploring methods to respond to student behavioural issues, interpersonal conflicts, and student/staff tensions that arise in the classroom and beyond.
Many traditional models focus on having standard outcomes that can often feel punitive in nature. Students are encouraged and implicitly taught that “good” behaviour is necessary to avoid punishment instead of it being about accountability, community, and upholding shared commitments and values.
Restorative practices offer an alternative approach by looking through a lens of harm, accountability, and restoration.
Starting from the assumption that all students, staff, and school community members are valued, conflict can be resolved in ways that facilitate healing, restoration, and learning.
An institution may choose to incorporate restorative practices into their way of doing things in a variety of ways—by encouraging restorative conversations, utilizing the language of harm and accountability, or by fully transforming their student discipline/code of conduct systems to be restorative at their core.
Our latest briefing for our members (find a link at the end of this post) introduces restorative practices, and their benefits—strategic research, training, and consulting should be undertaken before making sweeping changes to an organization. The briefing provides an overview of what is possible, and our school members can find it in the CIS Community portal > KnowledgeBase > Child protection & well-being > Resources.
To give us an idea of how restorative practices can work, two of the briefing’s authors, Andrew McGeehan and Alistair Goold share how restorative practices have impacted their lives personally and professionally.
Alistair Goold, High School IBDP Teacher / Restorative Practices trainer at International School of Kenya
When teaching in the Middle East, I was Head of Year for Year Ten (Y10). We had an incident where bullying was occurring, and I had to deal with it. I had spoken to the father of the child who was affected, and he was angry and wanted justice! I was new to the role but knew that a punitive approach would never fix the root of the issue. So rather than opt for a traditional punitive model of detention or suspension, I asked the student who had done the bullying to attend a Saturday morning behaviour reflection session (BRS).
On the morning of the BRS, I went into detail to explain the impact this behaviour had had on the other student (who understandably did not want to have a face-to-face conference over the weekend but had given me permission to share how he had been feeling), I could see the “offending” student was visibly shaken by this realisation. I had a good relationship with both students and could sense that he was ashamed that he was now being perceived as a bully in my eyes.
I asked the student to provide a written response to the following restorative questions:
- What happened?
- What were you thinking at the time?
- Who was affected?
- How were they affected?
- What needs to happen to make things right?
As he spent the best part of 40 minutes in my classroom on a Saturday morning carefully considering his response to these questions, I was quietly hoping that a written apology followed up by a face-to-face meeting and handshake would be the outcome. Once the 40 mins was complete, I read through the students' responses and reviewed his answers. Prior to this meeting he seemed oblivious to the harm that he had caused, but as a result of listening to the harm he caused and carefully reflecting, his empathy for his fellow student had increased dramatically.
When we got to the ‘what needs to happen to make things right’ question, I was astounded. The student had written that he wanted to phone the father of the student he had harmed and make an apology directly, as well as have a follow-up meeting with the student he had harmed to offer his apology and remorse. I was absolutely stunned. I immediately logged onto our school system to find the phone number. Within a few moments, the father was on loudspeaker, and as I explained the reason for the phone call, he immediately sounded guarded. The offending student started speaking, and as he did so, he broke into tears as he offered a heartfelt apology.
Through the course of the conversation, the father also started weeping, and his previous anger at the situation now turned to forgiveness and gratitude that the child had made contact. Before the end of the call, the father suggested that the student come to their house to join the family for dinner one evening.
It was a truly beautiful moment for me to observe as the Head of Y10.
Consider the alternative.
If the offending student has simply been suspended, how would the victim have been helped by this action? Would the father have been happy with that outcome? Would the victim's (and his family’s) needs have been met? Would the offending student have learned any lessons?
Restorative approaches offer meaningful mechanisms to repair the harm that has occurred at the individual level as well as at the whole school level. This child would no longer be stigmatised as a ‘bully’ or ‘offender’ by those who knew him but as someone who was reintegrated into the community after taking responsibility to repair the harm he caused.
Apology and remorse are gifts with tremendous power but can never be demanded. Restorative justice has the capacity to encourage and promote such gifts.
Andrew McGeehan, Founder and Director, Trident Training & Consulting, working on issues of sexual misconduct, diversity & inclusion, and restorative justice/practices
One fateful day, I woke up around 06:30 for my usual bike ride. I got suited up, strapped on my helmet, pulled up my socks, affixed my light and phone to the bike and headed out. It's something I had done many times in the past, riding for about 1.5 years at that point, every 2-3 days. Thinking that this ride would be like any other, I commenced biking. Turns out this ride would kick off a six-month process that involved me getting arrested, being held in lock-up multiple times, and costing me a fair amount of my savings.
The short version of the story is that I collided with a pedestrian while using a path designated for bikers and walkers alike. I used my safety techniques—as I always do when manoeuvring around other humans on the path—but this time, it wasn’t enough. We both fell. When I got up, I apologised and checked to see if the other party was ok. They were able to stand and speak. However, the group they were with still called the police.
Once it was decided to prosecute the case, I was arrested and put into holding for an entire day. This was months after the initial event. My passport and bike were being held the entire time as well. The next several months were a whirlwind of lawyer calls, court visits, waiting for outcomes, and extreme stress and anxiety. I was watching the process happen to me. I never had a chance to speak in court. I never saw the other party again. I saw the rigidity of the criminal justice system, which rarely seeks context, and prioritises strict interpretations of law over relationships and harm restoration. I faced having my work pass cancelled, spending all my savings on a lawyer, and potentially being kicked out of the country I’d been living for eight years.
The case was eventually resolved six months after the initial incident. I was given a discharge amounting to an acquittal and ordered to pay a large sum to the other party. Had I not been able to pay the sum, I would have had to plead guilty (risking jail time) or claim trial (in which I had been informed by my lawyer I would stand little chance of being found not guilty since the accident did occur).
This was … justice?
I already was invested in restorative justice as an idea, but this direct experience in the criminal justice system made me realise even more how necessary it is.
To be clear, I am not saying that I should not have been held accountable for what happened. I definitely should have, and I am in full acceptance that my actions caused harm to someone else. A restorative justice approach doesn’t mean there are no consequences or that harmful behaviour is okay if justifiable circumstances exist. But the process I underwent was dehumanising and stressful, not to mention expensive. There is very little agency in the punitive justice systems worldwide (and in our schools!).
Restorative justice is necessary in today’s world.
As our understandings of human behaviour and psychology continue to grow and nuance, we know that nothing is binary or black and white. Everything is grey. Restorative justice allows us to live more in that grey area and examine why harm occurs, explore the context behind harmful incidents, and restore agency to all parties involved in a harmful incident.
An educational setting is a perfect place to pilot and begin to implement restorative practices.
Educational institutions can be places for students (and staff/admin!) to fail safely, learn, and grow. As explored further in the briefing, schools can begin implementing elements of restorative practice through training, resources, and consulting with outside experts.
Restorative justice (RJ) approaches require us to ask some key questions. Individuals or institutions wanting to begin their RJ journey can start here and should keep these questions in mind throughout:
- Who has been harmed?
Identifying who has been harmed is the first step towards engaging in a restorative justice process. Harm can be caused to an individual, to a community, or an entire institution. Each of these kinds of harm requires a different type of intervention or response.
- Who has caused harm?
Framing these conversations regarding harm eliminates the need to focus only on a code of conduct or specific policy violation. If harm is caused, it should be addressed, whether it fits neatly into a code of conduct/behavioural standards document or not. And again, harm may be caused by an individual, a group, or an institution.
- What are the needs of the harmed party?
Once the harmed party has been identified, working with them to understand their needs is essential. This allows the harmed party the space to think about what resolution would look like for them, gives them agency to make their own decisions, and gives the party who caused harm the clarity of knowing how they can move forward.
- What can be done to repair the harm?
Through conversations with all parties, but prioritising the needs of the harmed party, an agreement can be reached that will identify what next steps can be taken. An administrator or facilitator of the process should work with the party that caused harm to ensure they fulfil this agreement.
- What is the need behind the action?
Very few people act maliciously or hurtfully just because they want to. There are reasons and motivations that drive behaviours. A restorative justice approach would explore these needs to reduce the chances of the same situation happening again. For instance, a student who hits another student may be expressing a need for control or recognition or emulating what they see at home. These different needs would require distinct and specific interventions from educators.
Restorative justice is a way for schools to teach positive conflict management skills, help students be accountable in substantive ways for their harmful actions, and give agency to students who experience harm. It is an impactful learning tool that can shift a school's approach towards harmful student behaviours.
For me, I would have far preferred a restorative approach to my situation. The outcome would likely have been the same (covering the cost of medical bills and any other damages), but the process could have allowed for more context plus the opportunity for me to apologise directly to the person who was harmed. I would have liked to have had the chance to hear from them how my actions had impacted them and heard directly what they needed from me. These kinds of conversations help to reinforce community and allow us to be more directly accountable to people that we harm.
Gain deeper insights and guidance on this topic
There’s lots more guidance and points of reflection to dive deeper into in the full briefing written by Andrew, Alistair and their colleague Philine Nau. It’s available to all our school members in the CIS Community portal > KnowledgeBase > Child protection & well-being > Resources. Let your colleagues know.
- Explore CIS workshops and resources on similar themes
- Members can read the accompanying briefing to this post in full via the CIS Community portal > KnowledgeBase > Child protection & well-being > Resources.