Schools across the United States are working to implement restorative practices as an alternative to traditional discipline approaches. Restorative practice encompasses an approach that is nonpunitive, is relationship focused, addresses conflict, and promotes collaborative problem-solving among staff and students.
As a current superintendent and a former school principal, I recognize that the importance of principal leadership is second only to teaching among school-related factors that result in student success. Changing school discipline policies and practices that have been embedded in our schools for decades requires a system overhaul and will require highly effective school principals to lead and sustain the change.
Research consistently shows that schools classified as successful possess strong school leadership. The importance of principal leadership can be considered one of the clearest findings of school effectiveness research. In my dissertation I studied the ways that principals could contribute to restorative practice in schools. Here are ways that principals can sustain restorative practices in their communities.
Create a Vision for the Work
Before a school can implement restorative practices, the principal must develop a vision for the initiative. Principals must have a strong understanding of what restorative practice is and what this approach looks like in the school setting. In addition to communicating the vision for restorative practices, school leaders must effectively communicate how restorative practices align with current school initiatives (e.g., positive behavior intervention support, social and emotional learning) as part of their overall vision for the school.
Principals with the greatest success in implementing restorative practices develop a timeline along with their vision. In other words, they articulate the end result and the road map for how to get there. It is important to remember that system change takes time. True transformation of mindsets and practices can take three to five years or more.
The “why”: The restorative approach does not lend itself to staff being partly in, and some staff opting out can undermine the success of this system change. As a result, it is important that principals provide a strong understanding for why change is needed, using research and school data that reiterates the importance of restorative practice in promoting student success. Making connections to the relative advantages that a restorative philosophy can offer their school can assist in developing a collective commitment around the shared vision and well-defined outcomes.
Changing mindsets: Prior to conducting training and implementing restorative practice, the principal should establish buy-in. Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome is shifting the mindsets of all educators in a school. Educators may have been using a more punitive approach for decades in the belief that punishment itself will change behavior, and restorative practices can sometimes be perceived as weak on accountability and lacking consequences.
As a result, leadership must provide clarity on the definition of accountability in this approach while establishing buy-in with staff. Restorative practice does not necessarily replace consequences for serious problem behavior. Instead, this approach adds another layer of response by working to repair harm, maintaining strong relationships, and preventing future problem behavior.
Provide Ongoing and Sustained Professional Development
Teacher professional development and ongoing learning is essential to the success of any educational reform, and restorative practice is no exception. Initial training sessions should address the aspects mentioned previously regarding why change is needed and establishing staff buy-in early in the reform process.
As with any system change, continued conversations about implementation should occur throughout the year at faculty meetings, professional development days, and other opportunities. Training should not be limited to only the first days back at school. Staff need time throughout the school year to ask questions and reflect on what is working and what is not. Schools should also create a plan to ensure that training is provided as new staff come on board in a school each year.
Initial training: If schools use a “train the trainer” approach, a variety of stakeholders, including teachers and administrators, should take part in the initial training. Training should not be limited to passive learning but should include ongoing work with skilled facilitators, such as one-on-one coaching, learning through shadowing, and learning through feedback after leading restorative groups or conferences with students.
A restorative practice coach can help provide ongoing support to teachers and administrators. Our district made a commitment to this work by hiring a restorative practice coach. Having a coach model and support teachers and principals was an essential step to help staff develop confidence in this work.
Model restorative practices: As with any school improvement effort, ensuring that the leader walks the talk accomplishes two things. First, staff see the commitment of the leader to moving forward with the change. Second, modeling the change helps staff better see and understand how to implement new practices and procedures.
Effective implementation of restorative practice requires the principal to model practices through interactions with students and staff, in leading classroom circles, and in creating space for staff, to engage in restorative approaches with one another. Teachers feel supported when the principal is willing to partner with them.
Restorative circles facilitated by trained staff provide opportunities between a victim and offender to explore the incident that happened, who was affected, and what needs to be done to make things right. One way principals can model this is in the use of circles to start staff meetings. Staff meetings in circles that include welcoming activities can be one way for staff to build strong relationships with each other over the course of a school year.
School leaders must believe in the philosophy and approach in order for it to be successful. Effective leaders who deeply understand what a restorative approach is and how to implement it will find the greatest success in implementation.