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Repairing Harm: A Better Alternative to Punishment


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Listen to my interview with Nathan Maynard
and Brad Weinstein (transcript):

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When students behave in ways that are disruptive, when they do things that harm others, or when they otherwise make choices that go against established rules, schools often respond with punishment: removal from class, a phone call home, detention, suspension, even expulsion if the behavior is considered extreme enough. 

It’s been this way forever, at least in traditional western schools, and most of the time, these punishments don’t really work. Sure, they remove the student from the situation, temporarily stopping the challenging behavior. And it could be argued that in general, many students choose to follow the rules because the threat of punishment acts as a deterrent; they don’t want to get in trouble, so an acceptable level of order is maintained. 

But punishments don’t really do anything to address or correct the source of the misbehavior, and most of the time, they do nothing to fix any damage that may have been caused by it. On top of that, exclusionary punishments like suspensions create their own set of problems: When students are removed from class, they miss instruction, putting them behind their classmates and making them more likely to fail academically. This often leads to higher dropout rates and puts far too many students—especially students of color—on the path to prison.

After decades of using these ineffective practices, more schools are turning to restorative justice, an approach to student behavior that originated in the criminal justice system. In 2018, Victor Small, Jr and I did a broad overview of Restorative Justice to go over the basics.

Now I’m going to narrow the lens to one specific restorative practice called repairing harm. This is when, instead of simply being sent off to a punishment, a student who has misbehaved is tasked with figuring out how to repair whatever damage was caused by their behavior, and then to actually carry out that repair with everyone who was impacted by their actions.

To learn about this practice, I talked to Brad Weinstein and Nathan Maynard, authors of the book Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create a Culture of Empathy & Responsibility Using Restorative Justice. Weinstein is a former classroom teacher and administrator, and Maynard started his career in the juvenile justice system before going into teaching. Now they work together at Behavior Flip, a digital behavior management system built on the principles of restorative justice.

Brad Weinstein
Nathan Maynard

In their book, Brad and Nathan share the restorative justice strategies they’ve used successfully for years with students. In our conversation (which you can listen to above), they took me step-by-step through one of those strategies: the process of repairing harm after a misbehavior as an alternative to punishment.

How Repairing Harm Works

1. Identify the Harm and the Stakeholders

After an incident has occurred, the student meets with the administrator or other adult responsible for behavior management. In a private conference, the two work together to identify the harm caused by the behavior and all of the stakeholders who were impacted by it.

This list of stakeholders often turns out to be longer than the student first thought.

“A lot of times students don’t understand that a behavior has a ripple effect,” Maynard says. “Like throwing a rock into a pond, it affects a lot of different people. We have to show them what those ripples are and who those really are affecting, so when they’re repairing the harm they need to think of each stakeholder individually. That’s developing the empathy skills for each and every one of them.”

2. Consider How the Behavior Affected Others

Once all stakeholders have been identified, it’s time for the student to think deeply about how all of them were impacted by the behavior. This exercise in empathy will help the student come up with the right repair later.

Sometimes this process requires help from the adults. Maynard describes what this could look like, starting by saying something to the student along these lines: “When you throw something in a class, and let’s say that hits someone else, how do you think their mother would feel if I called them up and said, hey their son just got hurt in class? Something like that that’s going to drive the empathy and create that sense of, oh, another stakeholder is that kid’s parent.” 

3. Create and Carry Out a Plan to Repair the Harm

Finally, the student—not the administrator—creates a plan to repair the harm with every stakeholder. The plan doesn’t have to be anything elaborate; it can be as simple as an apology.

“Let’s say a student was yelling at the class,” Maynard says. “That affects the rest of the class. What can you do to repair it (with them)? Sometimes I’ve had students go in front of the class and just apologize. Something like that—owning that behavior—shows the rest of the class that it’s not acceptable.”

Although some might see this as getting off easy, consider the courage it takes to stand up in front of your peers and publicly admit wrongdoing. “I mean,” Maynard says, “that’s a lot more tough than sitting at home for three days.”

There are times, though, when sorry isn’t enough. “Prime example, student throws food across the cafeteria,” Weinstein says. “They spill milk all over the floor, they cause a big mess. If they just say, I’m sorry, you just say, I’m glad that you apologized, but I think we’re going to have to do something a little bit more, because you caused a mess. Who are the stakeholders? They might realize that there is somebody that has to clean up after them, and they’re going to take away time from their job—as somebody who cleans the tables, I have to go home 20 minutes late now, because I’m cleaning your mess.”

Weinstein says in cases like this, the solution “might look like cleaning all of the tables, mopping the floor, and working with the custodian to help clean, because when they cause harm to the environment, a good way to repair that harm is to make that environment clean. If I were to just put (the student) in detention or ISS for the rest of the day, that would teach that kid to not get caught next time. They wouldn’t have any understanding of who they hurt, why what they did was a bad thing, and how they can repair that harm.”

Questions About this Process

Won’t this take extra time?

It depends on how you look at it. Punishment is definitely quicker than working with a student to consider the impact of behavior on stakeholders and develop a plan for repair. But because traditional punishment doesn’t usually end the behavior, you’re likely to spend more time on it later.

“An Edutopia article just recently came out that says classroom management takes about 144 minutes per week out of (instructional time),” Maynard says. “So if you think about 144 minutes per week, think about what can you do to integrate these proactive approaches and meet those kids’ needs.”

This idea is captured in the quote that starts the book’s chapter on repairing harm, from author Pam Leo: “Either we spend time meeting children’s emotional needs by filling their cup with love or we spend time dealing with the behaviors caused from their unmet needs. Either way we spend the time.” 

What if the student denies the behavior?

Sometimes a student will flat-out deny having done the thing they’re being accused of doing. This can even happen when you, the teacher, were an eye witness.

When this happens, Maynard gives students two choices. “I say, okay. I believe this was you, and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Let’s deal with this situation now, fix it, move forward. Right now it’s just between me and you. If I find out later that it’s you, then there’s just going to be an additional situation. Why not just deal with it right now and then if there’s an additional situation that’s showing that you’re dishonest, (then) I have to deal with what happened and you being dishonest, instead of just what happened. You make the choice.”

Afterwards, he always gives students time to process, to think about what they want to do. “Because immediately if I say something like that, they’re still going to be oppositional,” he explains. “So I give them some time to process what’s going on. I back away, say okay, I’m going to give you a few minutes.”

When he does this, Maynard says, students will often calm down and become more cooperative. “Giving them that time really does help out.”

Shouldn’t People Suffer at Least a Little Bit After Doing Something Wrong?

When someone misbehaves, our logic tells us that they should experience some kind of negative consequence; otherwise how will they learn not to do it again?

On top of that is the fact that we’re all human. After a student has disrespected us or caused a problem for us, we might honestly start itching for a bit of revenge.

“Punishment makes us feel better sometimes,” Maynard says. “You know, someone did something wrong, they harmed me, I want there to be some sort of harm. We’ve heard someone say before, you disrespected me, so now you need to suffer a little bit.”

But underneath that feeling is a desire to have the student experience real regret, a regret that can be deeper and longer-lasting if it emerges in the student from a place of empathy.

“That statement shows that (teachers) do want to show the students how to be empathetic and realize how they felt.” Maynard says. “Restorative practice is the way to do that, but it’s just less traumatic. And it’s a way more effective way to open up that child’s eyes to how their behavior made us feel.”

To learn more, follow Nathan on Twitter at @NmaynardEdu and Brad at @WeinsteinEdu, visit their website at, join their Hacking School Discipline Facebook group, and explore their app, BehaviorFlip, at

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  1. Renee Petit-Pas says:

    My school made a decision to move to become a Restorative Justice school this year. That decision has meant that in addition to managing student conflict, that RJ circles will be used in Professional Learning Community meetings, decision making and planning. As a school that has built its mission and values around the humanity of our students (compassion, reflection), I feel that this is a natural extension of our educational philosophy.

    Next steps are now thinking about how our planning and instruction can reflect these principles more than just as a response to behaviour. How might restorative justice principles look like when planning? When teaching? These are interesting questions that we hope to answer in our PLC work this year. Thank you for the sharing of this article as it gives great meaning to our work.

    • Jason says:

      So it seems that don’t want to do wrong actions just to be wrong. To me if they do wrong they are looking for something in return. Usually attention of their peers or the authority figures. How do we get to the heart of the individuals search for the attention.

      • Renee Petit-Pas says:

        Hi Jason,

        It is my belief that RJ (Restorative Justice) does “get to the heart of the individual’s search for attention” as you put it. Participating in an RJ circle is hard; it takes a long time but ultimately gives each participant a chance to have their voice heard.

        I think we can agree that if students are seeking attention from their peers or authority figures, then there are underlying issues calling for that attention. I can’t think of any punishment that really addresses those issues.

      • Nette says:

        Restorative justice is best. This is a creative approach towards juvenile individuals that might be wanted an extra attention.

        How? By giving such misbehaved one a task like attendance checker of the week. Let every student take turns with the task. Disseminate other classroom task/routine with the coordination of peers. This way they would surely follow the classroom norms as they know how being a leader with misbehaving peers.

        what to do:
        1. Give a specific task to a misbehaving student to lead the class such as, cleaners checker, attendance checker, and so much more.

        2. Let everyone take turns of the tasks assignments.

        Just my piece of cents. I hope it helps.

  2. Corey May says:

    I really enjoyed this article, as a future educator I have studied multiple forms of restorative justice practices in my courses; however, none that I have liked as much as this. Empowering the student with the misbehavior to correct his/her actions is a way to build up that student in high character qualities such as responsibility, empathy, and leadership. Since it will at least be a year until I will be a full time teacher, what would you recommend if I am in a district with strict disciplinary measures? Can I still possibly use Repairing Harm in a smaller scale if my school administration is in charge of discipline?

    I really enjoyed reading this article!

    • Eric Wenninger says:

      Hey Corey, I think you can absolutely implement Restorative Justice practices on a smaller scale into your classroom, even if your district adheres to a stricter disciplinary policy. Most disciplinary policies start at the classroom level and this is something you have direct control over. I recommend checking out this post from Jenn that gives an overview of Restorative Justice. There are some good resources listed at the bottom of the post that can help you integrate this practice into your classroom.

  3. Kim Haber says:

    Could you explain how asking a child who made a bad choice to stand in front of a class and apologize is not above all else a form of public humiliation? My guess is that they will remember this consequence and it may deter future misbehavior not because of the impact they had on others but because of the scar left on them from the public shaming.

    • Jessica Johnson says:

      But how do detentions or suspensions or calling kids out in class not leave the same effect? It could be seen as a public form of humiliation but so can other punishments…

    • Angela says:

      I’m the Dean of Students at an elementary school, and this is the formula I use for most behaviors.
      The reason it’s not humiliating is that, if done correctly, the student would only be doing this if they decided that it’s the best way to repair the harm that they did – it’s not something that they are forced to do as a punishment. It’s been my experience that in taking students through the journey of thinking about who they harmed and how…when you start to ask them how they think they could best repair things, they often come up with apologizing to the group.

      Instead of being humiliated, they get to learn the value of making amends and you see their hearts soar and their shame dissipate as their peers forgive them. It’s been a wonderful way for kids to feel like they’ve earned their ‘standing’ back.

  4. Brenna says:

    I loved this post! I’ll be student teaching next semester, and I’ve worried a lot about how so help students who have a hard time staying focused. I love the idea of empowering students, rather than punishing them though. Based on how my teachers in my secondary education managed their classrooms, I felt a little bit of pressure to call people out, which never really felt like my personality, but the idea of restorative justice eased some of my fears about that. I’m excited to try it soon!

  5. While I like the concept of restorative justice from my own personal perspective (i.e., in my own classroom), I really prefer not to involve administrators. Depending on the administrator, the treatment is uneven depending on factors including race and gender. I have sent some students to admin for consistent cursing in class only to have some of those students punished or treated differently from each other.

    What is the best course of action in this case? I don’t want to overstep my bounds with administration–especially because I’m only a third-year teacher–but it makes my blood boil to see the treatment of students vary so widely.

  6. Morgan Tanner says:

    Repairing the harm instead of punishing a student is an interesting take classroom management. While I do like the idea of a student designing the plan to repair the harm, I wonder how successful this form of discipline has been in the classroom. I appreciated the quote from Pam Leo about deciding if we want to spend our time loving our students or disciplining them. I am hesitant to implement this in my classroom as it seems a little optimistic but I appreciate the principles.

  7. Lisa says:

    The school my kids attend have taken this approach, but I honestly wasn’t entirely sure what it meant or what all was involved. Loved this post and plan to learn more about restorative justice. Will be heading back to the classroom in the fall after a three year break and would love to implement this.

  8. Emily says:

    Hi, I have a quick question. I love this approach to classroom management and think is a great way of fostering a safe and positive classroom environment. However, I was wondering how this is implemented for more minor/faster fixes. Whilst I understand that the process of repairing the damage caused by student actions takes time and needs to be done after the lesson, does this mean nothing gets corrected during the class?

    • Hey Emily,

      This is a good question. You definitely need to take time to help kids solve problems during class. This is just part of good classroom management. Repairing harm is really just a logical way of fixing things – even the “little” things. But kids don’t necessarily know how to do that, especially if they’re used to punishment as a form of discipline. So we need to explicitly teach, coach, and model. Ideally, repairing harm would be part of your norms and classroom culture. For example, if a student is tapping a pencil to the point of distraction, it can be as simple and quick as, “Hey [name], the noise from the pencil tapping is kinda making it hard for me to focus while I’m helping this group. Think about a way you can help out. Thanks!” No threats of taking the pencil away, no time outs, or anything like that. It’s just stating the “harm” and asking the student to find a way to fix it. If the student resists, then you might need to have a private talk later on and see what may be underlying the behavior. Otherwise, it’s probably an easy fix and not even something the student was aware of. Hope this helps!

  9. This makes so much sense in educational institutes as well as in the context of parenting. I believe the timing and the tone of the conversation will pay a key role in whether or not this process can create a space for a student/child to self-reflect and become more empathetic and self-aware. I remember a time in an orientation workshop of a fellowship program where our group was not doing the work we were required to do. The facilitator, instead of getting mad at us, simply opened up the conversation, shared with us how our behavior was impacting them and asked us what we would like to do considering that everyone is in the workshop with the same goal in mind. The conversation changed our behavior as we all reflected on what we are hoping to achieve through this fellowship and what is stopping us from doing the tasks, we felt more responsible for our learning and empathy towards the organizers. We were back on track!

  10. mwillig says:

    I really appreciate the way this post reframes the conversation around classroom management as one that must center empathy for all students. I think to often, our discipline protocols in school lead to kids feeling sorry that they got caught rather than sorry that they caused harm. If we respond to our children with punitive measures, we are just modeling negative behavior patterns for them to repeat in class. I can say that as someone who had several bouts of less than perfect classroom etiquette during my middle school years, that the restorative approaches described in this post are effective at repairing harm and building empathy between both parties. I can vividly recall one particular seventh-grade English class in which I told a stupid joke about my teacher that was hurtful. The teacher sent me into the hall and gave a detention, a fairly typical response. However, when my parents found out, they immediately pursued the restorative approaches described in the paper to repair the situation. They made me write and deliver an apology letter to my teacher expressing sincere regret for the incident and a promise not to be so careless in the future. That letter did more than just repair the harm done. It allowed my teacher and I to move past the incident without hard feelings that would have bogged down the rest of the year. Teaching our students how to acknowledge harm and express regret is a critical behavior that must be taught early to help them become compassionate, caring members of the community.

  11. Srilatha S Alva says:

    I agree that punishments do not help repair behaviour, what does help is knowing the cause of the behaviour and how the behaviour has impacted the class and students around. If we are able to get the student think about the impact,then the behaviour that caused the problem gets solved.

  12. Great Article. Punishment techniques do not work for a long time, sometime punishment leads to many negative effects on a child’s physical and psychological health. It relates to low self-esteem and many bebavioral problems.

  13. Hem Raj Subba says:

    I found this strategy, repairing harm a better alternative than the Punishment
    In our school we have zero tolerance policy and level of punishment depending on the level. However after going through this article i came to realisation that i can use use repairing harm strategies and make the student realise their mistake and the impact it has to others when student does some thing wrong like bullying, not doing home work, fighting and all.And letting student empathise.

  14. Very nice article. Every school must try this. I love this approach to classroom management and think is a great way of fostering a safe and positive classroom environment.

  15. Tanu says:

    In my class I always students to participate even if they are wrong or commits a mistake. I rather than scolding or punishing the students for their mischief try to understand the reason behind it and talk to the student and encourage them to reflect on their actions.

  16. Lisa says:

    I had a situation recently and I’m looking for clarification. When is RJ not appropriate? I (the teacher) tried to correct student behavior (student is a high school student) the student responded poorly. I was asked to participate in a RJ circle with this student and an AP. I was treated as the person who caused harm, not the student. The entire RJ experience went very badly. Was that an appropriate use of RJ?

    • Margaret says:

      Lisa, thank you for commenting. I can imagine that this experience felt frustrating and discouraging. Without knowing the full circumstances of the situation, it’s tough for me to say whether or not this was an appropriate use of RJ. I would encourage you, if you haven’t already, to read through Hacking School Discipline and see if the principles in the book align with what you experienced. In addition, you may want to check out Jenn’s 2018 post Restorative Justice in School: An Overview. There are several books listed at the end of the post that may be helpful for you, as well!

  17. Hem Raj Subba says:

    In my country Bhutan, we have the zero tolerance policy and positive discipline which is similar to Restorative Justice. It does help student to empathizes

  18. Cliff Ghaa says:

    In my country we were raised during an era when punishment teachers was okay. It caused both physical and mental harm, we hated school, but our parents encouraged it, because it is the same system. Things have changed these days and we hope positive reinforcement will be the order of the day in the whole world without teachers going back to that era, whether in hiding or not. Let’s help students to empathize.

    • Helen Boma-Siaminabo says:

      That was applicable to me too. The Repairing harm system is a welcome development.
      Thank you my facilitator @Cliff Ghaa

  19. GBENGA says:

    I am actually in support of restorative justice in this scenario. However, societies and context differ, in some places, the traditional punitive measure is firstly employed before the latter and more dynamic one is applied

  20. Let’s say that a student physically assaults another student, causing major bodily harm.

    What would Restorative Justice look like then?

    Please do not tell me they simply do not get OSS and we make the write a letter….

  21. Sisa says:

    Finding the root cause of a child’s behaviour before administering punishment is very important. In most cases, learners misbehaviours are always reactions to some underlying problems. They could be social, financial, psychological or even health. It is a way of crying out, only that they do not know the right channel to do it. A friendly chat, counselling session and an assurance all will be well is a sure way of sorting out the problem without necessarily punishing.

  22. Randze says:

    Knowing the cause of a behavior determines the type of discipline given.

  23. Kinga Lhamo says:

    Hello, I have thought that giving punishment would get rid of the disruptive behaviors of the children but now I learnt it could be just a temporary measure. I have also noticed children repeating this same behavior even after getting the punishment. Now I understood we need to repair harm to get rid of such behavior instead of punishing.

    • Margaret Harris-Shoates says:

      Glad to hear that the post helped shape your thinking, Kinga!

  24. Pema says:

    Most of the time we’d punish by letting them stand or scolding and it seems to work for a very short span of time and again the disruptive behavior starts and we get more frustrated and punish them again. But going through this blog had me thinking about repairing before things become worse. Nevertheless with smaller kids I usually make them apologize.
    It was great going through this blog. Thank you!

    • Margaret Harris-Shoates says:

      Glad to hear that the post was helpful in shaping your thinking, Pema!

  25. Kinley Lhaden says:

    Over the year what I have seen is, when a student is punished for their misbehavior, they become more aggressive, arrogant and hold grudges if they fail to take the punishment positively.

    Instead of punishment, some good words tend to have more positive respond. Instead of spending time in providing punishment, better spend it in listening and giving suggestion to mold their behaviour.

    • Andrea Castellano says:

      Building relationships with students is one of the most important steps towards creating a safe and nurturing school environment. Agreed.

  26. Abraham Sunday Unubi says:

    Well, when people do wrong, they should be made to suffer for it to serve as deterrent both to the wrongdoer and also to others. However, I do try to suppress punishment for my students and repair their harm by calling them to my office to offer them ‘useful advice’ . But my experience and challenge over time is that this is already building a sense of weakness in them concerning me as well as a sense of ‘he is a good man, he won’t punish you for whatever you do’. And for this reason, I punish them rather than repairing their harm.

    • Margaret Harris-Shoates says:

      Abraham, thank you for sharing your perspective. Repairing harm may result in very real consequences for the offender, and those consequences can often serve as a significant deterrent. A key difference is that while the primary purpose of traditional discipline is punishment, the primary purpose of repairing harm is justice. In addition, repairing harm prompts reflection and holds the offender accountable for problem solving, which builds empathy skills that students can carry with them far beyond the context of school. If you have not already, I would encourage you to take a look at Jenn’s 2018 post “Restorative Justice in School: An Overview,” which is based on an interview with Victor Small. I hope this helps.

  27. Tuvia says:

    Repairing harm is the sure way to go. I am super grateful i came across this blog to learn more. Often times we revert to using old methods of punishment to correct children which I have witnessed for myself that it doesn’t work especially in this jet age. In my classroom we have a rule that if you mess up your table during lunch time you clean it before break time, the children understood this because we explained to them how it makes them look and how it is more work for the helps that clean up. I believe this has built empathy to understand the effects of messing up their tables with food on themselves and others and have found a way to repair their harm by cleaning up even before they are called to do so.


    I am super excited to be a part of this contribution. I totally agree with the option of repairing harm rather than the traditional methods of punishment like suspension, detentions, etc. This is because most of these students don’t really want to be in school so they will be happy to accept such and they can abuse the system for their own purposes.

    But the new method of repairing harm makes the offenders take responsibility for their actions.

    In our school, there are “Ground Rules and Pandora Boxes” prepared by the students in their various classes with the collaboration of their teachers. The Ground Rules are “restorative consequences” in nature while the Pandora Boxes’ contents are “positively productive” in nature and not punitive measures.

    The defaulters dip into the boxes pick out a wrap and the alternative and the appropriate repairing harm measure is applied immediately. This practice is effective and turns every conflict into a learning opportunity.

    • Andrea Castellano says:


      It certainly seems as if your school is doing some important work using the principles of restorative justice. I’m sure others will be interested in trying out Ground Rules and Pandora Boxes. Thanks so much for sharing!

  29. AJAY K MISHRA says:

    These days ‘punishment’ is a word seldom propagated rather other scientific methods are available to reform. it is better to talk and discuss with some quantifiable reinforcement.

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