Cult of Pedagogy Search

Restorative Justice in School: An Overview


Can't find what you are looking for? Contact Us

Listen to my interview with Victor Small (transcript):

Sponsored by Pear Deck and Peergrade

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. When you make a purchase through these links, Cult of Pedagogy gets a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you.


A student threw a chair at a teacher.

That’s the story I heard. It was a story meant to illustrate how bad a particular group of kids was, and now I can’t even remember who the teacher was or where the school was located, or even the gender of the teacher or the student. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard two or three different stories about students throwing things at teachers, each one told with the intent of showing just how bad those kids were.

But every time I’ve heard a story like that, my first thought has always been, Holy crap. What kind of a relationship did that teacher have with those students? What was going on in the minutes, days, and weeks leading up to that chair being thrown?

And I know how that sounds. It sounds like I’m blaming the teacher. Or that I don’t think a student should be held responsible for doing something as awful as throwing a piece of furniture at another human being.

I don’t think that. But here’s what I think probably happened in all of those schools: The student was removed from class and promptly suspended, maybe even expelled. And if and when that student returned to school, nothing much was done to repair that student’s relationship with the teacher. Or to really address the other issues that may have been going on leading up to that chair being thrown. And if that kind of work isn’t done, if we focus only on making our punishments stricter, then things like chair throwing will keep happening. And nobody wants that.

Getting students to behave in a way that is conducive to learning is a perennial challenge for teachers. On this site I have dealt with the topic a number of times.  And every piece of advice—the tips and hacks and bits of wisdom—they are all useful.

But one approach to addressing problematic behavior—restorative justice—really stands on its own, because it focuses on building relationships and repairing harm, rather than simply punishing students for misbehavior.

I have wanted to share more about restorative justice on my site for years, but every time I started, I found that the topic was just too big, too complex to handle all at once. Usually, I try to share things that teachers can understand and apply right away, and the concept of restorative justice just wasn’t letting me package and deliver it in a tidy little bundle.

So rather than try to do that, I’m going to just start with an overview. This will not be a comprehensive study of restorative practices, but an introduction designed for teachers who are just starting to get interested in this approach.

Victor Small, Jr.


Helping me do that is Victor Small, Jr., a middle school administrator in Oakland, California. He has been using restorative practices for several years and supports other teachers through a Twitter chat—using the hashtag #RJLeagueChat—and a Voxer group called the Restorative Justice League, where educators talk about the challenges they’re facing in implementing restorative practices and help each other work through tough situations.

In our interview, Small walks me through some of the basics of restorative justice—called RJ by many of its practitioners—and talks about how teachers can get started. You can listen to the  interview in the player above, read a full transcript, or review the key takeaways here.

What is Restorative Justice?

The philosophy of restorative justice has its roots in the criminal justice system. When a crime is committed in a modern society, the typical response is to punish the offender, and that’s about it. But societies all over the world have started to recognize that this approach doesn’t repair the harm that was done; it also does nothing to address underlying problems that may have led to the offense in the first place. So they are starting to replace—or at least supplement—the standard approach with restorative justice practices, which focus on repairing harm for all parties involved. This process may include some form of punishment for the offender, but the lens is much wider than that.

“Say you stole a car,” Small says. “Instead of you necessarily doing jail time, really what you would have to first do is make sure that you restore the situation to the person who you actually harmed, which would be the person whose car you stole, right? So you would have to restore that in some way. Either you’d have to get them their car back or get them a new car and apologize or something like that. Basically, the debt that you owe to society is to that person that you harmed.”

This shift toward restorative justice has led to reduced recidivism (repeat offenses), greater satisfaction with the outcomes from all stakeholders, and reduced post-traumatic stress caused by the crime. (These results are summarized in this overview from the University of Wisconsin.)

Encouraged by these successes, educators in some schools have started using restorative practices to address disruptive or harmful behavior. With this shift, schools hope to see improved behavior and to reverse a disturbing trend: The zero-tolerance discipline policies of the past few decades have dramatically increased suspension rates in many districts, which can in turn lower graduation rates and ultimately push more students into the juvenile justice system. And again, those suspensions do nothing to repair harm.

Common Restorative Practices

The thing about restorative justice is that unlike a typical discipline program, it is not a cut-and-dried system with prescribed steps to follow in every situation. If done correctly, schools that shift to restorative justice will approach it holistically, looking at preventing wrongdoing as much as—if not more than—how to address it when it occurs.

“What we’re essentially teaching students is your behavior affects people,” Small explains, “and so in order to pay it forward or to deal with the consequences of that, you’re going to have to figure out how to make things right. When we talk about restorative justice practices, we’re talking about the things you’re doing to ensure that students are recognizing when they’re doing something wrong and finding a way to make it right.”

Although restorative justice models vary somewhat from school to school, Small says schools that are doing it right have the following practices at their core.

Building Relationships

Schools that get interested in restorative justice may be tempted to jump right to the alternative punishments, but a true RJ program puts heavy emphasis on relationships. These relationships go in all directions: teacher to student, student to student, teacher to teacher, and between the school and the larger community.

These bonds are not forged overnight. Daily conversations, team-building exercises, telling our own stories and making time and space for students to tell theirs helps build relationships over time. “You’ve got to give them time to grow with one another,” Small says.

And if you do, it pays off. “If you’ve got everybody in the school liking and getting along with one another, well when they do something wrong, it’s a lot easier for that kid to apologize. The reason I’m really a very big proponent of RJ is if you’re doing it right, you’re going to prevent a whole lot of issues from occurring.”

A Mindset Shift

To be effective with restorative justice, teachers need to adopt a restorative mindset, a way of looking at wrongdoing and punishment through a different lens.

“Everything that a kid does shouldn’t have to have a consequence,” Small says. “I mean if a kid gets angry and says something to another kid, and that kid gets mad, do they need detention for that, or do they need to just fix the problem and not be mad at each other? Probably just fix the problem, not be mad at each other, and go on about their lives. If they didn’t do anything wrong to the class or the community and they just did something messed-up to another student, they can handle that between the two students. You could facilitate that. It teaches them, hey, you have to be accountable for your actions, because your actions do have impact on other students, without having them sit in detention, right?”


Pulling groups of people together into circles for conversation is one of the most recognizable features of schools that have adopted restorative practices. These circles can take many forms: mediation circles when a problem needs to be addressed, healing circles when group members are hurting or grieving, or circles that form just for dialogue and storytelling. When circles are a regular part of the school culture, they give students a vehicle for communicating when problems arise, rather than handling them in less constructive ways.

Teacher Hakim Jones leads a circle at Murray Hill Middle School in North Laurel, Maryland (photo by Gwyneth JonesCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


Where to Start

Small offers this advice for educators who want to get started with restorative justice:

Read about RJ

A lot of excellent books have been written about restorative practices. To make sure you and your colleagues are working from a solid foundation, read up on the history and philosophy before attempting to implement an RJ program.  I have listed a few good starter books at the end of this post, and a lot more can be found online that detail specific practices.

Identify Your Biases and Triggers

A big part of addressing student misbehavior and building strong relationships with students is uncovering our own built-in biases. And the first step toward doing that is getting comfortable with the idea that we all have them.

“It’s really painful for us to consider this,” Small says, “but if we walk into our classrooms and we really try to believe that an approach to colorblindness is one that’s effective, we’re really shortchanging our kids’ lives, because if we’re just constantly telling them, ‘Hey, I don’t see color,’ when they leave your classroom, someone’s going to see their color. And someone’s going to act possibly on the fact that they see their color, so we’re setting them up for failure if we don’t do our own investigation of, ‘Do I have any biases against any particular type of culture, any particular type of culture activity, any of my students? Do I have any things that trigger certain behavior or fears or anger that they do that they do naturally? Taking a step back and wondering, is it me or is it them?'”

Build Culture and Community

If you have a school culture where students feel known, where they feel at home, behavior on the whole will be better and efforts to address wrongdoing will be more productive. Getting to that point will happen if you approach culture-building from a lot of different angles.

“Work on finding ways to include kids in what’s going on,” Small says, “like allowing more student voice, allowing more student opportunities for them to display their culture, act on their culture, be a part of their culture.”

Having caring adults in the building who look like the student body is also more important than many people realize. “You need to give (students) opportunities to learn about people that look like them, that are from their culture, that represent them. If 99 percent of your staff is white and 99 percent of your student body is black and Latino, you’re going to need to figure out a way to get more black and Latino staff members in your school.” (This conversation with former teacher of the year Nate Bowling dives more deeply into this topic.)

Finally, schools can work to make the school more integrated into the larger community. “If you can find ways to learn about the neighborhoods, the communities and find ways to bring people from the community and in the neighborhoods into your school, you’re creating a school culture that the students can feel more at home in.” And when students feel at home, when they know each other, there’s less of a need to address misbehavior.

“They just get along better, so they fight less,” Small says of his students. “There’s less reason for them to fight, because everyone knows everyone else.”

Okay, but what about the discipline?

Having finished this overview, I realize I never quite got to the question of How does restorative justice actually deal with the misbehavior? 

The answer to this is complicated, because it’s not as simple as detention-suspension-expulsion. There are conferences and circles, a lot of discussion about the harm that was done and how it can be repaired. Individual decisions are made on an individual basis. There’s more to it than I can cover in one post, but I plan to do more posts later to dig more deeply into the details. I really do believe that restorative justice is the direction we need to be heading to create safer, healthier school communities.

I hope you’ll take a step in that direction. ♦


To Learn More

These books offer a great starting point for learning more about restorative practices:

Better than Carrots or Sticks:
Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management
Dominique Smith, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey


The Little Book of Restorative Justice
Howard Zehr


The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools:
Teaching Responsibility; Creating Caring Climates
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, Judy H. Mullet


You can find Victor Small, Jr., on Twitter at @MrSmall215, and  join him every Sunday night at 8pm EST for the #RJLeagueChat.


Come back for more.
Join my mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration—in quick, bite-sized packages—all geared toward making your teaching more effective and fun. You’ll get access to our members-only library of free downloads, including 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half, the e-booklet that has helped thousands of teachers save time on grading. Over 50,000 other teachers have already joined—come on in.



  1. Joanne says:

    Sounds very much like the underlying philosophy behind Responsive Classroom. Building relationships with students is key in RC

  2. Sofia Segurola says:

    Can a restorative justice circle backfire?

    • Victor says:

      I’m not sure what it means for the circle to back fire, can you elaborate?

    • Rhonda J. says:

      Hi Sophia,

      In any possible way, most things can backfire. Would that be reason enough for me to avoid community circle, a restorative practice, in my 4th grade classroom? No. Am I at times hesitant, knowing a student may bring to the circle something controversial? Yes. May bring a misunderstanding to the circle that could spark a flare-up? Yes. It has happened with our principal sitting as a guest in our circle. It has happened with a guest teacher friend, also in the RJ League Voxer group, from North Florida sitting in our circle (we are in Central FL). It has happened with our school SRO and Wal-Mart manager sitting as guests in our circle. Also happened with our assistant principal in our circle. Yet amazingly, the students have cultivated such a community of care and responsiveness, that THEY solved it through attentive listening to what they heard their peers were feeling and what their peers needed. I didn’t solve it. They did. That’s what stood out to all of our guests sitting in on our circles. Students empowered in conflict resolution and community building.

      Admittedly though, I will say that there are processes related to reintegration after an absence due to lengthy OSS, possible jail time served, and restoration possibly related to criminal damages where authentic RJ training is necessary in order to honor all parties affected, even and especially the one that caused the harm.

      I’m not sure if I was able to help answer your question, but do hope that in some way the idea of backfiring won’t dissuade someone from pushing in and building a community of care.

  3. Frederick Clemens Pratt says:

    Thank you for highlighting restorative practices to the CoP audience. Please encourage readers to visit

  4. Geneva says:

    How does restorative justice work when the offense is that of bigotry or misogyny?

    • Victor says:

      With Restorative Conversations and reintigrative shaming… You can talk to the child about what what they did or said was wrong… You can also have a conversation about it in circle…

      • Geneva says:

        What is meant by “reintegrative shaming…”? In what ways can we protect the targets and victims of hate speech while also giving teens guilty of these offenses a second chance and an opportunity to reintegrate? Thank you for your replies!

        • Victor says:

          Reintegrative shaming is when you shame the action they committed, in ther presence, while not shaming them as a person… This works fairly often and generally pretty well.

          If it doesn’t, deeper work will be needed.

  5. Monica says:

    I think that in most classroom, or at least mine and the ones I work with, teachers do restorative justice all the time. It saves everyone the giant nightmare of documentation, filling out forms, getting the office involved, calling parents. No one wants to do those things. Really for most problems, it is easier and wiser to handle them in the classroom.

    However, I am getting damn tired of the idea that I don’t have a relationship with the kids in my room. And IF I had a good relationship, the poverty, drugs, home violence, violent video games, gangs would really not match up to that relationship, and everything and everyone in my class would sing Kum by yah and learning would go on.

    I have a room of 20 kids. Active, rambunctious, learning, excited, sad, upset, loving kids. The problem with a child blowing up, is the other 19 can’t learn. The teacher is busy with a volcano in the room, not really getting the adverbs attended to. Yes, maybe kids get expelled, but what about the other 19 who now can safely learn? Yes these kids are probably going to have a high percentage of going to jail, but what about the kids in the class that can make it? Who are working their hearts out, who are curious about the world? Who I or another teacher could educate? What about them?

    I have tried them all, and when administration wants lower behavior problems, they tell us, just deal with it. If you had better classroom management, this would not be happening. If you cared enough, it would fix itself. When you keep behavioral problems, kids that stab kids with pencils, that spit on teachers and staff, that swear and throw things, that will not follow directions in the room, pretty soon the good kids start asking themselves, why should I behave.

    I have a great class this year, loving them and what we are doing. But I have had that child in the past, no matter what you do, what you try, it is never enough. In the beginning, I believed the idea of changing their response, but now I ask what about the other 19 kids. Where are their rights to an education?

    As for the kid in Florida, I will bet my bottom dollar that teachers, counselors, administration, policemen, social workers and judges have tried to help that kid. What about the other kids?


    • Monica, you sound really frustrated, and I know a lot of other teachers share your frustrations. I always had a great relationship with my students as well, but there were certain class periods, and certain years, where one kid would derail everything, and it drove me crazy thinking how unfair it was to the other students who were just trying to do the right thing. This is something Victor and I talk about on the podcast.

      I don’t think there are any easy answers to that problem, but I also don’t think that the point of RJ is to just let that kind of behavior go. In fact, my guess is that if it were done right, it would be addressed with more intensity and depth than in a school where the volcano would just be expelled. I trust that experienced RJ practitioners will come over and share their thoughts as well, so I’ll step aside for them.

    • Victor says:

      Monica, I’m truly sorry that you’re having that situation.

      From what I’ve read about the situation in Florida, the suspect was expelled… How does telling someone to leave and not come back actually help the situation?

      What have you tried to do in the past in terms of building relationships with that 1 of 20 that gave you problems?

      Do you know for sure what the situation was that prompted their behavior? Did you reach out to home? Did you need to call CPS? Were they experiencing trauma or anxiety? Or anything else clinically proven to impare human learning and understanding?

      Do you know why the child is blowing up? Do you know what calms them down and/or focuses them from talking to their family? To prevent major issues, and keep all 20 in class…

      Do you know why that one kid stabbed the other kid with the pencil? Was she/he provoked somehow? Did the first one say a slur or racially insensitive? Did the first kid make fun of the stabber’s mom, but doesn’t know that she was arrested last night?

      Considering that the kids are forced to come to school… Kicking them out is an admission that we’ve failed them.

      • Sandra says:

        I think the point Monica was trying to make is that it is unfair to blame the teacher for every action every student makes, especially when we are not in control of much of their lives. I have read many blog post written since the Florida shooting that essentially victim blames the teachers and students in Parkland – the teachers should have asked how he was feeling, the teachers should have showed him more love, maybe if students were nicer to him…
        The example of the student throwing a chair is an interesting example of student-teacher relationships. However, I have personally experienced violence from students as a substitute upon entering the classroom for the first time. I cannot honestly say that it was because of a relationship I broke and didn’t restore. It was undeserving violence perpetrated on an authority figure for reasons that had nothing to do with me.
        The reality is, we don’t know that teachers and students didn’t try their very best to include, love, support this student. We also don’t know all of the circumstances leading up to his expulsion. It is also good to not that if a teacher or student feels physically in danger, suspensions can function as cool off time after an incident and give both parties some space to consider their actions before reconciling through restorative justice.
        I am a huge fan of restorative justice and think it is extremely effective. However, I understand Monica’s feelings of frustration when, as a teacher, we are sometimes seen as directly responsible for all negative behavior of students regardless of any and all circumstances.

    • Monica, it sounds like you have a really tough situation. I was an SDC teacher for students with Emotional Disturbance for over 10 years, at the high school level. During those ten years, I had NO fights, no altercations, no expulsions, no restraints, no holds and very few suspensions because of my restorative practices philosophy. Try the book, Discipline That Restores. It lays it all out in a “how-to” format. Your heart is there, that’s the hard part. Now, use a system to structure your program. I’m happy to talk with you. My email is: [email protected]

  6. Thanks for posting this. Love and Logic offers many strategies to build relationships, prevent behaviors and the help students take responsibility for their actions. All of us seem to be working in the same direction!

  7. Becky Kroenke says:

    Thank you for this post! I have been very interested in RJ and wanting to explore it!

  8. Jason Hanslo says:


    My work on the Positive reflection loop is similar. Students reflect on behaviour after by presenting the behaviour and the correction to the community and through empathy the loop is continued.

  9. In my graduate course for pre-service special education teachers, we use a text by Claassen & Claassen, Discipline That Restores. It is easy to read and includes a step by step format for how to implement a restorative program. I also teach professional ethics as a catalyst for changing their teacher disposition toward a more restorative model – because it’s the right thing to do, and it works! Thanks for this!

  10. I’m a big fan of restorative justice. I highly recommend Touching Spirit Bear for anyone who’s thinking of implementing it. My entire school read it, and it really gave us some food for though. I just wrote a blog post about the kind of behavior that needs restorative justice:

  11. How can this be worked in with the hectic schedule of high school, please?
    I have always built relationships with my students, but how can I justify not teaching so that we can have talking circles?
    Thank you for posting this as I really did enjoy and learn from it.
    Sending you and everyone who reads this my positive energy.

    • Noelle Bryan says:

      Maria, I don’t practice RJ, yet, but I do spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year (9th grade) modeling and teaching my students the strategies we will utilize repeatedly throughout the year. Students know we spend time on things that matter to us. Practicing civil discourse is teaching them and reinforcing its importance. Maybe not direct content, but it seems to me that RJ is a necessary life skill – not only for at risk and struggling students, but also high performing students so that they are all comfortable expressing their voice and making amends.

    • A good question. Consider rethinking your perspective on the distinction between nurturing relationships and teaching. They are one and the same thing. Consider that you can teach content through talking circles. Three key resources i use are Circle Forward by Boyes-watson and Pranis, The Restorative Classroom by Hopkins and the latest Little Book by Evans and Vaandering, The Little Book of Restorative Justice in Education. All three emphasize a holistic implementation of restorative justice across the cuuriculum. The Little Book was our contribution to the field that articulates a straight forward practical understanding and approach to the foundations underlying a sustainable implementation of rj in schools.

  12. Diana says:

    Although I am a supporter of the restorative justice system I was concerned about one idea that you put forward in this podcast. You both suggested that if a teacher has a good relationship with a student they will not throw a chair at you. I have taught students who have severe mental illness or FASD for whom there are moments when even the closest relationship will not stop them from acting violently towards a teacher. I am concerned that the implied message was that if a teacher just has a good enough relationship then the child won’t be violent. That is simply untrue.

    I am a huge fan of your podcast but that particular line of discussion left me feeling that you may have misrepresented the complexity of the issue.

    • Victor says:

      RJ will not fix everything, nothing will howver in a lot of cases having a personal relationship will be all you need. When we start talking about students with trauma or special needs who have a hard time making good decisions regarding causing harm to others, yes of course thats different. There is no one size fits all approach; however, it will fit most.

    • Victor says:

      What very important to note is that the behavior of throwing a chair at someone, should be more cause for investigation. Why was it thrown? What’s the motivation? There are a ton of possibilities, but sending the kid home on vacation for 5 days won’t convey the seriousness of the crime, so digging deeper to find a suitable consequence for their actions is also necessary.

  13. Mr. Palgon says:

    Ms. Gonzales,

    You are probably aware, but the book, Touching Spirit Bear, written on a middle school level, provides a great narrative description of restorative justice. My previous school had it on their eighth grade reading list. I learned a tremendous amount about the power of healing and how it is far more effective than that of punishment.

    Keep the great posts coming!
    -Mr. Palgon

  14. Bonnie says:

    Thank you for bringing attention to RJ. It is important for teachers and students to realize the importance of relationships. People are less likely to intentionally harm one another when mutual respect exists and it is easier to empathize with someone when you have a sense of their personal history.
    I always appreciate the work you do to share great practices.
    🙏🏼 Bonnie

  15. Dale says:

    I’m usually a fan of your blog, but I have to say I was pretty disappointed by this post. I came here looking for some advice as to how to start using restorative justice within the classroom and came away with nothing. And I know you have recommended books to read, but I work as at teacher during the day, and I study at college in the evenings so don’t have huge amounts of time to be reading all these books.
    Are you intending on offering specifics in the future?

    • Hi, Dale. I work for Cult of Pedagogy. Thanks for letting us know you were hoping for something a bit more. Restorative Justice is a very broad field of study…to tackle it in one post just wouldn’t be possible. Jenn’s goal for this post was to provide an overview, and not being an expert herself, the best she can do for people right now is interview those who are, and then point people to resources where they can learn more about it. You sound really busy, but if you can, we suggest maybe starting with The Little Book of Restorative Justice or following #RJchat. Also, Jenn will probably be doing more specific posts in the future, she’s just not sure when. Thanks!

  16. Karen says:

    The school I work at uses a merit/demerit system. Can RJ be used when that system is in place?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.