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Restorative Practices in the Early Childhood Classroom

See how restorative practices can help children better manage their behavior.

Restorative Practices in the Early Childhood Classroom

Restorative Practices in the Early Childhood Classroom

When it comes to challenging behavior in the classroom, everyone has their way of addressing it. To help children learn how to process and handle their feelings and emotions appropriately and grow from their experiences, they need to feel safe and have the support of their teachers and peers. Punishment isn't an effective or productive way to handle these concerns; however, restorative practice is becoming a more popular and valuable method of addressing these challenges.

What is restorative practice?

The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) defines restorative practice as "a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision-making." Traditional punishment methods for misbehavior and rule-breaking emphasize establishing and assigning guilt and punishing wrongdoers. In contrast, restorative practice uses disciplinary interventions to understand the root cause of the wrongdoing, understand the needs, feelings, and responsibilities of all impacted individuals, explore ways to bring healing to the community, and provide support to create positive behavioral changes

With traditional measures, accountability equates to receiving punishment. In restorative practice, accountability includes:

  • Understanding the impact of one's actions
  • Taking responsibility for those choices
  • Identifying ways to repair and prevent future harm

Traditional methods assign shame and guilt to children who've exhibited misbehavior. Yet, with restorative practice, the process includes getting to the source of the behavior and how they can learn and grow from the experience. 

When children misbehave in school, they're likely communicating an unmet need. All children communicate and express themselves differently and may exhibit challenging behaviors in school through tantrums, excessive anger, defiance, physical harm, or disruption. There are various ways to respond to these actions, which include redirecting their behavior, using guidance to create a more positive environment, using conventional disciplinary methods such as taking away privileges, teaching children how to self-regulate their emotions and behavior, or through restorative practices.

Redirecting behavior has benefits like preventing further escalation or helping the child avoid punishment; however, it doesn't get to the root cause of the issue and can be challenging to do at that moment. In addition, applying conventional disciplinary methods to the situation can further escalate things. However, with restorative practices, you can work with the child to: 

  • Build a healthy relationship
  • Develop conflict-resolution skills
  • Create a sense of belonging and agency
  • Repair the harm that's been done
  • Minimize negative effects of punitive discipline policies
  • Reduce disciplinary incidents

three preschool children playing with wooden blocks


Benefits of restorative practices

For years, traditional disciplinary actions have disproportionately impacted children of color and from low-income areas by pushing them out of the classroom and their school community through suspensions and visits with school administrators. However, implementing restorative practices in schools can lead to more positive outcomes and better and more effective behavior and classroom management in the classroom. When addressing challenging behavior in children by building classroom communities, enabling authentic communication, and providing children with the tools to bring forth any issues and conflicts they face comfortably, you can remove negativity and distractions from the classroom. 

When schools adopt restorative methods, they can help children address concerns, repair harm, achieve understanding, and agree on how to make things right. In addition, evidence shows that restorative practices can lead to benefits such as:

  • Reductions in disciplinary referrals to principals
  • Reductions in suspensions and expulsions
  • Reductions in the amount of instructional time lost to managing student behavior challenges
  • Improved teacher morale
  • Improved teacher retention
  • Improved academic outcomes and performance
  • Reductions in unnecessary referrals of minority students

Restorative justice in schools

Restorative justice is a subset of restorative practice. It's responsive in nature and is a formal process where someone who's caused harm to an individual or group can meet with those they've harmed or affected. Compared to restorative practice, which uses various strategies and interventions to be proactive and responsive, restorative justice in schools is a peer-mediated meeting where affected parties can make amends and reintegrate children back into the classroom community. 

As a result, schools implementing restorative justice programs can change the school culture and strengthen campus communities, prevent bullying, and reduce conflicts. Over time, schools have seen a reduction in suspensions and expulsions, and children feel happier and safer.

Restorative circles in schools

Children face different issues, have different thoughts and feelings, and may not know how to address or process them. However, with restorative circles, you can create a space that allows children to discuss these emotions and issues and equip them to handle them better and feel more comfortable and present in the classroom. 

Restorative circles are a valuable practice to replace punitive acts of discipline and are instrumental in building relationships and skills children need to face and address challenges head-on. When you bring children together for restorative interactions, they sit in circles. These restorative circle dialogues

  • Enable positive and supportive connections with peers
  • Teach children how to identify who's affected by misbehaviors
  • Help children learn how to value and use positive and proactive strategies to create and maintain a peaceful classroom community
  • Help children understand the principles of restorative justice

You can follow a few steps to implement a restorative circle in your classroom. Start by introducing the concept to the children. Explain that it's a safe and respectful space where they can openly share their thoughts and feelings. Next, establish ground rules for them, such as respecting each other, listening actively, and using "I" statements. Then, focus on their experiences and interests to select a topic for discussion. 

The next step is to arrange your class in a circle and introduce the topic. As their teacher, you'll facilitate the conversation and ensure everyone has an opportunity to speak. Use active listening techniques to show you're engaged and understand what the children are saying. Finally, summarize the discussion at the end of the circle and thank the children for sharing their thoughts and feelings. Encourage them to continue using the skills they learned in the circle to communicate and resolve conflicts in the future.

A teacher and six preschool children sitting in a circle on a colorful rug on the floor. They all have their hands and fingers extended into the center of the circle.


How to implement restorative practices in the classroom

Children who connect with their peers, teachers, and schools can build trust and form supportive relationships. Restorative practice gives them a voice and instills them with the confidence to express their feelings and opinions and advocate for themselves. It creates an environment where they'll feel comfortable speaking up about their needs and feelings, be open to listening and discussing what they're going through, and empower them to take responsibility for their actions. 

When you're ready to implement restorative practices, start small by bringing basic restorative skills into the classroom. This includes listening, effective communication, and curiosity questions. Some examples of these practices in the classroom include:

  • Building a positive classroom community by promoting empathy, respect, and inclusivity. Encourage children to understand and appreciate each other's differences and work collaboratively.
  • Developing a shared language that children can use to communicate their feelings and needs. Encourage children to use "I" statements and to listen actively to each other.
  • Teaching problem-solving skills, such as identifying problems, brainstorming solutions, and evaluating outcomes. Encourage children to work together to find solutions to conflicts.
  • Using restorative questions to encourage children to reflect on their behavior and its impact on others. For example, "What happened?", "How did it make you feel?" and "What can you do to make things right?".
  • Practicing restorative conversations by encouraging children to have conversations with each other to resolve conflicts. Provide guidance and support as needed, and model restorative conversations when appropriate.
  • Using restorative consequences instead of punitive measures when conflicts arise. For example, encourage children to make amends, apologize, and find ways to repair any harm caused.

Once children master these skills, you can begin working on other restorative practices. Considering what practices will suit your classroom and children is best. Will they benefit more from restorative circles, conversations, or class meetings? Factors to consider are:

  • The children's ages
  • The severity of the situation
  • The number of people involved
  • The relationship between them 

To be successful, you'll also want to work with the children to build positive relationships, ensure that you model the appropriate behavior, be consistent with the practices, and provide feedback to the children so that they can understand what they did well and what to improve on. 

Sharing these practices with the children's families helps create community and gives families strategies to use at home to help children remain consistent in their growth. Using a tool like brightwheel's communication feature lets you keep parents updated on their child's progress and communicate what restorative practices they've learned and any conflicts they've resolved.

Bring restorative practices into your classroom

Finding alternative, more positive ways to address challenging behavior isn't just beneficial to the children exhibiting the issues; it also impacts their peers whose education can suffer when these incidents occur. Restorative practices are an effective and proactive way of correcting the behavior, understanding the causes, and addressing them to set children up for future success. In addition, building this open and positive environment will enhance how they process their feelings, emotions, and needs.

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