Restorative Approach in Schools

human circle

As teachers (and administrators), we know that a safe and orderly educational environment is vital to effectively and efficiently deliver high-quality instruction. Students who display problem behavior, break rules or commit serious school offenses, can disrupt this environment and jeopardize the safety and learning of other students. Punishments such as removal from class, and in and out of school suspensions are often believed necessary to maintain school safety, serve as a deterrent to other students, and to teach students a lesson. It may seem intuitive to simply remove a “problem student” yet, researchers explain that exclusionary punishment is associated with increased drop out rates, decreased academic achievement, poor school climate, and increased juvenile delinquency.

In fact, the American Bar Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association have all issued statements opposing “zero-tolerance policies” and called on states and school districts to develop alternatives to exclusionary discipline practices. One alternative is a restorative approach to discipline, also known as restorative discipline or restorative practices (RP).

What is a Restorative Approach?

At its core, the restorative approach is a philosophical shift away from the traditional, punitive approach to wrongdoing. The restorative perspective views misbehavior as an offense against relationships. This approach maintains a focus on accountability of actions with a specific emphasis on empathy and repairing of harm. To that end, RP seek to address underlying issues of misbehavior and reintegrate wrongdoers back into the school and classroom community.


Traditional/ Punitive Approach Restorative Approach
What rule was broken? Who has been hurt/what relationship was damaged?
Who broke the rule? What are the needs of those harmed and what parties have a stake?
What do they deserve/how will they be punished? What stakeholders will be involved and what process will put things right again?


What Does a Restorative Approach Look Like in School?

Restorative practices are a framework and set of practices used for the prevention of rule breaking and as an intervention after a rule is broken. They can be informally infused in classrooms or formally and systematically implemented school wide. At the classroom level teachers can focus on building a sense of community and fostering relationships to develop a shared sense of responsibility for the well-being of each group member. Implementation of school-wide RP require expertise and consultation from trained professionals.

Proactive Practices in the Classroom

student circle

    • “Fair processes” such as establishing classroom rules and expectations as a group to engage in shared decision-making.
    • Teach, model and practice “affective statements/questions” that explain/ask how others are impacted by the positive or negative behavior of an individual.
    • Through the use of “proactive or responsive circles” in which the class comes together in a circle to discuss topics of concerns or problem solve. An example of an elementary classroom circle can be viewed here.
    • Inform parents and communicate with school staff the restorative approach to promote generalization.
    • The use of “student-led conferences” to discuss academic and social progress.

Intervention Practices-School wide

  • Peer Mediation/Juries/Courts- student-centered programs that hear “cases” on rule breaking or offenses
  • Restorative/Family Conferences-all stakeholders come together, including the one who committed the harm, to discuss the offense and the feelings of those involved, how to make things right and how to prevent a similar situation in the future. Depending on the severity of the offense, a trained facilitator may be required.
  • Restitution Planning/Restorative Agreements-a plan of action to repair or “put right” the offense
  • Reintegration Following Exclusion-holding a restorative meeting circle with all involved parties (parents, administrators, teachers, the party harmed and one who committed the harm) to reintegrate the offender back in to the school community. This also may require a trained facilitator.

Is This Just Another Program? Won’t This Interfere In What We Are Already Using?

Proponents of RP suggest these practices can stand-alone or be imbedded within existing programs. Within a multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) framework, relationship and community building would be primary supports, responsive circles and peer juries/mediation as secondary supports and restorative/family conferences incorporated as tertiary supports.

Are Schools Really Using This And Does It Work? 

  • Worldwide, RP is being implemented in New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the UK
  • In the US, RP is being implemented in schools in Philadelphia, Minnesota, Chicago, Oakland, Baltimore, Portland, Denver, and San Francisco.
  • Schools report that RP are effective in reducing suspensions, office referrals, disruptive behavior, detentions, and bullying while also improving school climate and teacher-student relationships
  • Additional information on RP effectiveness can be found here – 1, 2 and 3

How Can I Find Out More About RP?

RP is not a one-size-fits-all approach and realistically some students may refuse to participate. RP can be available as a continuum of options to address problem behavior or school offenses. Just as instruction is differentiated, practitioners should differentiate discipline to meet the needs of all of our students.

Adapted from:

Wachtel, Joshua. “Restorative Practices: Building a Connected Community of Learners – Restorative Works Learning Network.” Restorative Works Learning Network. February 18, 2014. Accessed March 08, 2016.

Teaching Students to Solve Social Problems


image credit: Yoel Ben-Avraham

Teaching Students to Solve Social Problems

As educators, we know that social problems among students are common issues in our classrooms. Teachers encounter social problems on a daily basis such as:

  • only four students can use the computer center but a fifth student wants a turn;
  • during group work, one student does not get along with another student;
  • three students argue over a football at recess and a shoving match ensues; or
  • a student does not share the art materials with others and words are exchanged.

Behaviors like these are commonplace, but over time they can escalate and may cause some serious issues in the classroom. Thus, it is important to provide supports and interventions that teach students with social and behavioral needs how to solve problems with other people. By doing so, you can help them to establish and maintain appropriate relationships and help them learn to display prosocial behavior while at school and beyond.

What is Social Problem Solving? 

Social problem solving is the cognitive-behavioral process that an individual goes through to solve a social problem. Typically, there are five steps within this process:

1. Identifying that the problem exists: Recognizing there is a problem that needs to be solved.

2. Defining the problem: Naming and describing the problem.

3. Generating solutions: Coming up with many possible solutions for the problem.

4. Evaluating solutions and enacting the chosen solution: Evaluating each possible solution to select the one that is most likely to solve the problem, and then effectively carrying out the chosen solution.

5. Assessing the outcome: Determining whether the problem was solved or not. If the problem was solved, no need to repeat the process. If the problem still exists or if another problem appears, the process might need to begin again.

For many competent problem solvers, this process can be automatic and skilled social problem solvers may not go through the process in a linear fashion or even realize the steps they take to solve the problem. Students who are limited in their problem solving ability, however, must be taught explicitly the step-by-step process.

How to Foster Social Problem Solving in Your Classroom 

Teaching students to solve a social problem is similar to solving other types of problems, such as in math. Start by teaching explicitly each step of the social problem-solving process to your students and review the process often. An acronym can be used to help them remember the steps. For example, the Cognitive Behavioral Research Group at the University of Florida developed the following acronym as part of the Take CHARGE! curriculum to teach middle school students the process:

Check – See If You’re Angry

Hold on – Calm Down & Think

Analyze – Figure Out the Cause

Reflect – On Possible Solutions

Go for it – Pick a Solution

Evaluate – See What Happened

There are many other ways to foster social problem solving in your classroom.

  • Have students apply the social problem-solving process to problems that they encounter in school. Go through the social problem-solving steps with students to help them decide on the best solution.
  • Include practice for social problem-solving skills by using activities, games, and role-plays throughout your school day.
  • Incorporate social problem-solving instruction in other subject areas.
    • Literacy instruction: have students decide how a book character could solve a problem.
    • Writing: have students write about problems they encounter, solutions they brainstormed, how they enacted the solution, and the outcome.

Be sure to reinforce students when they use the social problem-solving process appropriately and make good behavioral choices. If you are more comfortable using a curriculum to teach social problem solving, check out Tools for Getting Along: Teaching Students to Problem Solve (for upper elementary students) and Take CHARGE! (for middle school students).

Improve Your Students’ Learning and Behavior – Make Sure Your Classroom is Toxic-Stress Free

Stress-RelaxAll of us can agree that we have felt stressed at one point or other in our lives.  Stress is a normal part of life and can actually help us to become more focused and get work done.  As an educator, I’m sure you have noticed that your students become much more focused when they are experiencing the stress of a deadline.  The problem is when stress is persistent or extreme, or what some researchers call toxic stress.

Toxic Stress – It can actually Change our Brains

Although stress can be helpful at times, we all know that stress can also be problematic.  It can impact sleep patterns, focus, and patience.  But when stress is at toxic levels it can even make people more susceptible to health and mental problems across their lifespan.  One of the most devious roles toxic stress can play is that it can actually change brain architecture, especially the development of executive function.  This is especially concerning for students in elementary through high school whose brains are still actively developing.

The Importance of Executive Functioning

Likely you have heard the term executive function mentioned, especially as it relates to your students with attention problems.  But executive function is not just about being able to focus; it also plays a big part in how well students do academically and behaviorally.  Executive function are those cognitive skills that allow students to store and use information, control their impulses, and switch their way of thinking.  So those students in your class who display impulsive behavior, struggle with following directions and remembering rules, and are rigid in their thinking likely have deficits in their executive functioning.  More and more researchers are convinced that executive function provides the foundation for not only students’ learning and behavior, but also their lifelong success.

What Does Toxic Stress Have to do with Executive Functioning?

We know two things about the development of executive function.  One, it develops throughout childhood and adolescence.  Two, both genetics and environments play a significant role in its development – positively and negatively.  Specifically, highly toxic, stressful environments can have a negative impact on executive function development, and schools have the potential to be a stress culprit.  In fact, a recent study by the American Psychological Association found that adolescents consistently cited schools as a significant source of stress.

Foster Student Executive Function by Reducing Student Stress

The good news is that executive function appears to be malleable during childhood and adolescence.  So educators – you can have a significant impact on your students’ executive function development, and their resulting school and lifelong success by ensuring your classroom and schools are not toxic stress sources.  How do you do this?

1. Create safe and positive classroom and school environments – Provide and follow through with clear classroom and school expectations and rules.

2. Build healthy peer and adult-child relationships – Model good behavior, teach positive interaction skills, and highlight social emotional learning.

3. Teach stress regulation skill development – Teach breathing techniques, mindfulness, and social problem-solving strategies.

Some of these points may seem new or are already things you are doing in your classroom and school.  If you are already doing some of the suggestions, keep up the good work!  Numerous studies have shown that these strategies can help to make a difference in the lives of your students by potentially reducing their stress, fostering their executive function development, and improving their associated learning and behavior.  In a nutshell, you can help prepare your students for lifelong success by making sure your classroom is toxic-stress free.

Cognitive-behavioral Strategies in the Classroom

Cognitive Triad (gear)For many years, our research team has worked with a variety of teachers and students with a wide range of behavioral needs and what we have seen over and over again is that when teachers use cognitive-behavioral strategies in their classroom, the effects on student behavior have been positive. Cognitive-behavioral interventions (CBIs) are becoming recognized as a viable, research-based approach appropriate for use in school settings.

In the clinical fields of psychiatry and mental health the appraoch is called cognitive-behavioral therapy and it has been successfully used in hospitals, residential treatment facilities, and outpatient clinics to treat conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, obesity, anxiety and panic disorder, social phobia, eating disorders, alcohol and drug dependency, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and problems with anger and aggression. Due to positive results in clinical settings, CBIs have gained favor in school settings.

So, what exactly is a CBI? When teachers use a CBI, they can help their students control their own behavior, rather than attempting to control student behavior with external reinforcement alone (e.g., tokens for staying on task, praise for raising hand). CBIs teach students to use their inner speech to affect or to modify their underlying thinking, which in turn affects the way they behave. Simply put, inner speech (also known as covert self-instruction) consists of talking to oneself to solve a problem or guide behavior. Cognitive strategies can help students learn “how-to-think”, instead of “what-to-think.” CBIs are student operated, as opposed to more traditional teacher operated systems, meaning that they are based on students’ self-control rather than external rewards and punishments. While we all know the benefits of using rewards (good) and punishments (use with caution!) in the classroom, we argue that it is even more important to teach students how to use their thinking to improve their own behavior.

So how are CBIs taught, and what are the benefits? CBI curricula, such as our Tools for Getting Along: Teaching Students to Problem Solve for upper elementary students (and Take CHARGE! for junior high/middle school), provide instructional techniques such as explicit teaching and use of modeling, role-playing, feedback, reinforcement, and cognitive components that include cognitive modeling through teacher think-alouds. Changing students’ inner speech and teaching them how to think can influence their behaviors such as hitting, pushing, or teasing. Individuals can learn to develop and use self-instruction to inform more positive behavioral choices. Numerous studies demonstrate that teaching children cognitive strategies can strengthen pro-social behavior and decrease maladaptive behaviors like hyperactivity/impulsivity, disruption, and aggression. In a nutshell, by using CBIs within the classroom, you can equip your students with the skills to remain in control of their behavioral choices in a variety of settings, even when teachers are not around.

Here are some resources you may find helpful that include cogntive-behavioral strategies:


1.  Tools for Getting Along which has been reviewed by National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices and by the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse.

2.  Take CHARGE! (same as Tools for Getting Along except for junior high/middle school)


1.         A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Behavior Problems in the Elementary Classroom

(Stephen W. Smith, Ph.D. & Mitchell Yell, Ph.D.)

2.         Managing Difficult Behaviors through Problem Solving Instruction: Strategies for the Elementary Classroom

(Stephen W. Smith, Ph.D. & Ann P. Daunic, Ph.D)

3.         Preventing Problem Behaviors: Schoolwide Programs and Classroom Practices

(Robert F. Algozzine, Ph.D., Ann P. Daunic, Ph.D., Stephen W. Smith, Ph.D.)





Upcoming Insights


Welcome to our new Educator’s Blog. We have plans to present a host of student and classroom management topics that school professionals such as teachers, school administrators, school counselors, and school psychologists will hopefully find helpful. We feel we have much to share with teachers who need efficient and effective classroom strategies to assist students to better regulate their behavior so they can take advantage of the vast array of positive opportunities found in schools today.

Since dissemination is a logical extension of our research efforts over the past two decades, the Educator’s Blog will be another way we can spread the word about ways to help students, especially those at risk for or who exhibit aggressive behavior. Our body of accumulated work (see the Our Published Work link on the main page of our website) reveals that students can learn how to self regulate their own behavior and teachers can use our suggested curricula efficiently and effectively.

So, look for our Educator’s Blog which will be coming your way shortly.