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Restorative Justice in PreK-12 Schools

Why Educators Seek Out Restorative Justice, and How it Can Drive Educational Equity

What is restorative justice?

Though it is increasingly discussed in the context of education, restorative justice (RJ) is a practice that originated outside of education institutions. Scholars generally attribute the origins of restorative justice practices to native cultures of the Americas and South Pacific and other indigenous cultures (Fronius et al., 2016). In the United States, restorative justice has been employed in some criminal and juvenile justice systems, and many activists and reformers have called for broader implementation across all systems.

While there is no single definition for restorative justice (RJ) practices, researchers from the WestEd Justice and Prevention Research Center offer this description:

“RJ is a broad term that encompasses a growing social movement to institutionalize peaceful and non-punitive approaches for addressing harm, responding to violations of legal and human rights, and problem solving” (Fronius et al., 2016).

Additionally, researchers Allison Ann Payne and Kelly Welch note:

“Restorative justice methods used to address student misbehavior in schools are similar to the approaches used in the criminal justice system that effectively focus on repairing the harm caused by crime involving offenders, victims, and the community (Macready, 2009) through conferences that sanction community service or restitution (Sherman, 2003) rather than punishments that encourage recidivism (Braithwaite, Ahmed, Morrison, & Reinhart, 2001; Chmelynski, 2005; Morrison, 2005)” (Payne & Welch 2013).

The Centre for Justice and Reconciliation defines restorative justice in three core principles: repair, encounter, and transformation. The repair principle refers to the crime or act that cause harm, and how that harm can be reversed or healed; encounter refers to the collaboration required among stakeholders to decide how to repair the harm; and transformation refers to the outcome of this process, and the changes that can occur among people and communities.

Generally, restorative justice practices aim to repair harm done to those in the community and restore peace among members — while considering the needs of all individuals involved.

Why bring restorative justice to education?

Educators are considering, engaging with, and implementing restorative justice for a variety of reasons, many of which either have to do with dismantling harmful trends or with introducing positive structures and climates. Some schools introduce restorative justice practices in an effort to move away from zero tolerance policies. Regardless, motivations for bringing restorative justice to a learning community may stem from a need to reduce a harmful trend or to introduce a positive trend.

Here’s a look at what restorative justice practitioners aim to replace or lessen:

Suspensions and expulsions. On a practical, case-by-case level, restorative justice behavioral interventions aim to replace suspensions and expulsions, as well as other punitive discipline methods that remove students from the learning environment. Instead, restorative justice practices aim to keep students in the classroom so they can both continue to learn as well as build critical social, emotional, and behavioral skills.

Inequity Across Systems. Negative behavioral practices disproportionately affect underserved student populations — particularly students of color. Research has demonstrated that harsher punishments are used more with underserved student populations, and moreover, can have a deeper, more lasting, negative impact on their experiences and futures. Harshly punitive responses to negative student behaviors can ultimately contribute to inequitable experiences and outcomes for underserved student populations. Restorative justice practitioners aim to disrupt these persistent barriers to educational equity.

While restorative justice practices can be used to combat the harmful trends above, it is also designed to promote the following:

Student Empowerment: Researchers from the Brooklyn Community Foundation conducted interviews with educators, many of which indicated that restorative justice empowered students to use their voices in the classroom. One interviewee stated: “I think the core (RJ) values are that everyone’s voice matters, that there’s an equity of voice, that there is time and value given each person representing themselves on their own terms” (Gregory et al., 2016). Empowerment is embedded in the process of restorative justice — students have a voice in decisions made, have a space to express their experience and feelings, and are key influencers in the classroom culture.

Responsibility and Agency: Researchers who examined restorative circles (a specific RJ practice) in a U.S. high school found that student participants cited “ownership of the process” as a positive outcome. These students appreciated the responsibility and agency that the restorative circle process granted them, and even referenced specific instances where they used the circle process to resolve a conflict between peers without the presence of an adult (Ortega et al., 2016). Aside from addressing behavioral issues, restorative justice practices certainly have the potential to foster important skills among students as well, like responsibility.

Inclusivity and Strong Relationships: Both students and teachers from the study above also cited “improved relationships as an outcome of restorative circles. The circle process provided a healing space for students to form better relationships with each other, and for teachers to strengthen relationships with students. Researchers noted that these relationships were often not only restored to their status before the conflict arose, but actually improved above the original baseline (Ortega et al., 2016). Another study conducted in a high school in Hong Kong over the course of two years found that a whole-school restorative justice approach fostered empathy among students, reduced bullying, and boosted student self-esteem (Wong et al., 2011).

What does restorative justice look like in schools?

When adopted by a school, restorative justice can be practiced in a variety of ways and will appear differently based on each school’s approach. The paradigm of restorative justice can help guide educators in responding to individual and group behavior among students, but it is very different from traditional behavioral interventions or punishment. It is these differences, in fact, that are what make this approach both flexible and effective.

Research from the Brooklyn Community Foundation helps illustrate this flexibility, and the ways that RJ can take place within a diverse range of settings at the school or district level. Though actual implementation varied, there was a common theme: effective RJ takes place when there is a comprehensive school- or district-wide dedication to the shift in practice. Data from the study suggests that the most successful settings are those in which leaders set a clear vision for RJ, provide time and resources for staff to implement RJ practices, work with the community and families, and set a long-term vision for sustainable change (Gregory et al., 2016).

On an individual classroom level, restorative justice practices vary by school, teacher, and instance. Generally, they involve a collaborative dialogue between students and educators or other leaders present in the classroom, including the student who engaged in harmful behaviors and any students who were on the receiving end of that harm. Educators might facilitate this dialogue through a community circle, a mediation, a conference, or a class meeting — but the processes typically work to ensure that:

  • the student(s) in question accepts responsibility for their actions,
  • the group collectively determines the actions the student should take to repair harm done,
  • and the student agrees to carry out the determined service and is reintegrated back into the group (Ortega et al., 2016).

Teachers and school leaders may use this process to address disruptive behaviors in class, bullying, or even disagreements among students.

For specific stories and examples of restorative in action at a variety of grade levels, see:

How can educators learn more about restorative justice?

School administrators, district leaders, and classroom teachers looking to learn more about restorative justice practices can find a number of existing resources about the evolution of restorative justice in schools in research portals and in education publications. Educators may also find it useful to reach out to peers from other districts who have introduced RJ to their schools, by attending conferences, networking, or connecting online, such as by following #RestorativeJustice on Twitter.

While the journey to equitable learning experiences for all students will not always be clear, and will rarely be simple, adopting innovative and inclusive practices makes the path toward equity for all students possible.

For more on equity, social and emotional learning, and behavior, see:


Fronius, T., Persson, H., Guckenburg, S., Hurley, N., & Anthony, P. (2016). Restorative Justice in U.S. Schools: A Research Review. WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center.

Gregory, A., Soffer, R., Gaines, E., Hurley, A., & Karikehalli, N. (2016). Implementing Restorative Justice in Schools: Lessons Learning from Restorative Justice Practitioners in Four Brooklyn Schools. Brooklyn Community Foundation. Rutgers University.

Ortega, L., Lyubanksy, M., Nettles, S., & Espelage, D. L. (2016). Outcomes of Restorative Circles Program in a High School Setting. Psychology of Violence.

Payne, A. A., & Welch, K. (2013). Restorative Justice in Schools: The Influence of Race on Restorative Discipline. Youth and Society.

Wong, D. S. W., Cheng, C. H. K., Ngan, R. M. H., & Ma, S. K. (2011). Program effectiveness of a restorative whole-school approach for tackling school bullying in Hong Kong. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 55, 846–862.



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