A Case for the Restorative Approach in Schools


The emergence of restorative justice in both local and international contexts in recent years speaks to the growing awareness of the need to transform the culture of our social institutions and the ways in which people experience them. As Jennifer Llewellyn (2018) explains, “Justice viewed restoratively is fundamentally about just relations. In simple terms, as an approach to justice it says relationship matters to the way we understand justice and the issues at stake, as well as how we respond. This relational view extends beyond interpersonal relationships to relations at the level of groups, of institutions, of systems, and of society.”

School staffs, students, families, and community members flourish in relationships that are lived out as daily experiences of mutual respect, dignity, care, and concern—both proactively and responsively. Being restorative does not require a programmatic and individualistic approach, but, instead, a principled approach that focuses on culture and connection in school communities.

What does this mean for schools?

A restorative approach in schools is a relational approach to education. It seeks to construct positive, inclusive and safe school cultures by fostering respectful and responsible relationships among school community members that are rooted in mutual respect, care, concern, and dignity. A restorative approach embodies the idea that our institutions should be mechanisms for social engagement as opposed to social control (Morrison, 2013). Disciplinary issues are not the core of this approach; rather, a restorative approach is attentive to the promotion and protection of positive relationships within a learning community (Llewellyn & Llewellyn, 2015). In other words, a restorative approach in school requires more than a restorative response to conflict, harm, and wrongdoing; it speaks broadly to a relational way of being, learning, and knowing with others in community.

Why take a restorative approach in schools?

The restorative approach is rooted in relational theory. Relational theory reminds us that students are shaped and constituted by their interactions with other students and their teachers, and that they live their lives in and through a complex web of relationships (Derible, 2013). In schools that take a restorative approach, there is thoughtful consideration of the impact that policies and practices have on relationships in classrooms, on the playground, among staff, with parents, and with the community at large. This attention to building and maintaining just relations in schools has resulted in greater school attachment, less conflict, better behaviour, fewer suspensions and exclusions and better learning outcomes. All of these outcomes are significant factors in the reduction of young people’s risk of coming into conflict with the law (Llewellyn, 2018).

Why is a restorative approach good for students and families?

School is a big part of a young person’s life. A restorative approach in school requires students to think about themselves and others, to work on developing healthy relationships and to learn how to manage conflict. Adopting a restorative approach in a school can have a positive ripple effect into the home and the community. A restorative approach in schools offers new knowledge, methods, and skills for decision making and problem solving, such as affective language and respectful dialogue. Restorative skills help children thrive, leading to better behaviour and relationships. Schools that use this approach report that students often solve problems on their own without adult intervention, or they know that there are restorative processes in place that they can depend on in their learning community. Parents will notice that their children are demonstrating a different way to resolve conflict at home and experience more harmony at home as they and their children practise the same skills that teachers and students are using at school. A restorative approach in schools helps students become more attached to their school, which encourages education and discourages absences or “dropping out,” giving students a better chance at being successful in life (Nova Scotia Department of Justice, 2013).

Why is a restorative approach good for schools?

A restorative approach in schools works alongside and supports all of the other things we are doing to support kids. A restorative approach in schools gives back time to educators so they can focus on teaching. A consistent restorative approach reduces the level of stress around relationships, whether student-to-student or student-to-teacher. A common thread that runs through almost every conflict in schools is the perception that only one side is being heard, that one side is being valued over the other. A restorative approach reduces that perception and supports more satisfying conflict resolution (Nova Scotia Department of Justice, 2013).

Students experiencing a restorative approach report a greater sense of positive attachment to school and an increased sense of belonging to their school community. Restorative schools—both locally and internationally— are experiencing a reduction in suspensions and office referrals and increases in student attendance. Teachers report enjoying their work more, and they connect the underpinning values of the restorative approach as a reason they chose to teach in the first place. In terms of student achievement, one school that adopted a restorative approach in Nova Scotia over a five-year period reported a closing of the achievement gap that had been a feature of the school. Overall student achievement on external assessments climbed from a 60% success rate to success rates in the 90 percent range on several indicators (Derible, 2013).

How do we take a restorative approach in schools?

Restorative justice offers a common and predictable set of relational principles to guide practices and processes; it is not one fixed model or practice (Llewellyn, 2018). Taking a restorative approach in schools does not require purchasing an expensive toolkit that offers a one-sizefits- all model or delivering pre-packaged training modules. It is less about specific practices and much more about a relational way of thinking and being in community with others. Using the following relational principles for practice, we must frame the ways in which we make decisions, problem solve, teach, learn, work, and play together as being:

• Relationally focused: understanding and positively shaping interconnections
• Comprehensive and holistic: not only incident focused, also taking account of contexts and causes
• Inclusive/Participatory
• Responsive: contextual, flexible practice; informed by data/ knowledge
• Focused on taking responsibility: both individually and collectively
• Collaborative/Non-adversarial
• Forward-focused: Educative, problem solving/preventative and proactive

Relationally and instructionally, this principled relational framework empowers school communities and educators to engage in the development of unique school-based practices, policies and procedures to shape the restorative approach to meet community needs. Pedagogically, this principled framework also supports an action-research oriented framework for educators to assess and improve our own practice (i.e., How were we being future-focused in this problem-solving situation? How do we know we were being inclusive and participatory when making this decision?), and analyze whether the wide variety of educational toolkits that cross our desk are relevant to and supportive of our approach (i.e., Is this relationally focused? Is this culturally responsive?)

By using a relational analysis and principled relational framework to plan, act, and critically reflect on our individual and collective education efforts, we can structure all aspects of school life and the education system in ways that support and strengthen positive and healthy relationships— interpersonally, socially, and institutionally.

Where to begin? Let’s start by relationally analyzing everyday experiences of schooling. Ask the following two questions during phases of planning, action, and reflection (whether it’s a lesson plan, meeting, field trip, classroom practice, community event or anything else related to school life):

1. What is/was our goal?
2. Who are we affecting/did we affect, and how, by the ways in which we go/went about achieving that goal?

When guided by the relational principles above, the restorative ways in which we go about achieving our goals in school communities will support and strengthen positive and healthy relationships and safe and inclusive school cultures.

Simply, a principle-based approach in education reshapes schools to become restorative.

What does it look like to take a restorative approach in schools?

Far from suggesting we abandon previous initiatives or start from scratch, a restorative approach, when embraced as a continuum of practice rooted in relational principles, provides a new lens to review, support, and animate the work that schools and school boards are already doing to support students (Derible, 2013). Social and emotional learning programs, culturally relevant pedagogy, community outreach initiatives, student centred teaching and assessment, and professional learning communities are all examples of work that schools are currently engaged in that can be supported through a restorative approach. The restorative approach in education serves as the umbrella concept for all of the practices, policies, procedures, and pedagogical methods that schools embrace through a relational lens.

For example, affective statements and questions (language that describes how something made someone feel—sometimes students are not aware of the impact their behaviour might have on others); restorative conversations and dialogue (conversations that help teachers support an open dialogue starting with questions like “Can you tell me what happened and how you became involved?” instead of “Why did you do that?”); restorative meetings (staff meetings, parent meetings, School Advisory Council meetings that are organized to encourage authentic engagement through the use of circle processes); restorative conferences (formal responses to serious incidents led by a facilitator that involves all parties including support persons); and classroom circles (circles are structured but semi-formal opportunities for connection among students. They can include check-in circles and check-out circles to gauge how students are feeling at the beginning and at the end of the day, circles to establish classroom norms, circles to discuss academic goals, curriculum circles, circles to address behaviour problems and/or proactive circles) are all effective practices.

Taking a restorative approach in schools that is informed by relational theory and its principles is about much more than reducing suspension rates, controlling student behaviour, conflict resolution, and arranging chairs in a circle; it requires everything from culturally responsive decision making and teaching and animation of school policies and procedures, to inclusive and equitable ways of being together, to shifting power relations and perspectives in school communities, to socially-just pedagogy (Hunt, 2013).

As we continue to develop the restorative approach in schools, we hold the potential to transform the social culture of schooling in support of just relations for all people in our communities.

Let’s do this together at all levels to learn and build understanding, foster positive and protective attachments between students and schools, model respectful and responsible ways of being in community with others, shape schools as safe and inclusive sites of reconciliation, and connect schools with a broad range of supportive community stakeholders.

Learning will thrive when, primarily, we promote and protect relationships and the well-being of all community members. This is the ethos of the restorative approach. Let’s create the educational future we all need by taking a restorative approach in schools.

If you would like more information, please contact the author at Amy.Hunt@novascotia.ca


Derible, R. (2013). “A restorative approach to education and inclusion” in Aviso: the Magazine for Nova Scotia’s Teaching Profession, Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union. Accessed August 13, 2018 http://www.nstu.ca/images/Aviso/aviso%20fall%202013.pdf

Hunt (Boudreau), A. (2013). Relational Theory and Critical Race Theory as Social Practice in School: The Restorative Approach (Master’s thesis). Mount Saint Vincent University.

Llewellyn, J. (2018). “Realizing the full potential of restorative justice” in Policy Options Digital Magazine. Accessed August 13, 2018 at http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/may-2018/realizing-the-full-potential-of-restorative-justice/

Llewellyn, J. & Llewellyn, K. (2015) “A Restorative Approach to Learning: Relational Theory as Feminist Pedagogy in Universities” in T. Penny Light, J. Nicholas & R. Bondy, eds, Feminist Pedagogy in Higher Education: Critical Theory and Practice. Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Llewellyn, J. (2012). Restorative justice: Thinking relationally about justice. In J. Downie & J. Llewellyn (Eds.), Being relational: Reflections on relational theory and health law (pp. 89-108). Vancouver: UBC Press.

Morrison, B. (2013). The power dynamics of school bullying: The importance of community to breaking the cycle. Presentation at the Nova Scotia Crime Prevention Symposium: “Building Relationships: A Way forward for Safer Communities,” Halifax.

Nova Scotia Department of Justice (2013). Restorative approaches in schools: A fact sheet. Accessed August 13, 2018 at https://novascotia.ca/just/prevention/restorative_approaches_in_ schools.asp

Nova Scotia Department of Education and Nova Scotia Department of Justice (2012). Young people learning to manage relationships, conflict. Accessed October 24, 2012 at http://novascotia.ca/news/release/?id=201210247


Amy Hunt
Amy Hunt is the Restorative Approach Coordinator in the Public Safety Division at the Nova Scotia Department of Justice; former Vice Principal and Classroom Teacher at the Halifax Regional Centre for Education; PhD Candidate at the University of Glasgow; and an Instructor at Mount Saint Vincent University.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2019 issue.

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