Restorative practices – it's good to talk

Written by: Nicola Preston | Published:
Social Discipline Window: Restorative practice involves doing things with pupils, rather than to or for them. This requires high levels of control and limit-setting and high levels of support, encouragement and nurture (Wachtel T & McCold P, 2000)

Restorative justice practices involve working with pupils to resolve the conflicts that often occur during daily school life. Teacher and SENCO Nicola Preston explains more about the approach

As the whistle blows for the children to come in from lunch break a dispute is taking place at the edge of the playground. The children line up to come back in to school for their afternoon learning, but Simon (both students' names have been changed in this article) takes himself off to the other side of the school field and starts hitting the fence with a stick.

Nothing unusual here but the response to this behaviour at Charles Warren Academy is underpinned by restorative practices and this is changing the culture and climate across the school for pupils, staff and families.

A teaching assistant walks over to Simon and begins to talk to him. She asks Simon what happened without trying to get him back into school or asking the "why" question.

He angrily shouts that John was not following the rules in their game of tag and tagged him when he had clearly said he was not playing anymore, so he pushed him back.

The teaching assistant asks him how he is feeling about this and what needs to be done to sort things out. He says he is angry and that John should have followed the rules.

The teaching assistant suggests that he come back inside and he can then let John know how he is feeling and get things sorted. Simon comes back in with the teaching assistant and they find John.

Using the same questions, the teaching assistant facilitates a short conversation between the two boys allowing them both a fair process to explain their perceptions about what had happened and expressing how the actions of the other had made them feel.

Simon has autism and finds it difficult when others do not follow the "rules" as he perceives them. He is able to express this to John in a safe and fair environment and accepts responsibility for his own actions, apologising to John and telling him (and us) that he should not have pushed him.

It is an opportunity for learning – the teaching assistant suggests some strategies that Simon could have used when he started to feel angry and praises both boys for taking responsibility for their actions and sorting things out. They both return to class ready for learning and with the issue behind them.

Restorative practices are underpinned by the principles of fair process – engagement, explanation and expectation clarity, as well as an emphasis on working "with" people rather than doing things "to" them or "for" them.

This is not an intervention but a philosophy, a way of doing things and as such, needs to underpin the relationships across the school for staff, children, families and the wider school community. Expectations are high but the support is there to ensure that those expectations can be understood and met.

Restorative practices provide an explicit framework in which relationships can be built, maintained and when necessary repaired if there is conflict or harm. This combination of high expectations and boundaries alongside high support and nurture mean that the approach is not authoritarian or a soft option, but is authoritative and re-integrative, providing the optimum environment in which learning can take place (see illustration above).

At Charles Warren Academy, the theory is very much becoming a part of everyday practice and underpins the development of relationships throughout the school community with the full support of the principal and leadership team.

The school places strong emphasis on the development of partnerships and has a social worker working with the school to strengthen those relationships into the community and support families and children who may be experiencing difficulties.

Recent neuroscience and brain imaging research confirms that learning that helps to reduce stress and anxiety, reduces the release of the damaging hormone cortisol and improves working memory as well as physical and mental health.

When learning is caught up by a distressing emotion then the centres within the brain involved in learning can become hampered and attention can become preoccupied with the source of this negative emotion.

Learning difficulties, adversity in home life and disadvantage are all recognised as risk factors that can have an impact on the engagement of young people in their learning and recognised strategies such as restorative practices that address those negative emotions are proven to improve engagement in learning.

I am the SENCO at Charles Warren Academy. I have been involved as a practitioner and trainer in restorative practices for 19 years and teach the explicit restorative practices framework as developed by the International Institute for Restorative Practices.

This model is underpinned by psychological theory that helps us to understand why and how the approach works and is supported by a growing body of international research evidence.

Within education, any approach to address harm, conflict or inappropriate behaviour is much more likely to be effective if it takes place within the context of meaningful relationships. Young people are also more likely to achieve when they feel connected to their school and the community within that school.

Restorative practice provides the empirically tested framework that underpins the development of meaningful relationships and maximises the opportunities for the development of healthy, productive school communities allowing our young people to become healthy, productive citizens and achieve their full potential. 

  • Nicola Preston is a teacher and SENCO at Charles Warren Academy in Milton Keynes, which is part of the Academies Enterprise Trust. She has been involved in restorative practices since 1996 as a trainer, practitioner and researcher across criminal justice, education and workplace settings. For further information, email nicolapreston@iirp.edu or visit www.iirp.edu


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