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Enhancing Restorative Justice Practices Through Culturally Responsive Teaching and Community Engagement

By Kathryn Picano Morton, EdS, NCSP

As educators, we have a professional and ethical responsibility to provide students with safe, equitable, and inclusive academic experiences. Traditional discipline procedures, such as zero-tolerance policies, school suspensions, and punishment-reward practices are often ineffective in correcting misbehaviors and disproportionately impact students of color. For these reasons, the paradigm is shifting from zero-tolerance policies in schools to focusing on how relationships can be restored through the practices of restorative justice.

According to Song and Swearer (2016), while there is no standardized definition of restorative justice or its application within school settings, it is a philosophy of promoting positive disciplines and meaningful accountability, such as peaceful resolutions that repair harm, rather than punishing errant behavior. Intervention components focus on social-emotional learning opportunities to promote a positive school climate that foster relationships and resiliency in students to ultimately develop a supportive and inclusive community.

Restorative practices have been shown to effectively promote a positive school climate and safe community for all students to thrive and succeed (Morrison, 2015). These proactive practices continue to address student disciplinary violations and are complementary to a trauma-informed approach in education. When an incident occurs, a restorative approach asks fundamental questions such as, “Who has been hurt?” and “What are their needs?”  Similarly, a trauma-informed approach asks, “What has happened to you?” When presented together, restorative practices and a trauma-informed approach support the development of students’ empathy and conflict-resolution skills, and help establish healthy relationships amongst peers and educators, thereby reducing conflict. Both approaches help reduce racial disparities in discipline, bolster trusting teacher-student relationships, develop resiliency, and strengthen partnerships between schools and communities.

A restorative culture places emphasis on social-emotional learning and its impact on relationships with students, classrooms, and communities. According to Jacqueline Richards, MA, LMFT, “Having a chance to rebuild [a] relationship after a misstep and to foster empathy, attunement, and accountability helps the whole community to feel safe and more connected.”

Several school districts including Minneapolis Public Schools, Denver Public Schools, and Portland Public Schools have successfully developed restorative practices that resulted in reduced rates of discipline referrals and school suspensions (Schiff, 2018). An example of culturally responsive teaching and community engagement can be found at the Faubion School, part of Portland Public Schools.  Faubion school collaborates with a wide array of community partners to provide a variety of wraparound services and initiatives.  The school strives to nurture strong connections and community building with families, and offer a variety of parent meetings focused on equity.

“When I think of the link between restorative practices and culturally responsive practices, I think about a strong school community, which is the basis of both concepts,” said Faubion School Principal Karmin Williams, EdD. In a recent interview, Williams described the approach of working with students as bridging cultural gaps and establishing a community between families and school staff.  “To truly be able to implement and execute culturally responsive practices, one must be conscious and well versed in the needs and assets of the community,” Williams said.

Fostering positive connections and relationships can provide students with safe spaces to share, reflect, and build resilience. While no one educator can ameliorate the impact of trauma on the lives of children, understanding these intersections and advocating for change in restorative justice practices can move students, schools, and communities forward.

Kathryn Picano Morton, EdS, NCSP, is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist and works in private practice. Morton resides in Florida with her husband and two children.

Learn More: Click to view related resources.
  • Morrison, B. (2015, Dec.18), "Restorative justice in education: Changing the lenses on education’s three R’s. ," Restorative Justice: An International Journal, 3(3), 445-452. doi: 10.1080/20504721.2015.1109367
  • Schiff, M. (2018, Apr. 6), "Can restorative justice disrupt the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’? ," Contemporary Justice Review, 21(2), 121-139. doi: 10.1080/10282580.2018.1455509
  • Song, S. & Swearer, S. (2016, Nov. 21), "he cart before the horse: The challenge and promise of restorative justice consultation in schools. ," Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 26(4), 313-324. doi: 10.1080/10474412.2016.1246972

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