Restorative practices in schools originate from a criminal-justice technique in which convicts are held accountable in part by facing the people they have harmed. The strategies have been around for years, said Sally Wolf, the executive director of Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice, in Paxton, and are used around the country and internationally. But the concept still has skeptics, a sentiment she used to share.
"I thought it was too touchy-feely," said Ms. Wolf, whose nonprofit organization trains school staff in restorative techniques. But children "do want to work out things. They do want to be safe."
One noticeable characteristic of many schools using a restorative approach is in the way teachers and other staff members speak with students: They address students in ways that are meant to elicit empathy.
Instead of snapping at a student to stop talking or demanding to know why he or she is interrupting a lesson, a teacher might say, "I spent a lot of time planning my lesson today and I can't get through it," Ms. Richetta said, thus helping students understand how their behavior affects others. For City Springs teacher Kellie McGuire, the restorative practice approach once seemed as disruptive as her students' misbehaviors. She found herself stopping class frequently to deal with mouthy, misbehaving children. Her attitude, inherited from her previous years of experience at another school was: "Suspend this kid. Get him out of my room."
But she and other teachers learned to build relationships with their students. They gather students, as often as once or twice a day, in a circle. The teacher begins by asking and answering a question. Then students take turns answering the same question. A teacher might ask students whether they've ever broken a bone or what they want to see in their next class president. The goal is for all to share their feelings, express what's on their mind, and learn about each other.
Circles can be impromptu, to defuse a situation quickly, get students talking about what they were thinking when they behaved a certain way, and ask them how they'll make the situation right.
"I have this one kid, he used to get mad and say 'I hate you,' " Ms. McGuire said. She told the student, a 3rd grader, how his words stung. Now, when he gets angry, he briefly puts his head down on his desk and doesn't say what he's thinking—even double-checking with her to make sure his offensive thoughts haven't escaped his lips. "He knows it hurts my feelings," she said.
When a situation warrants it, the circle approach can be used more formally. In these conferences, everyone talks through an incident—say, a fight between two students—with parents and advocates for both students on hand.
Efforts in Chicago
At Christian Fenger Academy High School in south Chicago, for example, when a student was chased down and threatened with physical harm for kissing the wrestling-team captain's girlfriend, a conference yielded an agreement between the students' parents to contact one another if the hostility escalated. And the wrestling captain and the competitor for his girlfriend's heart, a student with disabilities who was a loner, ended up eating lunch together every day after that, said Robert Spicer, the dean overseeing restorative-justice efforts at the public school.
The alternative, Mr. Spicer said, was that the students "would have all been suspended and their wrestling season shut down."
Developing a school culture that defaults to healing takes work and buy-in from the whole school, Mr. Spicer and other restorative-practices proponents acknowledge.