I’ve been studying restorative practices this year, but usually from the outside as an observer and researcher. I’ve facilitated a few low-stakes restorative conversations between kids, but until this month, I’d only observed formal restorative circles for more serious incidents. I had a chance to facilitate a restorative circle between several students and their teacher after a physical incident, and was quickly reminded that there is a definite learning curve to facilitating restorative circles. I left the circle having learned a few lessons about facilitation:
1. Always prep with the students and teachers before a restorative circle.
Before any circle takes place, it’s crucial to meet with students and teachers individually beforehand. This gives participants a chance to reflect on their own before the circle. It’s also a perfect opportunity to explain how restorative circles work, and ensure that all participants are fully on board, voluntarily. Our Social-Emotional Learning Coordinator, had prepped the students beforehand, but I wasn’t there. Therefore, during the circle, I had a hard time prompting the student to return to earlier reflections, and some students’ responses during the circle were short, simple, and surface-level. Had I checked in with the students before the circle, I would’ve had a better idea of how to prompt them to reflect a bit deeper during the circle. It also didn’t help that I didn’t know any of the boys very well.
2. Don’t forget to set the tone, and don’t be afraid to re-set the tone.
One of the most important parts of facilitating a restorative circle is setting the tone for the conversation. This includes discussing what the circle will look and sound like, acknowledging that participating in a restorative circle is tough, and going over norms for the circle. It also includes revisiting the norms when needed; the facilitator’s job is to keep the circle a safe, respectful space in which participants can come together to make things right.
3. Respect that participants have different responses to the circle.
Some participants cry. Others giggle. Some express deep guilt or remorse. Others shrug their shoulders. Some are exceptionally eloquent for their age and go into deep, thoughtful reflections. Others put up a front. We don’t want to encourage participants to behave in inauthentic ways, or to act a certain way to please or appease others in the circle. We also notice that when students behave in ways outside of what we’d expect, our tendency is to question the student’s remorse, reflection, or seriousness. What helps to counter this natural tendency that we have is to explicitly acknowledge in the beginning of the circle that everyone has different ways of presenting during the circle, and we need to trust in the process. Which brings me to my last lesson…
4. Trust in the process, but don’t be afraid to make adjustments.
I do believe that the circle environment brings benefits to all involved, regardless of their presentation during the circle. Kids benefit from hearing how their actions impacted others, having a chance to speak from their perspective about an incident, and having the opportunity to make things right and restore their community. However, sometimes the process benefits from a tweak here and there. It’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all. For example, we’ve been asking students “What needs to happen to make things right?” but after receiving several responses like “suspend them” or “he shouldn’t get to play on the field during break,” we started tweaking the language of the question in hopes of eliciting ideas for restoring harm done to the community rather than punishing an individual. Now, instead of asking “What do you need to do to make things right” (or “What does he/she need to do to make things right”) we’ve started to ask “What can we do to restore the community?” Taking a critical, flexible approach to restorative justice allows us to personalize the process, ensure that students are learning and growing from mistakes, and maintain a safe, healthy learning environment for our students.