As educators, we know that asking questions and guiding students through their own learning process is ultimately more beneficial than pointing out mistakes and lowering students’ grades accordingly.
The same is true for how we handle students’ behavior. When a student acts out or causes harm in some way, pointing out the behavior and imposing consequences unilaterally often isn’t the best way to help the student learn. It won’t teach a student to take ownership of their actions or understand why the behavior is problematic or harmful, let alone how to change the behavior going forward.
Restorative approaches offer an alternative strategy for addressing problematic behavior. The aim is to better understand our students, help them become more self-aware, become effective problem-solvers who take responsibility for their actions and work to repair any harm they may have caused. All this, in a supportive environment in which alternative behaviors and possible next steps are explored together.
Here are some suggestions for having a “restorative conversation” with a student who has engaged in problematic behavior or caused harm.
1. Draw on the caring relationship you have with the student.
Restorative interventions work best when you have a relationship to draw on that is based on mutual respect and trust. Building such relationships with students takes time, but it pays off when the going gets tough.
2. Be calm, and help the student be calm.
Before the conversation, you might take a few deep breaths, use positive self-talk, or notice the tension in your body and let go of it, muscle by muscle. Being calm yourself and using a calming tone of voice can help the student calm down in response. Check in with the student about having a conversation. Showing interest and concern can help ease the student into a conversation that might be challenging. Acknowledging a student’s feelings can help calm them down; we can “name it to tame it.”
3. Wait for a moment when you are ready.
You might choose to postpone the conversation to later in the day or week, at a time when you’re more mentally prepared and perhaps less rushed. Let the student know that you'd like to have a conversation and plan to come back to what happened, then make sure that you do. This is a teachable moment and a way to strengthen the relationship you have with the student. Before you begin, carefully consider the aim of the conversation.
4. State your aim in having the conversation.
Explain that you want to understand where the student is coming from; understand their point of view on what happened. You want to work with them and support them in problem solving, addressing the conflict, repairing harm if needed, and figuring out possible next steps together.
5. Help the student consider their behavior.
Talk students through what happened and why it might have happened. Ask them to reflect on their actions and the impact of their actions: What were they thinking and/or feeling at the time? What about the other people in the space? What might have been their thoughts and feelings?
6. Ask questions to help the student address the problem.
Once you have a better understanding of what happened and why it might have happened, ask questions about how the student might address the problem or the behavior going forward. What needs to happen to make things right or whole again? What steps can they take? What might get in the way? What supports might they need going forward? Students are more likely to feel in charge of their actions and be invested in next steps if they are able to explore solutions themselves.
7. Support the student in taking the steps they’ve decided on.
Whether through checking in with the student about how they’re doing, reminding them of the behaviors they committed to, or putting other strategies and scaffolds in place, make sure you come through on the supports you agreed on with the student.