Restorative Justice in Schools: SEL in Action

I was bullied in high school. The bullying took the form of humiliation, physical assault, and mental torment. At the time, it was simply thought of as “kids being kids.” Not a single administrator or teacher did anything to check in, help me, or stop the bullying. Many of my teachers laughed it off when they witnessed it.

This had an impact on my self esteem and my beliefs about people’s intent – at work and in other aspects of my life. At the same time, I have always had the ability to see the many sides of conflict. Since elementary school, I have been the go-to mediator with peers, co-workers, and beyond. I have been building my empathy muscle my whole life.

My professional path brought me to community mediation at a nonprofit and it was in this role that I first learned about restorative justice. Since then, I’ve dedicated my work to building restorative justice programs at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center and in school districts such as Berkeley Unified and Oakland Unified School Districts.

What is Restorative Justice?

Restorative justice views “harm” as a fracturing of relationships, rather than something that demands punishment. A restorative justice process is a way to uncover true needs and heal relationships via meaningful accountability.

How might restorative justice apply to a conflict? Restorative justice allows the impacted parties to talk about what happened, how they are feeling about it now, the impact it had on everyone, and ultimately what can be done to make it as right as possible. Restorative approach can help school communities avoid the need for exclusionary discipline and reduce repeated offenses. People who have been harmed often have questions that only the person that harmed them can answer. Often time these questions are simple like “why me?” or “what led you to do this to me?” The process allows for these and other questions to be answered and to begin the healing process.

Restorative justice originates from an indigenous paradigm – it is community based, relational, and inclusive. The process creates equity by giving everyone a space to talk and be heard and by addressing the root cause of harm. We often say harmed people harm people, so it is important to uncover and address the original harm too. The restorative talking circle process is often implemented to start this conversation.

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Restorative Talking Circles and SEL

One restorative practice that is supporting SEL in classrooms is the use of restorative talking circles. Circles are an effective way of building a community where people feel connected and develop communal ownership of the classroom. This kind of connectedness creates an environment where authentic engagement and deep learning can happen. Students may bring their cultural values into the space, creating a shared ownership of the classroom.

Circles typically start with an opening practice, for example a few minutes of mindfulness, to create an intentional space. The opening is followed by a “check-in” with each of the members of the circle. When first establishing the circle, the group may co-create shared guidelines and discuss personal and shared values. This lays the foundation for a rich and meaningful dialogue followed by a check out and closing.

If the circle is a response to harm or conflict, we may discuss what happened and the impact. We eventually discuss how to make things as right as possible and come up with a plan to repair the relationships and re-weave the fabric of the community. The ability to make something right – or as right as possible – is a gift that all people impacted by harm deserve.

Simply by sitting in a restorative circle in the classroom, students learn valuable social and emotional skills such as patience, empathy, active listening, and impulse control. These skills fall into the five SEL competencies that the Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) supports schools in teaching and practicing: self awareness, self management, social awareness, responsible decision making, and relationship skills.

Not only does a restorative circle allow people to practice these skills, it can also be used to explicitly teach them. For example, one could do a circle on what it means to be an ally, what respect looks, sounds and feels like in our classroom, or to make a consensual decision about something that affects the community?

Values Based Practice: Establishing Shared Guidelines

Restorative justice is a values based practice. In a circle, shared guidelines and values are always created as a group before the main discussion. We generally use the same core guidelines across the school district and then invite additional ideas for the discussion. We adapted a version of guidelines set forth by Kay Pranis and Carolyn Boyes-Watson in their book “Circle Forward, Building a Restorative School Community”, Living Justice Press 2014. They are:

  • Respect the talking piece – A meaningful object is passed around the circle. The person holding it is the only one that speaks. Everyone else actively listens.
  • Speak and listen from the heart – Speak your truth and listen with an open mind.
  • Speak and listen with respect – Pay attention to your triggers and how you express yourself.
  • Remain in circle – Be present.
  • Honor privacy – Keep the conversation private. Participants may discuss the level of confidentiality they feel they need.

It is important to build a foundation in shared values so that all participants, especially students, can bring what is important to them (family, culture) into the space. This allows for a classroom to be a shared space rather than the teacher’s room. Teachers do not need to be experts in their students lives, and they cannot control what a young person may experience outside of the classroom, at the same time they can provide opportunities to create a learning environment that resonates with a student based on what the student has indicated in circle is important to them.


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Student Leadership: The Circle Keepers

A major tenet of restorative justice is working with people rather than doing to them. To support this, every year in Oakland hundreds of youth are trained as circle keepers to support circles in the school community. This supports students as leaders and encourages them to engage in their own education. In their training, youth are not being manipulated to do things adults should do; rather students are empowered to participate in and lead restorative justice because it resonates with them. We must ask ourselves who are we doing this for, students or adults? Do adults want students to learn self management so they can be quiet, orderly and compliant, or do we want them to practice that competency so they may create and maintain positive relationships during and after their education?

By sharing the circle keeper role, adults working in restorative schools are practicing and learning SEL skills alongside students. As teachers learn alongside students, they become more aware of their own biases and triggers. Often adults become more aware of how their behavior can impact children in a positive way – especially youth of color, and students who express their gender in non-heteronormative ways, who feel adult bias the most.

How to Get Started

There is no plug and play model for implementing restorative justice practices at a school. Restorative justice implementation is profoundly related to the eco-system of each school or district. Schools must first assess the environment for readiness. Administrators, teachers, students and parents can identify what factors conducive to restorative justice are already in place and what they can do better. All staff should be trained and receive coaching and feedback throughout the year.

The OUSD Restorative Justice Implementation Guide is a navigational tool we developed in Oakland in partnership with Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) to help members of the school community identify indicators such as: What’s working in our school? What could we do better? What positive things are happening that RJ can support? What do we need to rethink?

It is difficult to implement restorative justice on a piecemeal basis. Restorative justice is a school wide phenomenon and more effective to implement if most, if not all, of the teachers are trained in circles and receive coaching support as they learn the art of circle-keeping. Student leadership can expand to include restorative practices for community building and responding to harm and conflict.

Restorative Justice and Creating Safe Spaces

Today’s students want to engage with school curriculum, but in a culturally relevant way. They want to soak up what the teachers are trying to give them, but many of them need a space that creates safety first. Students may need to break free from the cycle of harm and aggression that experiencing trauma can set in motion. According to a 2017 report  from the National Survey on Children’s Health, 46% of all children in the US have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE). Bringing restorative justice practices into schools and districts can help to provide an environment where they can heal and break the cycle.

Each day when I go to work at Oakland Unified School District I ask myself how I will transform this system rather than become it. It takes a relentless intentionality and a deep commitment to self reflection. Restorative justice practices help me and others in our school community practice and build our social and emotional skill set so that we can be in right relationship with each other and create a place and space where robust and engaging learning can happen. We need to radically shift the way we have been educating our students for the last 150 years to something that works for all of our young people now.

David Yusem coordinates the Restorative Justice program at Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). This year, the district was able to maintain full time Restorative Justice staff at over 26 school sites to support the implementation of Restorative Justice programming district-wide. The RJ program at OUSD is considered a National model for the implementation of restorative practices in schools. Prior to working at OUSD, David managed the community mediation program at SEEDS Community Resolution Center, and founded their restorative justice program. David has also initiated Restorative Justice pilot programs at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center and Berkeley Unified School District.

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