Restorative Justice (RJ) is an alternative approach to behaviour and relationship management in schools

Restorative Justice (RJ) is an alternative approach to behaviour and relationship management in schools. The idea is based on ancient tribal practices as a form of repairing harm caused by inappropriate behaviours that damage the communities that we live in, by bringing together those involved to discuss and talk through the issues that lead to their conflict.

Through the principles of Restorative Justice people take responsibility for the impact of their behaviour on other people, by providing a forum that allows a fair process of communication. This process can be through structured questions about the incident and the impact caused leading on to an opportunity for choices to be made to repair the harm and allow closure, providing resolution to conflict.

Restorative Justice has been used in schools to reduce offending, victimisation, bullying and truancy from school. The ethos of RJ is about:

  • Building and nurturing relationships by listening to unmet needs
  • Repairing harm done to relationships through inappropriate behaviours
  • Considering everybody’s needs in the process
  • Recognising responsibility for behaviours
  • Encouraging accountability for those behaviours (actions)
  • Developing emotional literacy by providing a safe forum for people to express difficult emotions
  • Promoting active citizenship in our school communities

The ways in which this could take place can be placed on a continuum of informal to formal.

Restorative Enquiry (Informal) In the classroom when incidents happen use terms such as: ‘that behaviour is making me feel/affecting me… you can make a choice to change your behaviour or (consequence)’.

This detaches the behaviour from the individual, explains what they are doing and how they are causing harm and to who, and allows a choice to repair that harm by changing the behaviour.

Ask the structured questions (below) on an enquiry basis to the wrongdoer.

Restorative Discussion

Here you can use the structured questions (see below) when an incident has occurred involving two people.This highlights the incident and allows resolution by the people involved through taking ownership for the incident and offering solutions, leading to closure for both.

This is often used when incidents happen in front of a teacher/adult in a school setting.

Small impromptu Conference (Formal)

Where there is conflict you can play a role in mediating between the people involved in an incident. Allow a forum for those people to be heard and provide an opportunity for resolution. Often used in bullying incidents or staff and student conflict.

Full Restorative Conference (Formal)

This is a more structured conference where the wrongdoer has admitted to the incident that caused harm and has agreed to take part in a meeting about what happened, who was affected and be offered solutions to repair harm caused.

In a school setting this is often used in a fixed-term exclusion. It can involve parents, senior teachers and other members of support groups (alongside your school’s punitive system) as an option to repair harm and allow closure.

Why RJ?

To raise awareness of restorative justice we need to gain an insight to why people do the right things. If you asked yourself this question punishment will be low on the list, if present at all. At the top would be moral, ethical and social issues, yet in our school behaviour systems we often use punitive punishments such as detentions, referrals, letters home and exclusions. All these systems are about doing things to our students with high levels of control. These often, in my experience, do not work. Young people will tell us that it is not fair and often have little understanding to what actually caused the harm, therefore reinforcing the relationship breakdown that lead to the punishment with the addition of unmet needs. Using the principles of RJ alongside these systems, we value the importance of working with the young people with high levels of control and support.

In my experience it works! And young people will tell you that it is far harder to admit to what you have done and accept that it has caused harm. RJ allows participants to take ownership of what they have done, initiate repair and offer solutions in a fair process.

The Restorative Questions

The following questions allow a restorative process to take place and can occur anywhere from the classroom to the playground.

  • What happened?
  • How did it happen?
  • What part did you play in it?
  • How were you affected/who was affected?
  • What do you need to make it right?
  • How can we repair the harm?

Obviously these are not set in stone and more child friendly speech can be used, but these will start the process and get results.

Why does it work?

  • Repairs harm
  • Holds wrong-doers accountable, preventing denial
  • Empowers victims by seeing the wrong doer accept the impact of their behaviour
  • Allows closure
  • Allows agreement
  • Allows ownership of behaviours

And finally…

RJ is a very powerful tool. It utilises people emotions and feelings so has to be done with care as it can cause damage if done badly. At the end of the day, behaviour is the silent voice of the child or adult and RJ allows that voice to be heard in a supportive manner.

Further reading materials that I recommend are:

Why Restorative Justice? By Roger Graef

Just Schools – A whole School Approach to Restorative Justice by Belinda Hopkins


Harriet Wall is an Advanced Skills Teacher in Citizenship and Restorative Justice. She works at a school in North Oxfordshire where she manages a Learning Support Unit and co-ordinates PSHCE. Harriet is also a consultant and trainer of behaviour management and RJ.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, September 2004.