Using Restorative Circles to Build Accountability and Empathy

Guest post by Heberto Hinojosa, Jr.

In Texas and many other states across the country, school districts are abandoning or limiting the use of traditional exclusionary discipline practices such as detention, in-school suspension, and suspension to tackle student behavior issues that affect the learning process. Instead, many campuses are turning to restorative discipline to help teachers and administrators prevent and respond to behavior problems.

The goal of a restorative campus is to build a culture where accountability and sense of belonging exists among students. Over the last two years, our campus has implemented restorative discipline practices with promising results. In particular, restorative circles have helped our school community respond to problems as they arise and served as a proactive measure to eliminate potential issues.

What are Restorative Circles?

Through dialogue and reflection at all levels, restorative circles empower students to take ownership of their actions, have empathy for others, and better understand how their behavior affects so many. We have adopted two types of restorative circles. Circles in the classroom are sessions that we use to prevent discipline issues. Circles in response to behavior bring together a smaller group of affected people after a behavior incident has occurred.

Circles in the Classroom

Classroom circles take place every Friday during enrichment time. Students enter and begin to set the room up in a circle, get a talking piece and center visual that reminds them of circle expectations, and wait for the teacher to begin facilitating. Our first question is always, “From a one to five, how was your week?” Topics that have affected the class environment such as bullying, disruptions, or major events can then be brought up with all students having an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about it.

Our teachers love classroom circles and provide positive feedback on its effectiveness. Here are two of our teacher’s responses:

“My students absolutely LOVE circles and are very disappointed when we have a short week and don’t have it. The impact on our classroom culture has been great! By doing circles, our students get an opportunity to learn more about each other which helps them understand each other’s personalities better. My students are very comfortable sharing what’s on their mind … sick grandparents, arguing parents, absentee parents, academic struggles, and accomplishments, etc. The level of compassion they have developed for each other blows me away.” —Wendy Sangdahl

“I LOVE restorative circles and feel that they have a direct positive correlation with student relationships. They give me an opportunity as a teacher to reflect on how I handle classroom behavior by getting to know them beyond our daily experiences in school. I have seen students build confidence as well as a growth in their awareness of others.” —Lisa Reeh

Circles in Response to Behavior

In place of traditional exclusionary consequences, circles have become our standard for responding to discipline referrals. We believe that “to discipline means to teach.” Instead of focusing on students “doing the time,” we facilitate a conversation with the student as well as others affected. This may include other students, teachers, and parents. We create a circle similar to a classroom circle and use reflective questions to guide the conversation. We ask students:

  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking of at the time?
  • What have you thought about since?
  • Who has been affected by what you have done?
  • What do you need to do to make things right?

To involve those affected by the behavior, the following questions are used:

  • What did you think when you realized what happened?
  • What impact did it have on you or others?
  • What has been the hardest thing for you?
  • What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

Whether a circle is the intervention used as an immediate response to the behavior or as a re-entry condition after a traditional consequence, the goal is to restore relationships that were damaged as a result of the behavior. Often times, teachers and students who were affected are not involved in the process and relationships within the school suffer. With circles, all have a voice, and our campus culture and climate have improved as a result.

What are your experiences with restorative discipline?

Heberto Hinojosa, EdD is the principal of Fabra Elementary School in Boerne, TX and the 2016 Texas Assistant Principal of the Year. He is also a professor of school law at Schreiner University.

2 Comments

  • Michael Thomas says:

    Excellent work, sir. To help prepare your staff for using restorative circles, what training/PD did you offer? Also, can you share any titles of books that discuss restorative practices? I’d love to include one in an upcoming staff book study. Thanks!

    • Beto says:

      Hi Michael – We started with myself and our AP attending various region trainings, including an 5 day course (various dates in one semester) at our Educational Region Center. Kevin Curtis, who is one of the first in the state to implement came to our campus and led a training on it. Since then we have followed up with fine tuning how the program is implemented across the campus. Resources at http://texrp.com/ can get you more information. Regarding books, we have not done a book study, but there are many articles and guidelines out that can be discussed at a PLC meeting. https://socialwork.utexas.edu/featured/restorative-discipline-ed-white-middle-school/

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