An assistant principal discussing restorative justice with a student
Leadership Insights

Just for APs: Moving Toward Restorative Justice

By Terry Wilhelm July 22, 2014

In the first of my two-part post about how assistant principals can model respectful discipline for teachers, I discussed the notion of using logical consequences. Instead of punishment for punishment’s sake, logical consequences attempt to connect the infraction with a consequence that makes sense in light of the misbehavior; for example, “If you make a mess, your consequence is to clean it up on your own time.”

Restorative justice teaches logical consequences and apology skills

A related idea is restorative justice. This takes logical consequences a step further, righting the wrong if the behavior had a negative impact on someone else. A natural first step is an apology. As a principal, I found that many students did not have the skills needed to apologize. I had them practice; for example, “Look Tom in the eye and make eye contact. When you say, ‘I’m sorry,’ say it like you mean it.” We also practiced receiving apologies: “Please say, ‘Apology accepted.’”

Coaching students on how to address their mistakes

Sometimes a class apology was called for if the student had disrupted the classroom with inappropriate behavior. One of my sixth graders once entertained his friends after school by trampling the flowers that a first-grade class had just planted along the walkway to their classroom. Upon learning of this, I asked the student what he thought an appropriate consequence would be. As often was the case in the beginning of my tenure as principal at this school, he couldn’t think of one.

I told him that the most appropriate thing would be for him to go to the first-grade class during his own recess (when the first graders were in class) and apologize to the class for damaging their flowers. I told him I would also contact his family to let them know of the behavior, and ask them to purchase new plants for him to plant, after school, in place of those he had trampled.

Accountability and parental awareness

In hindsight, a better strategy — which I often employed as I became more adept at handling student discipline — would have been to have the student call his own parent in my presence. In this case, it turned out that the family had no phone (this was before the pervasive presence of cell phones). But doing so would’ve involved the student directly in the cause and effect of what was done and what had to occur: making parents aware and talking through what happened. This holds students accountable for their actions, connecting their school life with their home life to show that this did not happen in isolation and issues need to be addressed immediately and directly.

Behavior that causes injuries may require another discipline strategy

If misbehavior leads to another student getting hurt, using restorative justice is more complicated. My school had such a high suspension rate when I arrived that addressing students’ proclivity to fight was a problem I had to work through on several fronts.

But there are many helpful resources to explore, as well as other, similar approaches such as teaching social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies to help students and staff communicate more effectively. Together, you can all move toward solutions, focusing on logical consequences, apologizing and owning mistakes, and being held accountable.


Learn More: Click to view related resources.

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