Traditional disciplinary systems typically seek to punish bad behavior through punitive and exclusionary means. These practices place less emphasis on the recognition of good behavior, setting the overall tone for school climate. For many schools, however, changing the focus of disciplinary practices can build a classroom community and profoundly affect every aspect of school culture.
Schools seeking to create a positive atmosphere and reduce office disciplinary referrals (ODRs) often turn to restorative practices. Restorative justice can help transform a school’s rigid disciplinary structure by creating community among students and staff.
Restorative Justice Practices
Schools can help to create healthy relationships and promote positive discipline through restorative practices. Such practices change the focus of infractions from punishment to reconciliation. They are processes that empower students and staff alike to address small issues before they become larger ones. Within these practices, peacemaking and peacekeeping are no longer the sole responsibility of the adults in a school, but a responsibility shared by the entire school community.
Restorative practices result in a greater sense of student safety as well as an increased sense of belonging. Relationships among students, as well as between students and adults, become stronger. Building these relationships also builds community.
Build a Classroom Community with Proactive Circles
One of the hallmarks of restorative practices is the circle. The very shape of a circle – no corners, no exclusion – allows participants to meet on equal ground to resolve conflicts and differences. Schools call these gatherings different names, including community circles, dialogue circles, peace circles, classroom circles, and more.
Circles are typically considered a Tier 1 intervention when used in a universal and preventative way. In Tier 1, circles can be an integral part of social-emotional learning. The concept of giving each member equal opportunity to be heard can help students to develop social awareness as well as inspire responsible decision making.
As a Tier 2 or Tier 3 intervention, proactive circles can introduce ideas such as justice, repair, and support. Circles at this level typically involve small groups, allowing individuals to further develop self-awareness and self-management skills.
Key Elements of Proactive Circles
In order for a proactive circle to be effective, it needs to have these key elements:
- Round(ish) Shape – While it doesn’t need to be a perfect circle, members do need to gather in a somewhat circle-like shape. The focus should be on allowing each member to have an equal position within the circle.
- Facilitator – Typically, the person guiding the discussion process is a teacher or another adult. This facilitator helps to keep the discussion on track and within the parameters of circle time.
- Talking Piece – A physical object passed among circle members gives each person a portion of time to speak. This object can be anything – a ball, a stick, a stuffed animal – that gives the person holding it the floor.
- High-Quality Questions – The purpose of a proactive circle is to clear up any conflicts and/or share information that can benefit the group. Quality questions can help to guide the conversation within the circle.
Proactive circles are not just for elementary-aged students. Many middle schools and high schools also use circles to help students learn to work together with their peers. The structure of these meetings allows students to develop mindfulness, compassion, and respectfulness toward one another. Development of these interpersonal skills is critical at all ages.
The Benefits of Proactive Circles
Schools that adopt a restorative justice practice and employ proactive circles typically see their school climate improve. Proactive circles can result in:
- Reduced ODRs
- Reduced suspensions and expulsions
- Improved classroom management
- Increased instructional time
- Improved teacher morale and retention
- Improved academic outcomes
For schools using more traditional discipline methods, the transition into restorative practices may create uncertainty. However, restorative practices build community and can help set things right when the integrity of the community is challenged. Schools employing a PBIS framework already have many of the structures in place to make restorative practices easier to adopt. A schoolwide behavior matrix outlines the expectations of the school community. Recognition of positive behaviors changes the focus of disciplinary practices. Ongoing assessment allows administration to make adjustments as necessary. Like the term suggests, restorative practices allow a school community to create and build successful relationships.
You can build a classroom community by using proactive circles. Amazing classroom culture can become awesome school climate. Create an inclusive culture by proactively building the skills and relationships your students will need when challenges arise!Request a Demo