This year, paying attention to students’ social and emotional needs is more important than ever. There are a lot of SEL sites and strategies to support educators in doing this work. BetterLesson’s bank of SEL strategies is a great resource for teachers looking to explore new practices.
Let’s say you implement a bunch of SEL strategies, but you still have a student say or do something that harms another person in the class. Keeping the importance of students’ social and emotional health in mind, we want to respond in a way that restores the harm done.
Restorative conversations helped me address the harm done in my class far more effectively than consequence charts or punitive measures. It also helped me empathize more with students—the students harmed the students who harmed someone else, and also students who I may have harmed.
That is the beauty of restorative conversations—and the most important part of doing it well, in a way that is anti-oppressive—they can be used with everyone, adults included.
What are restorative conversations?
Once a class/school community is built (and it has to be built first), restorative conversations enable us to repair the harm done to a member of the community. They are opportunities to unpack each student’s understanding of what happened, how they felt, and their suggestions for repairing the harm. The origins of restorative conversations come from Indigenous nations in what is currently known as the “Americas” and the South Pacific.
What are the benefits of using restorative practices in schools?
The restorative approach center on the dignity and humanity of each participant. It promotes listening and empathy followed by accountability and action. Research has demonstrated restorative conversations contribute to improved attendance and aspects of school climate such as safety and connectedness. They also advance racial, gender, disability, and economic equity, as exclusionary discipline rates (e.g., suspensions that take students out of their classes), are significantly reduced among Black, low-income, female, and special needs students when restorative practices are employed (West Ed, 2019).
How are restorative conversations facilitated?
Participants include the facilitator, the person(s) who caused harm, the person(s) who experienced harm, and each person involved can choose to invite an adult or young person to attend for moral support. The facilitator (an adult or a student that has been trained in restorative conversation facilitation) will ask a series of questions, one at a time. Each participant in the conversation will have an uninterrupted opportunity to respond to each question, speaking from the “I”. I use a talking piece to remind participants not to speak when someone else is speaking. (An adaptation for virtual conversations could be to stay muted until it is your turn to talk.)
The following questions form a basic outline of a restorative conversation:
Several resources exist for educators to see more nuanced lists of questions to ask in restorative conversations. (For example, see this Teaching Tolerance resource or these Restorative Resources cards.)
A final note for this section: Schools have different rules about the types of harm that should be addressed with restorative practices. Most schools specify that incidents involving violence are not handled with restorative conversations. Instead, students may engage in a re-entry circle or restorative conversation upon re-entering the community.
Why is it important to identify feelings and unmet needs through restorative practices?
This, to me, is the heart of the practice. The opportunity to listen to someone else describe how they were feeling in the moment or what need they had that wasn’t able to be met humanizes the person(s) who caused harm and enables that person to experience empathy for the person(s) they harmed.
Even as a facilitator, many of these conversations have resulted in a much deeper understanding of my students’ experiences and a recognition of what I might be able to do to meet students’ needs or to support students to identify and address intense emotions in a healthy way.
These conversations also helped me and my students in our immediate responses to disruptive or harmful actions. The more we practiced listening and identifying unmet needs in ourselves and others, we were more likely to respond to disruptive behavior with questions like “What do you need?” rather than reprimands.
Practicing with Students
It does not require students to harm or be harmed to engage in restorative conversations. Talking about unmet needs can be a lesson on its own. Every person can identify a time in their lives when they had an unmet need, so asking students to think about their own experiences and name the unmet need can be a powerful way to practice.
For activities in which students are thinking about their own stories, you could invite them to share with a partner if they wanted or write to themselves or just think about it without putting it into words. I also have used book characters or historical actors or sample SEL stories to invite students to identify the character’s unmet needs.
There are also a variety of sample lessons out there like this one from Teaching Tolerance that can help introduce the idea of restorative conferences to students.
What if students struggle to identify unmet needs & restorative approach tumbles?
As an adult, I still struggle with identifying what my underlying unmet needs are when I have an intense emotional response to a situation. Of course, students will likely struggle with this.
I have adapted Glasser’s 5 unmet needs (survival, belonging, power, freedom, and fun) into an acrostic that helps me remember what the most basic unmet needs could be. I have been calling them BASE needs: Belonging, Autonomy (encompassing power and freedom), Survival, and Enjoyment.
I made a poster for educators to remind ourselves and share with the class to help students identify (and ask about) others’ unmet needs when (or even before) disruptive behavior occurs.
This mindset shift towards identifying unmet needs and hearing from students what emotions they were/are feeling refocused my attention from assigning a consequence of tackling the root cause of the problem. This also helped me as an individual bring more self-awareness to my emotions and unmet needs and improved my relationships with students, colleagues, friends, and family.
As we pay increasing attention to all of our social and emotional needs this school year, let’s remind ourselves of the power of asking: “What does this person need?” These are what restorative practices are in their essence.
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.