“School kids are so violent coming out of the pandemic that they’re sending teachers to the hospital,” reads one recent headline from a prominent national magazine. But less punitive restorative justice would be a more successful approach to improving behavior than a harsh disciplinary crackdown or a reversion to zero-tolerance suspensions, researchers from the University of Chicago assert in a new study.
Under restorative justice, educators gather student perpetrators and victims together—often in “restorative circles”—to identify, discuss and try to rectify the harm caused by misbehavior. In Chicago public high school schools that have adopted the practice, arrests fell by 19% and out-of-school suspensions dropped by nearly as much, according to “From Retributive to Restorative,” a report released by the National Bureau on Economic Research.
“School districts historically approached conflict-resolution from a zero-sum perspective: suspend students seen as disruptive and potentially harm them, or avoid suspensions and harm their classmates,” the authors of the study contend. “Restorative practices—focused on reparation and shared ownership of disciplinary justice—are designed to avoid this trade-off by addressing undesirable behavior without imparting harm.”
Chicago Public Schools began its harm-reduction initiative by training more of its educators to use restorative practices. Teachers were shown how to speak in restorative language and create processes for how restorative justice would be used in response to behavioral problems.
While administrators at some schools may have simply instructed teachers and other educators to stop suspending students, the researchers also attest that restorative justice is significantly improving school climate. By adjusting how they interact with students, teachers are better at meeting the needs of young people and preventing escalating behavior.
Restorative justice also appears to be teaching students how to better resolve conflict, understand their roles in behavioral incidents and feel more connected to adults and peers. Responding to concerns that “softer” discipline will result in more disruptive behavior in classrooms, the researchers showed there were no changes in GPA or test scores after schools adopted restorative discipline.
“When school districts rely on primarily punitive responses to resolve minor conflicts, children may infer that the optimal approach to undesirable situations is one of retribution,” the authors conclude. “However, if a school district instead emphasizes a reparative or restorative approach to addressing behavior, children may develop the skills—including those related to conflict resolution—needed to more constructively approach challenging situations in life.”