Building the trust of school staff, using Restorative Justice Peacemaking Circles

I’ve been teaching teachers and school staff about using Restorative Justice in schools, since 2007.  Since that time, I’d like to think, I’ve gotten better at doing that.  I’m really thankful for all the people that have shared feedback, offered points of improvement and stayed in contact.  Over the years I’ve heard very positive stories from educators that use the model and methods . . .

changed the way I think about my students, the best classroom management tool in 21 years
my students now live up to my expectations, instead of seeing them as unattainable
I know more about my students, we have stronger relationships than ever before

I firmly believe a key component to effective schools outcomes and implementation is to get the foundation of Restorative work happening to BUILD COMMUNITY, BEFORE repairing harm.  This is where the breakdown in trust can happen.  Staff want to know how to do the ‘repair harm’ before learning how to build community.  The trust for the process and the trust of people are key skills in being an effective practitioner.

In order to be teaching people Circles and Conferences, you’ve got to know how to build community.  As Restorative Justice trainers emerge from community based programs, it should be acknowledged that not all have the ‘build community’ capacity.  Most community based RJ programs, respond to an incident that initiated the referral.  Building restorative community is a different (but similiar) process.  I’ve learned 5 tips for building trust with school staff when teaching others school-based Restorative Justice.  In essence building the trust as a trainer is as important and building community!

  1. They have to be safe enough to tell you their fears and challenges.  I use three words, and we play a word game like hangman to get these in the room: Impossible, Unrealistic, Dangerous.  Those are the 3 resistance to Restorative Practices.  I relate my stories around these, I categorize challenges into one of these 3, and I provide structured responses and time for the training group to develop their own answers to their own challenges.
  2. Demonstrate and model Circle.  There are two ways I do this, in a quick mini-demonstration, where we do four simple passes of the talking piece.  I also try to do a real, heart-felt, soul-connection, someone cries Circle.  You have got to show and have them feel the power of the humanity that comes from Circle.
  3. Ask, don’t tell.  I repeatedly say “build community . . . common . . . unity”  I ask them to “try it” and to try it “like this”.  Teachers have a great deal of knowledge and confidence, they earned it!  They are in front of an audience ALL-DAY!  Just as a community Restorative Justice program promotes ride-alongs in law enforcement, I promote “teach-alongs”.  If you are teaching teachers Restorative Justice and you haven’t spent time in a school, go to a school and shadow a teacher, all day.
  4. Be sure you are not putting another straw on the camels back!  Connect to current design, current approaches, find the strengths and community places that exist.  It can be very difficult, especially when we think about the work of Restorative Measures as the most fundamental change in school discipline since we stopped spanking in schools.  

    .  Start where they are and build from there.  One more, or a new thing, is easily dismissed.  Use videos that show the universality of the concepts.

  5. Be you.  The best you possible.  People don’t trust a shyster.  If you don’t have experience facilitating, you shouldn’t be teaching.  You can get experience by volunteering for a community Restorative Justice program.  Ask for students to volunteer and be in Circle (tip from Nancy Riestenberg) so you can practice and develop comfort in Circle facilitation.

The field of Restorative Justice is at a beautiful place with schools.  We need to keep it real and continue to honor those that have taught us, and to do the work in a genuine and authentic way.


5 Steps to Use Restorative Justice Circles for Bully Behavior.

The stories of bully incidents continue to be of concern.  I have talked with frustrated parents, confused professionals and educators dedicated to prevent and put right the wrong of behavior that is negative, unwanted, repeated, and involves a power imbalance.  These items in italics are the very definition of bully behavior*.

This post is going to offer 5 clear steps to utilize in addressing bully behavior using Restorative Justice Circles.  Other related posts, here, here and here.

Step 1) Use Circles as a process to build community – before – using to repair harm.  You cannot be accountable to someone you don’t have a relationship with.  The simple practice of Circle, for the sake of Circle (or building community) – has several benefits.  Circlekeeping is a skill, it takes practice, each Circle gives learning.  Practice the process, so youth are aware of the benefits to listening each other speak.  You will get to know the youth better, so you will have information to move towards repairing harm.  You will see Circle ‘naturals’ evolve, you will spot who would be good community representatives in a Circle to repair harm.  Using Circles to build community paves the way to effective Circles to repair harm or right a wrong.  Circles promote  pro-social skills and Social Emotional Learning!

2) Use Circles with a capital C. You can place students in a circle form, you can hold a meeting without tables.  Circle keeping is an art and science, learning to read the emotional climate of the Circle and how to navigate between the stages and phases takes practice.  Preparing your lesson plan for a Circle is important, practicing the facilitation of this type of process increases positive outcomes.  To address something as crucial as bully behavior, use the power of the process that is based in values, empowers all and focuses a change of behavior by a change of heart.

3) Use Restorative Justice philosophy (link).  Especially equal concern Victims/Offenders/Community – – view the behavior as harm to relationships and people.  The process is designed to repair harm.  Restorative Justice is grounded in respect and inclusion.  The most typical intervention – ban interaction between students.  In my experience I have seen that make things worse.  There is always a story, behind the story, I believe individuals behave poorly, when they have a (perceived) justification for the behavior.  When you set up safe space and prepare people to come together – excellent outcomes prevail!  You can make Restorative Justice, School-based Restorative Justice, simply know that victim/offender/community – is student/student/community or teacher/student/staff – – Restorative Justice is so effective because of the direct path to healing for the community representatives, victims and offenders.

4) Comprehensive, whole school approach – One restorative home on a block, does not a restorative community make.  Do all you can to promote the use of a philosophy and approach from mission to discipline.  Consistent attention to promote cultures of peace and belonging is needed.  Use engagement, (a core pillar of RJ) involve parents, support staff in efforts to build community and repair harm.  I am available and happy to offer training sessions.  I will be speaking at the MN PBIS Conference Dec 8.

5) Circle again and again.  Someone recently told me a Circle, blew up, made things worse.  What a perfect time for another Circle.  Have another Circle to show accountability to the community, show a place where behavior has consequences of social and emotional proportions.  If the behavior of bullying has paid off, it is likely a person would ramp up the behavior to get those outcomes.  It may also show that the person who continues the harm, has a real skill issue, and needs more support in developing the skill.  I don’t know all the details around the Circle that blew-up, I wasn’t part of that.  However, I view conflict as opportunity, and Circle takes and makes the best of opportunities for growth and healing.  If you find yourself in a Circle, after an earlier Circle to address, ask people how they should respond or what the plan will be if the issue continues.  Then challenge yourself to help create plans that are not punitive.  It can be very difficult.  In Circle, you have all the parties in attendance and you will be using consensus as the decision-making tool, which should take care of everyone’s needs.

*This: Violence Prevention is a ppt, I presented recently to our local Rotary Club.  Featuring our local initiative to address concerns around Bully behavior.

Restorative Justice in Schools, further reading resources!

The newest item published for school based restorative justice:

I would also recommend:

Taking Restorative Justice to Schools; A Doorway to Discipline by Jeanette Holthum

Restoring Safe School Communities a whole school approach to bullying, violence and alienation by Brenda

Restorative Circles in Schools Building Community and Enhancing Learning by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachel
& Ted Wachtel

The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools by Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz and Judy H. Mullet

JustSchools: A Whole School Approach to Restorative Justice by Belinda Hopkins – Positive Behavioral Interventions & Support – WI Department of Public Instruction Safe and Respectful Schools

I really enjoy training teachers and helping schools implement Restorative Justice.  Facilitating the process is a skill, it requires practice and time to develop the habits.  There is a shift that needs to take place within the restorative justice practitioner.  You have to recognize the limits of punishment and the value of inclusiveness.  Be willing to try it and evaluate it for yourself.  You will find, time spent will help you move from IQ, to EQ to SQ!

What are all these Q’s?  Check this out!

I’m on a stay-cation, so I will be blogging briefly!  To avoid completely “failing” at not working!  Hope the resources help!

5 crucial Restorative concepts for schools and trainers.

School-based Restorative Justice – Restorative Practices – Restorative Measures . . . In my opinion, they all funnel down to practices in school designed to influence the general culture (everyone in a community) and provide individual interventions (case specific).

When I first started training schools, I used the same process for developing new programs at St Croix Valley Restorative Justice Program, SCVRJP.  This was to hold the concepts of Circle/Restorative Justice and place with that, the issue/topic/intervention.  This seems to be working.  Imagine two halves of a plastic egg coming together. 

Photo from:

The sum of what you create is the force of nature.  I was familiar with school-based work before I started training.  I also had experience working with alternative schools, school-within-a-school programs and providing trainings about Restorative Justice to school staff.

Teaching teachers . . . it’s a career accomplish to say I feel competent.  No offense, it’s like trying to put a stand-up comedian up in front of his or her peers!  The audience/trainer dynamic is very important, very, very important when implementing restorative justice in schools.  A thank you to those that helped me be a better trainer and an apology to those that had me when I was new!  So concept 1: get a good, experienced trainer!

Concept 2: Exclusion is a form of violence.  Do not try to merge your restorative practice with a formal response like sending youth out to a different room.  Restorative Justice is about the dialogue between those impacted.  The people most involved in an incident come up with ways to make it right.  A teacher is speaking out against restorative practices, and from what I read, she was not part of any process to make it right.

Concept 3: Time.  Teachers, I need you to know and trainers you have to teach/convince/get school staff to try to understand – RJ will give you more time in your class.  School staff are overwhelmed!  I can have a to do list, but I don’t have to spend all day in an appointment, 5 days a week.  Consider that teachers have a to-do list AND are busy all day.  The days that I went to schools and helped coach (a follow-up to training) and did Circle after Circle, one class to another – I nearly lost my mind!  The teacher’s lounge was a safe place!  After being around all those little bodies, all that different energy, managing all those little voices, little hands, little feet . . . whew I was WIPED out!  Tell me to try one more thing that seems “kumbaya” . . . pfffffffff!    I have that perspective and I’m the advocate/trainer!  I have compassion for the teachers – I get their environment.  It is that passion, for both teachers and restorative justice that you need to bring.  You need to help teachers see that this tool will create a better environment for their class.  The distractions that take up time will be reduced, the time spent doing discipline will be reduced, the connections to kids will be improved, the satisfaction with teaching will be improved.

Concept 4: Heart.  Kids that need you will push you away.  You have to bring a heart that believes in the heart of each and every student.  This is not easy.  Every cell in your body maybe thinking or feeling “you little . . . rascal”.  However, if you believe in the heart of that kid, and you use your own heart to lead you to find out what makes that kid tick, you will change that child’s life forever.  As I re-read this concept, my lips got tight and I felt angry, “you little . . .” I thought about when I feel wronged, I feel justified in my anger.  Justified anger causes trouble.  As I read on about the heart, I felt my anger go down, I thought about the compassion in my heart.  I thought about the times I listened and came to new understandings.

I thought about the student who acknowledged she didn’t want to be in the Circle.  She went on to talk about the fight with her step mom that morning.  She talked about the long-standing conflict, she took ownership about her statements that caused harm that morning and she even expressed maybe doing something different.  Imagine being in a little body of 13 and having that kind of conflict before school.

The more you use your heart, with students, with conflict, with others, the more you have a compassion skill set.  The easier it is to access this and have it work for you and for others.  Concept 5) make the path to compassion.

Coaching and conducting Circles outside of my schools and community.

The SCVRJP logo has 3 swirls.  The swirls represent the triad’s of restorative justice.  Most important is to remember that Victim, Offender and Community – are 3 entities that compose restorative justice process.

It is so easy to only serve one group.

On a coaching and demonstrating visit to a school, I recommended they get community members in Circles.  By taking the “at-risk” kids and making a Circle for them, (very well intended).  They are creating more “us” & “them” than intended.  By they way, these kids were beyond “at-risk” they were some tough young people.   They needed peer role models in the Circle, they needed an increased sense of community rather than to be isolated with other “trouble-makers”.

When it came down to leading, demonstrating the Circles I got the job done.  I got the group to do pretty well with Circle (for me first engagement with them).  I had students with me, so that helped.  I had to use all I could to get them to even be silent one at a time.  It was a challenge and opportunity for my skills, and what I teach teachers to do in Circle.

We used silence activities.  For example, passing the talking piece until you feel your silence is heard.  Most the young people couldn’t be quiet up until that time, for fear of not getting noticed.  I used lots and lots of non-judgemental language and guidelines for making the Circle work. 

When the talking piece was not in play, I saw some signs (hand gestures) going back and forth.  I dove in with a piece!  “Tell us what you think listening looks like!” and encouragement  “Let’s all look at the person talking so we are sure to understand each and every person.”  I had to role model listening and so did the staff. 

At the end of that Circle, I asked for something they did well in the Circle.  Not only did they offer that they listened, they offered that they appreciated being heard.  Well in terms relevant for the group.  Self-disclosure about not being heard in my family, and  “it was good to be heard in the Circle, even if it was only my silence” left me knowing I introduced the process.

If we want to shift cultures in our schools, we HAVE GOT to use community members.  We have to use Circles for the entire community, those at risk situations and those situations in which harm has occured.  Using the model in one classroom will not change the school.  Implementing a change in climate means getting as many people involved in the process as possible.

I was hired to train at a school and the staff had evaluated restorative justice at another district.  A story shared during training made me 1.)glad everyone heard this and 2) validated the use of Circle as a training technique.  The story, and I don’t ever forget this one . . . visiting staff, asked students how they deal with teasing and bullying, the answer was: “that doesn’t happen at our school”.

If you hire me to come train your school, build in the days for me to come and visit, to coach and help implement.  It will help.

Training and teaching on Restorative Justice, framing and coaching apply.

Just over a week apart I had two very different and important presentations to  make.  The first was the sermon, during a church service.  The second presentation was part of a week long Restorative Measures training by the MN Department of Education hosted by Nancy Riestenberg.

Kris Miner

If you want to succeed at public speaking (conveying your points, engaging others for action) you need to consider your audience.

My tips for this are to frame the subject matter and then coach people on how to get the outcomes desired.

I do this a few different ways:

1.)Frame your concepts.

In my church sermon, I shared about the “good news” and I kept pointing out what the good news was.  I had key concepts that I called good news.

When teaching during the Restorative Measures program, I brought people back to the RJ basics.  I used learning and feeling objectives.  I explained up front what I wanted them to learn.  Then I included what I wanted them to feel (inspired, new vision, connected).

Teaching on a college campus helped me in learning how to frame things.  Give things for people to think about.  I teach the concept by sharing Restorative Justice “bumper stickers”.  People know what a bumper sticker is.  They get that a message can be powerful with a few words. 

I also always share Howard Zehr’s images from GoodBooks Publishing.

I take lots of care in training people.  Its important to teach the concepts in a way that people can actually relate to and that is where coaching comes in.

I like to do Circle as a way of teaching it.

I don’t do “demonstrations” or “mock” Circles.  I have a regard for this that we ask people to come to it in a way that is honest, genuine and real, so I just don’t feel a need play it, I think we can just do it.  However when I am speaking or teaching in front of a group I focus my language, my words and my information around coaching people to do this work.

A coach, see’s where you are and gets you to do it better.  Coaching is about performing.  I coach, restorative justice.  I try to specifically give examples of how to go from A to B to C.  Thank goodness for two influences that helped me learn this.  The first influence was my early audiences.  I had 45 minutes of lecture prepared, after 10 minutes a hand went up.  The statement “How do you do it?”  I was already to sell the “concept” to promote the “philosophy”, the listeners wanted the recipe.  The audience wanted the step by step method. 

Teachers well, they have been fun to teach.  I still get anxiety when I give teacher directions.  They are the GURU’s at giving out task directions.  Guiding them to work in small groups without exactly defining what you want is going to discredit you.  If you can’t explain the assignment and explain the outcome clearly they tell you.  Believe me!  Thank you to the early groups that gave me grief over not having clear directions!  Teachers are also awesome about the task completion!  The do 5 ‘metaphor magic’s’ not 4 and not 6, I assigned 5 and they do 5!  I love teachers!

The second influence that helped me get to my style of teaching and training was working with an actual teacher!  She shared how teachers percieve “trainers”.  She explained how teachers get sent to mandatory trainings, and have seen ‘flavor’ of the month for years.  This great influence can be duplicated.  If I present to a group, I try to find an insider to give me some honest perspective.

Having real, genuine and open conversatins is what helps get to be a better teacher, trainer and facilitator of restorative justice.