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Restorative Practices Build Community, Responsibility

Although student misbehavior impacts many people at school, often only the student is involved in the discipline process. The restorative practices approach stresses correcting the harm rather than punishing the deed, and advocates including the affected parties in the process. Included: Descriptions of how to use the restorative practices approach in schools.

A former high school teacher, Ted Wachtel is an author and the founder and president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) and co-founder of the Community Service Foundation and Buxmont Schools for troubled youth. Through IIRP, Wachtel trains educators and others in the restorative practices approach. This movement seeks to actively involve all those directly affected by wrongdoing -- victims, offenders, their families, and friends -- in addressing the consequences of an act and deciding how to repair the harm resulting from the offense.

Ted Wachtel

The term restorative practices is derived from restorative justice, which gives victims a voice and provides an opportunity for offenders to develop empathy. According to Wachtel, when adapted to school settings, restorative practices help develop a more positive school culture and significantly reduce behavioral problems.

Wachtel also has written about working with difficult teens; he co-authored the book Toughlove, for parents of troubled adolescents, and wrote Real Justice, as well as numerous articles on restorative practices.

He talked with Education World about how the restorative practices approach can be used to create less stressful and more productive learning environments.

Education World: What prompted you to develop the restorative practices system?

Ted Wachtel: Restorative practices developed from the experience of the Community Service Foundation (CSF), a non-profit organization founded in 1977 by my wife, Susan, a former elementary school teacher and me, a secondary school history teacher. CSF successfully fosters positive behavior among delinquent and other troubled youth who attend its eight school/day treatment programs in southeastern Pennsylvania.

We began offering training in restorative practices in 1995 through our Real Justice program. [Real Justice involves dealing with youth offenses through conferencing with the parties involved.]

In 1999, we began teaching restorative practices to public schools through our SaferSanerSchools program, which addresses the crises in education -- increasing truancy and dropout rates, disciplinary problems, violence, and even mass murders. We believe that the dramatic increase in negative behavior among young people is largely the result of the loss of connectedness and community in modern society. Schools themselves have become larger, more impersonal institutions where students and their families feel less connected to the teachers and school administrators. In an increasingly disconnected world, restorative practices builds relationships and restores community.

EW: How does restorative practices differ from other approaches to school discipline?

Wachtel: Restorative practices are about doing things with students, rather than to them or for them. Restorative practices hold young people accountable for their behavior, but in a way that is supportive and respectful, not punitive or demeaning. The emphasis in restorative practices is on active involvement in repairing the harm done, rather than on passive acceptance of punishment.

Ultimately, restorative practices seek to enhance relationships among students, faculty, administrators, and parents, and to build a sense of community in the school. A positive school climate, in which young people feel connected, is the best environment for learning.

Our approach is a method for changing the culture in a school in a deliberate, creative way. We ask faculty members to consciously and systematically reflect on the most effective things they already might instinctively do while working with young people. Restorative practices is not a new strategy, but an affirmation of those things that the best teachers and administrators always have done. Rather than rely on intuition, however, we provide a specific framework that helps people consciously apply restorative practices all the time.

EW: How can restorative practices be integrated into everyday school routines?

"The emphasis in restorative practices is on active involvement in repairing the harm done, rather than on passive acceptance of punishment," says Ted Wachtel, president and founder of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP).

Wachtel: Restorative practices are both proactive and reactive. The proactive use of circles, [a strategy of class meetings], for instance, might take the form of a daily or weekly "check-in" and "check-out," in which each student in the circle answers a question. Questions might range from "What did you do over the weekend?" to "How is everyone feeling about how today's class went?" That simple process allows students to express themselves, and builds relationships in the classroom.

Then, because students are used to this candid discussion format, on a day when a class has been a bit unruly, a teacher might use the circle to get support for confronting the inappropriate behavior. Teachers often are amazed at how well those simple strategies work to achieve classroom decorum. Or a teacher, having built a relationship with a student, might find that simply telling a student who is acting inappropriately how disappointed he or she is, might be far more effective than a detention. Or asking a student to write about how the behavior affected other people might be far more effective than sending that student to the office.

When a more serious problem arises (such as a fight), more formal processes can be used. Those processes might include a restorative conference that involves the students, their parents, and others in talking about how the inappropriate behavior affected them, and in collectively deciding what needs to be done to make things right.

EW: What types of districts have tried the approach so far?

Wachtel: We have worked successfully with rural and suburban school districts in Pennsylvania and Michigan, and in an urban school district in the Hague, Netherlands, several schools in Australia, our own alternative schools, and an alternative school for delinquent youth in New York City.

EW: How have restorative practices worked in large, urban schools?

Wachtel: We have not yet worked with any large, urban schools in the United States, although I am confident the approach will work equally well there. We are hoping to soon be involved with urban schools and related research to evaluate the results.

EW: What type of training is involved for educators who want to use restorative practices, and how long does the training take?

Wachtel: We offer training for individuals, and on-site training (such as in-service days) for schools. The trainings include:

  • Introduction to Restorative Practices (one day)
  • Using Circles Effectively in Schools (one day)
  • Culture and Team Building (two days)
  • Management and Supervision (two days)
  • Facilitating Groups (two days)
  • Facilitating Restorative Conferences (two days)

Changing a school culture, however, is not simply a matter of training; it requires a commitment to sustained effort on the part of the leadership of a school. For those interested in the process, we can refer them to appropriate school administrators.

This e-interview with Ted Wachtel is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World


Originally published 02/19/2004; updated 05/30/2006