New Year, New Relationships: Quick Tips to Using Restorative Justice

Quick tips for using restorative justice

Let’s face it, trying something new is scary. Whether it be a testing a new recipe, trying out a new hobby, or taking your chances with starting a new routine – with new territory comes fear. Boldly going where you’ve never ventured before can daunting but, there’s something about the start of a new year that gives us all a much needed surge of confidence and willingness to do the unknown. In 2017, channel your hopeful optimism and use it in your classroom! The New Year is a perfect time to build relationships with students in new and meaningful ways. I decided to give restorative justice a try in my class and challenge anyone wanting a closer classroom community where all students feel valued to do the same. Here are a few quick tips to using restorative justice practices.

Learn what it is…and what it isn’t

Restorative justice (RJ) is a powerful approach to discipline that focuses on repairing harm through inclusive processes that engage all stakeholders. Implemented well, RJ shifts the focus of discipline from punishment to learning and from the individual to the community.  – Larry Ferlazzo

The first step to implementing restorative justice practices within your classroom is to know what restorative justice is and what it is NOT.  Restorative justice is a method for authentically transforming relationships with your students (and their families) by being willing to listen to them wholeheartedly, validating their existence in the world as they see it, and meeting them where they are rather than where we want them to be.  The time you spend building relationships in your classroom during circle or calm time will yield powerful results that will empower your students to become self-sufficient, self-actualized members of your classroom and school community.  Contrary to what naysayers claim, restorative justice is NOT an excuse for students to have a free-for-all in your classroom and exist in a space with no rules or consequences.  Restorative justice requires a lot of patience, planning, and preparation on the part of teacher and/or facilitator.

Jump right in

After you’ve done the research (considering using the included resources), the next step is to just do it.  Don’t know where to start? Begin by simply putting circle time into your classroom schedule.  By formally writing it down on your classroom schedule, you are making the commitment to engage in the activity just as you would reading or math.  Start off with fifteen minutes or so just to get your feet wet and make adjustments from there. You will be surprised at just how fast the time goes when each student is asked to share something nonacademic about him/herself.  As time goes on and your circle deals with conflicts that arise, students will look forward to community meetings and group problem solving.

Be Vulnerable

It is easy for teachers to play the role of outsider when interacting with students. However, this is one time when you should take off the teacher hat and allow yourself to see your students as equals. I admit that it feels strange at first. Every comment a student makes we are programmed to add a comment or judgement. During circle time, you must resist this urge at all costs.  Instead, join the circle.  When it is your turn, share yourself. My students were very surprised that I wanted to be a unicorn when the question of if you could be any animal came up.  When I shared with them the painful memory of my dog running away when I was 10, we actually cried together and afterwards we all shared hugs.  The fact is, students love to be able to see their teacher as a human with real feelings.  They want to know about a time when you’ve laughed and cried.  Students often only see us as fixtures in the school, devoid of personal lives and the day-to-day drama that they must muddle through. Use your professional judgement but allow yourself the freedom to be open and vulnerable with them. You’ll find that even your most difficult students will be able to use the bond that they’ve formed with you to help them both academically and socially in the school environment.

Expect the Unexpected

It would be great if all of our discussions were neat and tidy, uncontroversial and pleasant. Circle time, for the most part, is anything but that.  If your classroom is an art museum, of perfectly created linear masterpieces that follow form, logic, and adhere to strict artistic principles, imagine circle time as the graffiti section where contrasting paint is splashed, seemingly carelessly, against media of all sorts.  Circle time, though meticulously planned out as far as scheduling and topics may be concerned, can be anything but neat. Students will say whatever is on their mind and their thoughts can lead the community to discuss topics ranging from their favorite foods, to their parents’ divorce, or even a family member’s murder.  There is no way to truly preemptively prepare for what may be said so you must always expect the unexpected. Circle time is their venue to speak what is on their minds without our commentary or judgement. And, once you create a space where all students feel safe enough to share themselves openly – good, bad, and ugly – you are well on your way to creating bonding relationships that will last long after they leave your classroom or school.

As you begin your new calendar year, try changing the lens in which you do discipline in your classroom. Consider shifting roles and blurring lines. Induct your students into a classroom family that talks openly and often; where every member becomes connected to one another on a level deeper than academics. Community building through restorative justice practices is the key to a successful year for both you and the students. And, even though the school year may be halfway over, it is never too late to start listening to and truly loving your students.


Here are a few websites/article that have been instrumental to my implementation of circle time and restorative justice in my classroom. I would also like to give a special thanks to my co-worker and NEA Director Gina Harris for all of her support and guidance as well.

If you have any resources that you would like to share, please do so! @PushSmarterEd

Cynthia O’Brien is a veteran teacher from the Chicagoland area and the founder of, an educational consulting firm dedicated to improving schools through high-quality professional development for teachers and administrators.