Implementing Restorative Justice in Elementary Schools

Revised Suggestions for Implementing Restorative Justice & Solution-Focused Peace Circles in Elementary Classroom


Revised Suggestions for Restorative Justice & Solution-Focused Peace Circles in Elementary Schools 1.38 MB 700 downloads

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Restorative justice history:

Restorative Justice (RJ) has ancient roots going back centuries and have been continually practiced by indigenous cultures. Westerners stopped using RJ around 1000 years ago after the Norman Conquest when the Kings took over personal conflicts between individuals and groups (Van Ness, 1986). Today the government controls how conflicts are addressed through the mainstream justice system. In the 1950s psychologist, Albert Eglash first used the words “restorative justice,” which led to a renewed interest for a more common sense approach to crime in the 1970s (Walker, Rodgers & Umbreith, 2018). The value of restoring relationships and repairing both physical and emotional damage after wrongdoing was recognized. In the past 40 years the modern RJ movement has developed into a solid field of study and a worldwide movement.

Modern RJ has both a philosophy and practices. Basically the philosophy is that positive values drive human interactions, everyone is entitled to participate in discussions about wrongdoing and social injustice, and healing should be the most important outcome when someone is harmed. RJ practices recognize these values. This does not mean that bad behavior should be ignored, but that we should first show care and concern for healing instead of focusing on blaming and punishing wrongdoers. This is a systemic problem. In the United States for example the cost of the corrections system that imprisons people is allocated at least $80 billion to an estimated trillion dollars annually (Ferner, 2016), while the 2018 funding for victims nationwide by the US Justice Department is only $3.4 billion (U.S. Department of Justice).

Restorative Practices:

The most respected American, and one of the world’s greatest RJ experts is Howard Zehr whose seminal book Changing Lenses describes RJ philosophy and its practices. Zehr says that RJ’s “guiding questions” are:

  1. Who has been hurt?
  2. What are their needs?
  3. Whose obligations are these?
  4. Who has a stake in this situation?
  5. What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to put things right? (p. 38, The Little Book of Restorative Justice, Howard Zehr).

Introducing solution-focused peace circles to an elementary class:

Elementary school in the United States is typically for children aged 5 through 12 years. To introduce peace circles in an elementary class, begin by asking students to sit in a circle with no barriers between them blocking their views of each other. You are going to show them what a peacemaking circle is and at the same time explain it to them.

Beginning the peace circle:

You can tell the students: “We are having a Solution-Focused Peace Circle to talk about how we can all get along better and be happier together in our classroom.”

Tell the students: “We will go around the circle and everyone will have chances to speak. And we will have some simple rules to make the circle work well.”

First, tell the students how much time you have for the circle: “We have 30 minutes for our circle. There are 20 of us in the class. It is important each of us has the chance to speak. Sometimes it is hard to remember time so when I point to my watch that means you need to finish speaking so the next person can speak.”

Second, ask: “Can everyone agree to speak one at a time? Even if you have something very important to say, can you wait until we come to you in the circle”

Make sure you look at each child shaking your head up and down indicating yes, and listen for them to say yes or nod back at you. You want them to indicate their agreement that they won’t interrupt and will wait their turn to speak.

Some Native North Americans use a talking stick to ensure only one person speaks at a time in circles:

A talking piece can be anything, a stick, rock, etc., and whoever holds it is the only one to speak. It is passed around the circle as each child speaks. Tell them: “For our first few circles, I will be the circle facilitator. After you all learn how circles operate we will take turns and you can be the circle facilitator. Sometimes I will need to speak out of order, but I will usually only speak when it is my turn too.”

It is important to share the facilitation duties even with the students you think may be unruly. Having these children especially selected to be the circle facilitator will help them learn to focus and control their behavior. They will model the behavior you want them to have.

A classroom could collectively make a talking piece to use in their peace circles— students could decorate a stick with strings and paint, etc. Below is a photo of a talking stick given to Theo Gavrielides, which he is holding, on his birthday in Greece that a group made for him.

Conflict is normal for people and should be expected:

Next explain to the students: “It is normal to have conflict, which is what happens when we have a problem with each other. We all suffer from problems sometimes. We all have different needs at different times. Maybe I am cold one day. I need the window to our classroom closed to help keep me warm, but Billy here is hot and he needs the window open to help keep him cool. Billy and I could have a conflict about that because we have different needs at the same time.”

Conflicts can lead to creativity and better relationships:

It is how conflicts are dealt with that determines their usefulness for building better relationships and their value to create more meaningful lives. ~ Lorenn Walker

Good organizations know that conflict can be positive and lead to strengthening relationships. Conflict leads to creatively and stronger people and organizations.

If you shun and avoid conflict please examine your feelings about conflict. Often our families teach us it is wrong and bad to engage in conflicts. Some families do not discuss differences of opinion, conflicts or anything that is “not nice.”

If you have aversion and very negative feelings about conflict, please work on feeling whatever it is that you are feeling. Be brave and do not allow yourself to ignore conflict because it is uncomfortable or you feel afraid or fearful about it. It is better to accept, and to teach youth, that conflict happens and it more useful to put energy into finding solutions rather than ignoring or avoiding conflicts.

The work you put into discussing conflicts with others and examining it for yourself, can strengthen you and the people you work and live with. Conflict can lead to resiliency and happier relationships.

Solution-focused peace circles purpose:

Say to the students: “Our Peace Circle will be a way to help us communicate and find how we can meet all our needs.”

“Let’s begin our circle today with what is good and what we especially like about our class.”

Beginning the solution-focused peace circle:

The teacher should begin by telling the students what you especially like about them, e.g., “You are kind and very hard workers.” Think of an example of something especially kind the class did or hard work they did and tell that story, e.g., “This class is full of nice children. You share your books,” etc.,….

You can tell the class that they never have to speak if they don’t want to. You want to always respect each child, have voluntary participation, and allow anyone to pass who does not wish to speak in a circle discussion.

Next ask the child sitting either right or left of you to: “Please share what you like about the other people in the class.”

Go around the allowing each child to say something positive. Sometime children will say what they don’t like. When they do, ask them “What do you like?”

Circles to maintain peace in the class:

For classes that are getting along well and not suffering any conflicts you can ask students: ‘This is such a good class. We rarely have conflicts. What can we do to make sure we continue having this kind of a peaceful class?

Go around asking each child and respecting any who wants to pass.

Collect all the ideas. You can discuss each ideas as each child makes it in the circle, e.g., Hazel wants us to keep sharing our pencils and papers for students who do not have them. Does everyone agree this is a good idea?

When the whole group agrees, say: “Okay we will continue sharing.”

For generally minor conflicts typically occurring within the class, e.g. loud talking, late homework or no homework, etc. If you have a conflict, after each child has had the chance to speak in the circle and it comes back to your turn, state what the problem is: e.g. Loud talking during reading time, students not doing homework, etc., you can share it with the children in the circle.

Ask: ‘What are ideas do you each have about how we can have a quiet reading time?” “How can we make sure everyone is safe and we use our words and not fists?” “How can we all make sure we do our home work?” Let them to share whatever they think. Ask each child again in the circle. As the suggestions are made it is helpful to have students, or a designated student, writing them down or you write them down.

As suggestions are made you can ask the rest of the class what they think of it? You want to get the class’s consensus and have everyone agree on solutions.

If you have time you can go around again and ask what ideas they especially like and want to try in the class. If you don’t have time, ask them to think about what they want to do and you will continue discussion on it in another circle.

Also for more useful questions during circles, please refer to the 2014 guidelines that Amsterdam psychologist and author of numerous books and articles Fredrike Bannink & I prepared and provide free of cost online ( scriptfacilitator-script/

How often should solution-focused peace circles be held in an elementary class?

It would best to have a peace circle every day or every few days to check in that everyone is getting along. Or you could have them weekly. And the last choice is to have them when there are conflicts. Having a regular peacemaking circle will help prevent conflicts and keep students cooperative. Regular circles will also teach them the skills they need for managing conflicts when they arise. Having a daily and first thing in the morning circle is what Maria Montessori taught and is often done in Montessori classrooms (below photo of a 1900 Montessori circle).

Process for specific incidents of wrongdoing, e.g., Billy was hit by Sally. Ask Sally and Billy to both sit next to each other one your right and one on your left.

This is a good opportunity to teach students the difference between feelings and thoughts. To apply RJ to specific incidents we use…

First, complement Sally and Billy for wanting to sit in the peace circle and find a way to make things right. Say: “Wow! It is great you want to make things right. It is great Sally you take responsibility for your actions and that you are willing to listen and find how Sally can repair any harm Billy!

Next ask Sally: “How do you think Billy felt when you hit him?” Ask her: “What were your thoughts when you hit Billy?”

Then ask Billy how he felt and what he thought?

Then go around the classroom and ask each child to say how they felt when Sally hit Billy, and what they thought.

Next ask Billy what would like Sally to do to repair the harm? Repeat whatever Billy says and ask Sally if that is something she can do?

After finding something Sally can do for Billy. maybe it is simply an apology, close the circle.

Please see the guidelines too that Fredrike Bannink & I prepared (see below for more information on using the guidelines).

Closing the solution-focused peace circle:

Tell the class. “We have had a useful circle, and now we will each say something to close our circle with you giving compliments to anyone in the circle.”

Go to each child beginning on the side Billy is sitting on and ask them to compliment anyone in the circle for anything they learned about them in the circle you just had or on anything they want to complain the whole class on. If they have difficulty understanding what a compliment is, you can begin by saying one yourself: “I compliment all of you here today for working hard to sit quietly and speaking when it was your turn. You showed discipline and focus. Great work class! I am looking forward to our next peace circle!”

For disputes use mediation for wrongdoing use restorative facilitation: If the conflict you have is a general dispute between students and there is no clear individual responsible for the harm, or no one has been harmed, you can use solution- focused mediation.

Mediation differs from a restorative facilitation.

Mediation is a process for compromised agreements between disputing parties while restorative facilitation is used when there is a specific individual taking responsibility or someone has clearly been harmed. If no one takes responsibility a restorative process can still be used. See Lorenn Walker 2004 Restorative Justice Without Offender Participation: A Pilot Program for Victims archive/restorative-justice-without-offender-participation-a-pilot-program-for-victims

Fredrike Bannink and I offer Solution-Focused Conflict Management and Restoration Circles guidelines: en/mediatormediator/facilitator-scriptfacilitator-script/ 2014. The guidelines can be used too if during a mediation process someone takes responsibility for causing harm. You can mediate and then apply a restorative process by using the guidelines, which include the restorative process questions Howard Zehr suggests.

You can also refer to the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) script for facilitating RJ circles and guidelines on how to facilitate circles regarding specific incidents of ham:

References and additional resources:

Carolyn Boyes-Watson & Kay Pranis, 2015. Circle Forward: Building a Restorative School Community. Living Justice Press: St. Paul, MN

Dan Van Ness, 1986. Crime and Its Victims. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL

Fredrike Bannink & Lorenn Walker, 2014. Solution-Focused Conflict Management and Restoration Circles: en/mediatormediator/facilitator-scriptfacilitator-script/

Howard Zehr, 2015. Changing Lenses Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition. Herald Press: Harrisonburg, VA

Howard Zehr, 2002. The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Available in its entirety at:

IIRP (International Institute for Restorative Practices). School Resources:

John Braithwaite’s blog:

Lorenn Walker, Keyria Rodgers & Mark Umbreith, 2018. What Is Restorative About Teen Court? Internet Journal of Restorative Justice, Special Issue Restorative Justice and Complex Crimes: ebook/dp/B07GC6FN1C

Matt Ferner, 2016. The Full Cost of Incarceration in the U.S. is over $1 Trillion, Study Finds, Huffington Post:

Peter De Jong & Insoo Kim Berg, 2013. Interviewing for Solutions. BROOKS/COLE: Belmont, CA

United States Department of Justice, 2018. Justice Department Announces $3.4 Billion in Grants to Aid Crime Victims Nationwide. Justice News, Office of Public Affairs:

Special note and thank you to teachers:

Special thank you to Melissa Shapel Hansen a wonderful teacher, mother, and daughter in Washington State. You are a courageous hero who has been a role model and taught many the value and meaning of restorative justice. We are grateful that you asked how RJ could be applied in the classroom, which motivated these suggested guidelines.

BIG thank you too to Melissa, and all you teachers, who continually look for ways to improve your classroom management skills. We need more teachers like you who see learning as a lifelong endeavor. We deeply appreciate your hard work and contributions that you make for our students and our community.

Please let us know anytime we can be of assistance in your journey.

If you are an educator and use these suggestions, we would appreciate any feedback from you on how it went and any recommendations you might have for how we can improve them for others.

Aloha, Lorenn Walker, JD, MPH

Director, Hawai’i Friends of Restorative Justice

Email: [email protected] or [email protected]


Revised September 14, 2018