The opposite of punitive school measures

'Restorative practice' in education reduces reliance on punitive measures such as suspensions and expulsions, creating safer environment, explains Healy Jones. So do why NZ schools tend to drop it just years after bringing it in?

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Every day schools remove students from their classrooms and schools in frustration with their inability to adhere to school rules. We know this type of punitive action can result in poor outcomes for students, including lowered academic achievement, increased rates of dropping out of school and, most worryingly, increased chances of imprisonment later in life. Yet schools often believe they have few alternatives.

Over the past two decades, ‘restorative justice’ has emerged internationally as an alternative to the traditional punitive punishment model. It seeks to repair harm through rebuilding broken relationships by focusing on a collective resolution of perceived behavioural problems rather than blaming the student(s) involved.

When using restorative approaches, schools know they are not ‘justice’ centres, so more frequently use the term ‘restorative practice’, recognising they are communities where harm can be repaired through the restoration of relationships.

Restorative practice initiatives in schools have proven beneficial in many ways, including reducing reliance on punitive measures such as suspensions and expulsions, and creating safer, more inclusive environments.

However, evidence is emerging that Aotearoa New Zealand schools frequently adopt this idea enthusiastically, only to drop it a few years later, as restorative practice is often time-consuming and requires commitment to implement well.

My Master’s thesis explores what it takes for schools to integrate and sustain restorative practice.

My research, completed during the Covid-19 lockdowns, focused on three schools that had retained restorative practice for eight or more years. I visited each school and interviewed key figures (e.g. principals, deans, teachers, restorative practice facilitators) to learn how and why the schools remained committed to restorative practice.

I found that across the three schools, the context and school environment significantly shaped how restorative practice was integrated, with schools and their communities that believed RP was needed and would make a difference more ready to adopt the practice.

This readiness was also indicated by previous programmes the school had been involved in. At one of the schools, readiness for change was formed through a synergy between involvement in Te Kotahitanga (a programme to support Māori success) and an emphasis on ways of teaching that built relationships between teachers and students. Importantly, this approach supported the themes of restorative practice, which recognises the significance of relationships in shaping wellbeing and behaviour, and embraces the culture and identity of an individual student.

The schools that had integrated the practice deeply also demonstrated this through physical reminders of the programme. This included posters on walls and references to restorative practice in newsletters to parents and on the school website.

School leadership and resourcing are also important. Across the schools, senior management teams showed they valued restorative practice strongly by increased resources for it, training staff, holding community workshops, and in two of the schools appointing a specific restorative practice facilitator.

For these deeply committed schools, the change had taken five to seven years. This had involved dealing with misconceptions that restorative practice is a ‘soft’ option and required a fundamental shift in school culture and assumptions. Instead of an add-on, it had become “what we do here – it’s who we are”, said one principal.

Students, teachers and families all asked for it as the default practice. In the words of one teacher, the difference was that “our students here know that there is an adult here that cares and … they know that there is someone to go to that will actually fix the problem rather than punish them for it”.

by Healy Jones

This article was written with the assistance of Dr Bronwyn Wood from the School of Education at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.

Read the original article on Newsroom.