Restorative Circles: What They Are and Why You Should Use Them

This year, the high school where I work started a new initiative around restorative practices. The idea behind restorative practices is rather than using traditional, punitive discipline with students, we, instead, provide students with ways to learn and grow from their mistakes, meaning the purpose of the consequences students receive is personal growth and responsibility. I can understand why some people might, upon first glance, see this system as rewarding students for bad behavior or, at the very least, not holding them accountable when they break the rules, but I couldn’t disagree with this perspective more. When used correctly, I see restorative practices as not only holding them accountable for the rules, but ensuring that if they do slip up, they will learn from it and (hopefully) not repeat the same mistake again.

As part of the restorative practices initiative, teachers have been asked to run community building circles, or restorative circles, periodically in their classes. A restorative circle is a space in which all students are given the opportunity to speak in a safe, structured environment. These circles can be used simply to get to know each other and check in, or they can be used to resolve classroom issues.

To run a circle, you must first, as one might assume, place the students in a circle. If you’re able to, try to have just chairs and no desks; I think this encourages students to be more open and less guarded. You also want to ensure that there are no gaps in the circle, so you should remove any extra chairs/desks. Additionally, you will need to have a talking piece for the circle; this visually represents when students may speak and when they should be listening. I use a 3D printed octopus that my husband made me, but I’ve also used a pencil when I couldn’t find the octopus; I just wouldn’t use anything fragile.

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My talking piece: a 3D printed octopus

Below is a restorative circle I ran with all of my classes on the second day:

The rules or guidelines for the restorative circle can be found in section 4 of this outline. It’s important to go over these and ensure that students understand them before you continue with the circle.

I’ve used circles mainly as a tool for students to get to know each other and get more comfortable with each other. However, recently, when conflict arose in one of my classes, I had two of our school’s adjustment counselors run a circle around respect in the classroom. Because I had already run circles in the class, this restorative circle, around a more sensitive issue, ran smoothly, and students said they felt like they gained important insight from this circle. This circle also gave students who are quieter (and had felt disrespected by some students) the opportunity to share their thoughts and experiences.

Whether using circles for building community, addressing conflict, or checking in, I’ve found restorative circles are incredibly beneficial for students, and I can’t recommend them enough!

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