Do’s & Don’ts: How Restorative Practices Can Transform Schools



In the “President’s Blog,” IIRP President John W. Bailie, Ph.D., shares his thoughts on a variety of topics relevant to leadership, social innovation and education. In this piece, Dr. Bailie offers some advice for teachers and administrators implementing restorative practices in schools.

A friend of mine took a challenging, and some would say ill-advised, post as principal at a high school in one of the many economically challenged areas of post-industrial Pennsylvania. Test scores were falling. The school was on academic probation. Discipline referrals were out of control. A large segment of the faculty assigned the blame for these poor outcomes to “those kids.” The student body, once populated by the children of largely white, working-class steel workers, was now more likely to speak English as a second language and to have spent their childhood in Brooklyn, the Bronx or the tougher sections of Philadelphia.

“If we could just get rid of that 10% of students who don’t care and don’t want to be here…”

A common refrain among many of the staff, the principal resisted this harmful and failed strategy.

The high school had been suspending and expelling students at an alarming rate for many years. Behavior had not improved and test scores continued to fall. So more of the same was obviously not the answer. But what to do? The reality was that there were students who behaved as if they did not want to be there. But this new principal also realized that some staff behaved in a way that made it clear to some students that they didn’t want them there, either. And if that didn’t change, nothing would.

The principal began talking about building relationships more than punishing. Instead of succumbing to the pressure to “protect” staff from students, he began teaching them how to engage students. This prevented many behavior problems from happening in the first place. Staff discovered that when students felt more personally connected to staff and to each other, they were less likely to treat people badly.

Instead of just punishing students, staff restored relationships.

When things did go wrong, the principal made sure staff had a variety of informal and formal ways to confront students with the personal harm they caused – rather than just the rules that were broken. Surprisingly, some the most punitive-minded staff became the biggest supporters of this approach.

They even realized that, when done well, real face-to-face accountability was far “tougher” than detention and suspension.

In three years, fights were reduced by more than half and mid-tier infractions reduced by nearly three quarters. Also, test scores improved and the school was released from academic probation. Children were more likely to actually be in class instead of in the discipline office or at home – a result replicated by many similar schools.

The lessons learned by this school are, do:

Teach staff to use affective (emotionally rich) language when praising or confronting students.

If you decide to use your personal relationship with students as your primary means to ensure healthy behavior, then you need to make sure that your relationship is, well, personal. In praising, “You did a good job today” is okay. But, “I’m really proud of how you sat down and got right to work today as soon as class started – I really feel heard by you” is much better.

In confronting misbehavior, “This is unacceptable” is okay. But, “When you raise your voice and talk over me, I feel really angry and frustrated because I’m trying to help you and it seems like you don’t care” is a lot better. Notice that in the affective examples there are feeling words and references to concrete behaviors. This explicitness serves two purposes. The young person knows that you are talking about their behavior and not them as a person, and it communicates clearly which specific behavior to repeat or not repeat in the future.

Use collaborative practices, such as restorative circles, to build relationships and encourage student voice in the learning process.

The best way to lower behavior referrals is to prevent misbehavior from happening in the first place. Sure, you can scare people into doing the right thing. But it’s much more effective to get them to do the right thing because they want to. Young people (and adults, for that matter) are much more likely to treat others well when they know and feel connected to the people around them. The awesome Shakespeare unit and clever math quiz won’t accomplish this on their own. However, you could arrange chairs in a circle and ask a unit-related question to which all of the students respond. Instead of a teacher-led lecture followed by some Q&A, perhaps ask everyone to answer, “What was the most difficult decision that one of the characters in Romeo and Juliet had to make, and how could you relate to them?”

They are learning Shakespeare, but they are also learning about each other. I’ll bet there are fewer referrals from the classroom where that’s happening frequently.

Focus on repairing relationships over impersonal sanctions and punishments.

Punishments reinforce the power of authority figures but do little to help students solve the interpersonal problems that led to the incident or misbehavior. If a student tends to fly off the handle and threaten other students at the slightest criticism, how exactly does an hour of detention or a three-day suspension help that student or make them less likely to repeat the same behavior in the future? How does it meet the needs of the students who were affected? Instead, train all staff to use, informally and formally, practices such as restorative questions. For those who harm someone, ask:

–      What happened?

–      What were you thinking about at the time?

–      What have you thought about since?

–      Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?

–      What do you think you need to do to make things right?

For those harmed by others, ask:

–      What did you think when you realized what happened?

–      What impact has this incident had on you and others?

–      What has been the hardest thing for you?

–      What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

Spend 80% percent of staff “discipline” effort on proactive relationship building as primary prevention.

Discipline starts with what we do before children misbehave. Strong positive relationships with staff and other students are the number-one most effective preventative measure. A relationship is more than whether students “like me” as a teacher or whether the students know each other’s names. We need to know about each other as people, what we like and what we don’t like. Teachers and students should know something about each other’s personal lives, such as whether you have children or siblings. Know the names of their parents or caregivers. Remember their hobbies and share yours. The more you do all of this strategically while you teach, the more likely students (and you!) will be to do the right thing and treat others well.


Use impersonal punishments.

In addition to what was already noted above, the cycle of ever increasing punishments is draining for educator and student alike. And far from letting children off easily, you’ll find that practices such as restorative questions are far tougher and more effective in holding students accountable when combined with interpersonal honesty, directness and emotion. I knew I was doing great with using restorative questions when students would ask, “Could you please just suspend me?”

Avoid face-to-face engagement.

Sure, you can just send the student to the office. And you can rationalize it by telling yourself you are saving instructional time for everyone else. But the student is coming back. Sooner or later (and sooner is better), you need to personally let the student know how their behavior affects you. I don’t just mean how their behavior affects your agenda and lesson plan. I mean you, personally. It’s the only way they’ll ever really understand the impact of their behavior. And it’s a far better way of meeting your own needs than just sending them to the office.

Do discipline FOR other staff.

You likely have staff members who are good at – and enjoy – jumping into the fray when there is a behavior crisis. These staff may be teachers, administrators, counselors or even support staff. These people are a great asset to the building. However, these people can also become the dumping ground for other people’s crises and conflicts. Most people don’t like conflict and will gladly send their troublesome students to someone else in the building to “get fixed.” But when you refer your conflicts to someone else or enable others to do so, everyone is robbed of an opportunity to learn and to build relationships. The best role for those people who both like and are good at managing conflict is to model what they know with other students and staff so that the skills spread.

Stop believing that children can grow, learn and change.

In the school where I started my career, we had something called “basic concepts.” These were for staff, not students. Each basic concept was something that all staff agreed to uphold and get better at putting into practice. The first one was: “We believe that all students can grow, learn and change.” Think about it. If you don’t believe this, then everything above is really pointless. It’s true that some people won’t change. But that’s a choice. It has nothing to do with the child’s innate ability. I found that the more I believed that everyone can grow, learn and change, the more I saw it happening.


Originally published in the blog of  International Institute of Restorative Practices [IIRP] President John W. Bailie, Ph.D. on March 27, 2017.

5 Characteristics, Experiences and Outcomes of Secondary Level Students in Special Education


Secondary school youth who receive special education services feel positive about school, but are more likely than their peers to struggle academically, be suspended, and lag behind in taking key steps towards postsecondary education and jobs. Among youth with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), those with autism, deaf-blindness, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, and orthopedic impairments are most at-risk for not transitioning successfully beyond high school.

The Institute of Education Sciences released a report today (March 28) from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2012 (NLTS 2012), the third in the NLTS series commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education over several decades. The multi-volume report from the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), entitled Preparing for Life after High School: The Characteristics and Experiences of Youth in Special Education, presents updated information on secondary school youth with disabilities across the country. Volume 1 compares youth with an IEP to their non-IEP peers, and Volume 2 compares youth across disability groups. The study is being conducted as part of the congressionally-mandated National Assessment of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and the report volumes are intended to inform discussions regarding this important legislation and efforts to address reauthorization of this important legislation.

NLTS 2012 includes a nationally representative set of nearly 13,000 youth with and without an IEP who were ages 13-21 when selected for the study. Among youth with an IEP are students who represent each of the disability categories recognized by IDEA 2004, and among youth without an IEP are students with a plan developed under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.Both youth and their parent/guardian were surveyed in 2012-2013.

Key findings from the multi-volume report suggest:

Youth with an IEP, particularly those with intellectual disability and emotional disturbance, are more likely than their peers to be socioeconomically disadvantaged. Youth with an IEP are 12 percentage points more likely to live in low-income households and are less likely to have parents who are employed or have a college education. Among disability groups, youth with intellectual disability and youth with emotional disturbance are more socioeconomically disadvantaged and more likely to attend a lower-performing school than youth with an IEP overall. In contrast, youth with autism and youth with speech or language impairments are less socioeconomically disadvantaged and less likely to attend a lower-performing school than youth with an IEP overall.

The vast majority of youth with and without an IEP feel positive about school, but those with an IEP experience bullying and are suspended at higher rates. Like their peers, more than 80 percent of youth in special education report that they are happy with school and with school staff. However, not only do youth with an IEP more commonly experience some types of bullying (e.g., being teased or called names) but, according to parent reports, they are more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school. Among the disability groups, youth with emotional disturbance are most likely to report being teased and are suspended, expelled, and arrested at more than twice the rates of youth with an IEP on average.

Youth with an IEP are more likely than other youth to struggle academically, yet less likely to receive some forms of school-based support. Half of all youth with an IEP report they have trouble with their classes, about 1 5 percentage points more than reported by their peers. However, they are less likely to report receiving school-based academic help before or after regular hours, although their parents more commonly help with homework and attend a parent-teacher conference. Among youth with an IEP, those with autism, intellectual disability, and multiple disabilities are least likely to receive school-provided instruction outside of school hours though most likely to receive modified tests and assignments.

Youth with an IEP lag their peers in planning and taking steps to obtain postsecondary education and jobs. Substantially fewer youth with an IEP expect to enroll in postsecondary education or training, compared to youth without an IEP. Reflecting these gaps, youth in special education are almost half as likely as their peers to report taking college entrance and placement tests. Forty percent report having recent paid work experience while in high school, compared with 50 percent of youth without an IEP. Among youth with an IEP, the three groups least likely to receive academic supports before or after school—youth with autism, intellectual disability, and multiple disabilities—are also least likely to take these steps to prepare for college and employment.

Youth with autism, deaf-blindness, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, and orthopedic impairments are most at-risk for not transitioning successfully beyond high school. Youth in these groups are less likely than all youth with an IEP to have key characteristics and experiences linked to success after high school, such as performing typical daily living tasks, engaging with friends and in school activities, or preparing for college, careers, and independent living.

Read Volumes 1 and 2 at .
You can learn more about this study on the IES website.

At-Risk, In-Risk or Both?

Children exposed to domestic violence, experiencing homelessness, runaways, pregnant and parenting teens, victims of child abuse and neglect, and youth in and aging out of the foster care system grow up under conditions which expose them to traumatic situations. They all are at-risk for negative outcomes.
Children, youth and families are considered in-risk because they already experience one or more negative outcomes. Prevention programs will usually address these outcomes, and focus on the in-risk populations to harness protective factors to promote improved well being.

Protective factors, identified at three levels of influence are:

  1.  individual,
  2. relationship and
  3. community, and

must be nurtured, targeted and developed for improved well-being. It is important to work at multiple levels to impact individual skills and knowledge, focus on nurturing relationships and increase supports and opportunities available in the broader community.

The top 10 protective factors with the strongest evidence for children and youth are as follows:


  • self-regulation skills-refer to a youth’s ability to manage or control emotions or behaviors[anger management, emotional literacy…]
  • relational skills– refer to ability to form positive bonds and connections[social competence, being caring, pro-social relationships, interpersonal skills, conflict resolution,…]
  • problem-solving skills-refer to adaptive functioning skills and ability to solve problems
  • involvement in positive activities

All of these are related to positive outcomes, such as resiliency, having supportive friends, positive academic performance, improved cognitive functioning, and better social skills. They are also related to reduced PTSD[post-traumatic stress disorder], stress, depression, anxiety, depression and delinquency.

Numerous interventions target these skills with promising results. They include: Multi-Systemic Therapy, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Intensive Family Preservation Services and others. Additionally, involvement in positive activities, particularly school connectedness, engagement and commitment is a strong protective factor. Lower levels of antisocial and problem behaviors, repeat pregnancies, resiliency and higher SES[socioeconomic status] are associated with involvement in positive activities.


  • parenting competencies
  • positive peers
  • caring adults


  • positive community environment
  • positive school environment
  • economic opportunities

Parents, guardians, peers and other caring adults can contribute to a child’s well-being. Parent Competencies include parenting skills[discipline, boundary setting, proper care] and positive parent-child interactions[sensitive, caring, supportive parenting and close relationships between parent and child]. These factors are associated with many positive and healthy outcomes-increased self-esteem, lower anti-social behavior, increased social skills, better psychological adjustment. For children in out of home placements, reunification outcomes increase with improvements of parenting skills.

The well-being of parents and other caregivers is an important protective factor, especially for younger children. Well-being of parents refers to positive psychological functioning of the caregiver themselves[lower rates of depression, and other mental/behavioral health issues of mothers], well being and social supports. This protective factor is related to resilience, better peer relationships and fewer conduct problems. The presence of a caring adult is extremely important for teens and young adults and related to less stress, lower likelihood of arrest, reduced homelessness, higher employment, less suicidal ideation and better outcomes for children of teen mothers.

The community level factors include the school environment with supportive, culturally sensitive and responsive teachers and staff and specialized program services target improving outcomes. Less PTSD symptoms, depression, dating violence, and resilience can result from positive school environments. Positive community environments are defined by neighborhood quality, community safety, social cohesion, and social network support. Economic opportunities are defined as higher income/SES, employment and financial support for higher education.

We tend to place blame for dysfunction, poverty, drop-outs, and even criminal behaviors/activities are burdens of parents and caregivers in the primary home environment. Though family dynamics are important influencers and should be given consideration in developing service/family plans, no man[woman] child or family system is an island. When opportunity, exposure or access to knowledge and skills conducive to improved life outcomes, are unavailable, and historically presented with barriers and obstacles, we can’t realistically expect the ‘physicians’ to heal themselves. The populations about whom are implied here, will remain perpetually at-risk, in-risk or both, unless actionable plans are solution-focused, comprehensive, multi-systems collaborative, and reality-based.

Fragmented services deliver supports and intervention/prevention programs that target and address one area of need in isolation of other environmental influences. We don’t exist in total isolation; there are systems that overlap, and influence one another. Every service must be comprehensive and aligned across systems for measurable, sustainable changes to result. Instead of  clear pathways to college, career and economic stability, countless individuals are traveling the pipeline to prison and marginalization. We allow the most vulnerable to spin their wheels, remain trapped in a vicious cycle, down-spiraling, and bumping into brick walls when we sanction the delivery of fragmented services, and quite frankly, ‘half-assed’ support. Logic dictates the need for comprehensive, wrap-around service models to frame support services in education, child welfare, juvenile justice and other related areas where individuals interact with their environment.

To leave all other areas unchanged, is to withhold opportunities, access and knowledge to grow, thrive and realize full success potential. Protective factors are benchmarks from which interventions and strategies are to be comprehensively designed and implemented by practitioners, educators, family and child advocates,  across settings and systems to build capacity among at-risk and in-risk children, youth and families. Resilience and empowerment are built upon strengths! Risk is ever-present-so the focus must be placed on protective factors!

“CASA de Maryland”: Empowering Immigrant Families

In Maryland, family and community engagement in education supports recent immigrants and English language learners through many program initiatives. One of these notable programs is CASA de Maryland, a community-based organization that seeks to improve the life quality in low income immigrant communities of suburban Washington, D.C. An advocate for public education, CASA works to harness and develop the knowledge and skills immigrants bring to their children’s education and schools.

Implementing a Learning Together program model, they seek to build family capacity to navigate the education system despite limited language proficiency, low education attainment and the challenges of immigration in today’s political climate. The Learning Together model includes:

  • Parents from the community hired to engage in outreach
  • Classes offered by parents to support their peers in gaining skills to access resources for their children
  • Opportunities for parents teachers, and students to come together to learn and celebrate
  • Professional development for teachers.

Through its Leadership Academy, CASA trains and empowers parents to promote positive changes in education policy in their communities. In the Fall of 2016, CASA opened two Community Schools, to respond to the needs of immigrant students, families and community members. They provide wraparound services to support broader family needs and develop parent and student leadership skills to engage in all aspects of their children’s education.

CASA’s family engagement work provides an extraordinary example of the vital role of capacity building not only for families, but also for teachers in effective family engagement in education. To enable true family-school-community partnerships, CASA developed a Teacher-Parents Connection[TPC] Institute, a credentialed teacher professional development training delivered through a summer institute and also throughout the year. It includes training delivered by families to educate teachers on many cultural, immigration, and language challenges faced by immigrant families to provide a mental mindset shift in order that teachers begin to see parents’ assets and recognize they share challenges in communication but also share the goal of ensuring optimal student achievement and comprehensive learning success.

So, in order to bridge any divides in reference to immigrant families, we will examine a bit of culturally specific/background information and offer insights to inform, challenge and perhaps broaden perspectives, promote culturally-responsive practices and policies as they impact the experiences of new American families.

Families who immigrate to the U.S. bring skills, talents, and cultural traditions that can enrich their new communities. However, many also face stressors that may threaten their children’s safety and well-being. Practitioners can support these families in ways that build hope, strengthen communities, promote resilience, and foster positively smooth integration into their new communities.

First, it takes tremendous courage to leave behind one’s home, friends, family and home community for a new uncertain life in a different place. Immigrants demonstrate strong determination to overcome challenges and create a better life for themselves and their children. These are incredible strengths of character, and other strengths include:

  • Strong work ethic and high aspirations
  • Belief in the importance of education
  • Strong family bonds, including extended family members who often may live in the same home or nearby to help with childrearing and childcare
  • Cohesive communities with fellow immigrants from same country of origin

Though these strengths serve as protective factors for children, families who are newcomers also face unique challenges that can cause tremendous stress.

  • Some families can’t migrate together, and may face long periods of separation from children and other loved ones.
  • Families sometimes face discrimination and racism in their new communities
  • Poverty may result in lack of access to quality health care, educational resources, and needed services leading to children’s poor health and/or school failure.
  • Some families have fled dangerous or violent situations and parents and children can have trauma-related stress issues that, if not addressed, may be compounded by other life stress
  • Language or cultural barriers may result in difficulty finding jobs or underemployment with low wages and no benefits

Practitioners who are aware of the obstacles that immigrant families and children face are better equipped to employ strategies to help ensure immigrant families receive the services and supports they need to stay together and thrive.

Participate in cultural competency trainings, recognize the importance of a child’s extended family,  and learn about immigrant issues and policies. Establish partnerships with community-based agencies that have experience working with immigrant populations. Tap into a range of resources to help eligible families receive concrete services and assistance. Promote diversity-recruit  minority and bilingual staff to demonstrate a commitment to inclusion, foster meaningful relationships, and engage in effective communication to complement culturally responsive practices, perspectives, programs and policies.

Create opportunities for immigrant families you serve to participate alongside and in collaboration with all stakeholders in the decision-making process throughout the community, especially on local and district level school matters. As far as life in the United States for immigrant families, regardless of documentation status, it is best to focus on the strengths they bring as assets and build our capacity to be supportive of their quests for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in America. The deficit model is clearly counterproductive, and we aren’t children who stumbled upon this vast sandcastle, claimed it for ourselves and we have decided to ban certain people from playing alongside those already there.

Essentially, we are a union founded by immigrants, grounded in freedom, welcomed other immigrants-as long as they contributed to the growth of this economy. We echo this sentiment on a vary famous Statue on Liberty Island which exclaims that we welcome those ‘yearning to breathe free’ on American soil. We did not specify that this rings true under certain circumstances, or that only certain groups are welcome here. In fact, we did not specify that those yearning masses must be of European descent only, lest America becomes too ‘brown’ or too diverse.

Immigrant families wish the same for their children and themselves as we all do. Embracing diversity is far more peace-loving than being divisive, dismissive or disrespectful. Being humane, compassionate, empathic and supportive of others, while honoring our personal and/or professional ethics, is being ‘righteous’, not ‘self-righteous’ and is being an American. Provide pathways to citizenship that are designed in the best interest of all families and families with young children.

CASA de Maryland is a superb example of how we all can support and empower immigrant families in the United States of America. Together, we can become so much better and stronger than separately! Embrace diversity!


Embrace Diversity!