Beyond suspension or expulsion, ‘restorative practices’ is more thoughtful discipline

school discipline on the playground

Beginning August 1, a package of new state laws will change the landscape of student disciplinary action in Michigan. Depending on how these laws are implemented in schools, they may either improve or damage the learning climate.

Bill Sower

Bill Sower is president of the Ann Arbor-based Christopher & Virginia Sower Center for Successful Schools, a for-profit licensee of the non-profit International Institute for Restorative Practices.

The laws require schools to consider certain circumstances like a student’s age and disciplinary history before issuing suspensions or expulsions. In addition, the laws require schools to consider an approach called “restorative practices” (RP) as a disciplinary alternative for serious offenses, and they encourage schools to consider RP for lesser offenses, including bullying.

While some school administrators will interpret the word “consider” as just a brief, passing thought – opening themselves to challenges from parents and advocacy groups to show evidence of good faith in their considerations – others will want to embrace the opportunity to improve their school’s culture and climate with a solid implementation of RP.

RP is a set of very practical methods for balancing firmness and caring, improving relationships, resolving and preventing conflict, and administering discipline more productively.

Michigan has come a long way since 2001, when I worked with the International Institute for Restorative Practices and South Lyon Community Schools to launch Michigan’s first school-based RP program. Since then, RP has grown steadily in Michigan, as it has throughout the rest of the United States and the world.

Now, after assisting many schools to implement RP – and after making more than a few mistakes along the way – I have learned nine essential steps for implementing this model successfully.

Know the objective: The goal of RP is to enhance accountability and positive relationships, not simply to reduce suspensions. Focusing primarily on reducing suspensions can weaken accountability and, thus, harm school relationships.

Protect teaching and learning. RP must protect the moral “heart and soul” of any school, that is, every teacher’s right to teach and every student’s right to learn. In schools where RP is mistakenly used to coddle misbehaving students and pressure teachers to tolerate more disruption, teachers are organizing against it.

Train the staff. Two whole days of staff training are typically needed so that all adults in a school understand that RP is “something we all do,” not just something that happens in someone’s office. Starting RP without good professional development will doom it to failure.  

Hire specialists.  A trained coordinator and possibly additional facilitators are often needed to guide the more formal restorative practices called “conferences” and “circles.” If a school has few disciplinary and conflict problems, existing staff members may fill these roles. But if a school has more than a few problems, specialists should be hired.  

Design procedures collaboratively. After the initial training, a representative team of teachers, administrators and staff members should develop the school’s procedures for RP, from the positive classroom strategies that can prevent misbehavior to the actual disciplinary steps.  Administrators may first define some “non-negotiables” such as specifying which issues must be handled in the classroom and which behaviors may be referred out.

Align RP with conventional discipline. RP should not replace existing discipline. For instance, when a violation of the code of conduct calls for a suspension, the offending student and the family may be offered the opportunity to waive some or all of the suspension days if they agree to participate constructively in a restorative justice conference. Students must then comply with the conference agreement that defines what should be done to make things right.  In this way, conventional punishment is not seen as a solution to the problem (especially since suspensions are viewed by too many students as no punishment at all) but as leverage – as motivation – to encourage offending students and their families to participate in a more productive and satisfying approach to accountability.

Attack misbehavior’s academic root cause. Most importantly, we must recognize that student misbehavior is strongly related to low academic achievement. Students who are failing are more likely to disengage and disrupt. Thus, finding ways to rapidly accelerate academic skills is the most important behavioral strategy.

Collect data. Positive outcomes can attract funding. Measure trends for behavioral referrals, disciplinary actions, and satisfaction surveys.

Take the long view. Finally, understand that there are no quick fixes. RP is a paradigm shift away from entrenched punishment models and toward stronger accountability and more caring school environments. This kind of dramatic change takes time and determination.

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Fri, 01/13/2017 - 1:03pm

I have heard my share of "horror" stories related to school discipline and the unprofessional way that school administrators try to deal with situations, I doubt a two day training session is really going to make a major difference, teachers are not trained psychologists, you really need someone that understands how to deal with these things. Will schools really hire a professional in this area, can they even afford it?

Fri, 01/13/2017 - 3:23pm

I appreciate the desire to help the students become more focused on learning, and to help them become better socialized within the classroom. It seems there are many working on this and are developing the means for schools to implement this in their schools.I have been aware how these challenged students can/have disrupted classrooms impairing the learning of the other students. I am surprise that Mr. Sower does mention how this training and other activities are stabilizing classroom and improving the learning environments for all the students.My concern is that the desire to help the individual student in crisis become so focused that the impact on all the other students is missed.I wonder how these programs' effectiveness are being assessed, how opportunities for improving effectiveness are identified, developed, and implemented, and how the public will be informed of the results. We have a long history of well meaning, impassioned people, getting involved in helping individuals in need that after the initial design and efforts the interest and effort to continually improve wain but the programs continue.As much as I would like to see all of this effort succeed, I am skeptical, especially since there is no discussion about the whole of the classroom, no discussion of program accountability, no mention of how the programs will be ensure to be dynamic/ever improving.

Thu, 01/19/2017 - 11:23am

Considering, taking accountability for, and trying to remedy victim impact is an explicit core concept of restorative justice. What are you even talking about?

Sun, 01/22/2017 - 12:24am

Rachel,Concept is all well and good, but without a description of practical implementation and programs accountability why should we see this as anything more than good intentions that want other peoples money?Mr. Sower speaks at such a high level I learn nothing about programs, nothing about how it impacts those in focus and how it is impacts all others in the classroom. He talks nothing about how we [whose money he wants more of] will be assured that there is real value from his concept. He mentions nothing about verification/validation of practices. We hear what he wants, but we hear nothing about measurable results.If you want to discuss what effective accountability looks like, the benefits it has, and how it is the antithesis of blame, I ammore than willing to discuss that, but nothing in this article even alludes to an understanding of accountability.I agree with the need to address the issue of the disruptive actions, but more than identifying the issue/problem I am tired of hearing the high level promotion of programs that show good intentions but lack a description of practical application, real performance driven metrics, and continuous improvement protocol [credible accountability], I am a skeptic.

Sun, 01/15/2017 - 9:31am

After thirty five years in education I learned that out of school suspension is not always the answer. For some it is more a reward than a punishment. Have a room or area where they go ,not able to sleep or play video games or interact with their peers. Expulsion is a last resort and generally leads to a life of continued failure. If they have never had structure or discipline they won't always get it in school. Not ALL kids belong in the classroom setting. R.L.

Sun, 01/15/2017 - 9:36am

I have personally interviewed over 15000 students after they left school, I have always ended my questions with who were some of your favorite teachers and some of your least favorite. There is almost always a common thread in their answers. Guess what they are? R.L.

Sun, 01/15/2017 - 1:37pm

The same threads of good and bad parenting

Sun, 01/15/2017 - 11:34pm

The best were the ones that made the subjects interesting and showed the most personal interested in student. The worst were the ones that showed the least interest in them.R.L.,Question for you, was it the student or the teacher that had most impact on who learned and who didn't, was it doing the homework or the classroom presentation?

Sun, 01/15/2017 - 10:01pm

I know money thrown at a problem doesn't always solve it. Try giving teachers the supplies and books they need and not putting 30 plus kids in a class. Oh yes and pay a living wage for a new teacher. I know teachers in Charter schools after 7 years still making $30,000. Dedication only goes so far. Pay good teachers and help get rid of those in the wrong career. I know now go off on tenure. R.L.

Mon, 01/16/2017 - 12:06am

R.L.,Before asking for money, what results is desired/expected? I learned a long time ago that when I needed other people's money I had to frame my request around what the money was to deliver, what results. If the results were consistent with whose money I was asking for then more times than not I would get the money [though never what I asked for, what I thought was needed], enough where we were able to achieved the desired results with a bit more creativity.The way Mr. Sower talks about the issue I am not clear on what results are to be achieved. As best I can tell it will be a by guess and by golly whether results are achieved.As for the 'living wage', it suggests that the person is so comfortable in their situation they aren't willing to change [of any kind], and they will accept whatever others are willing to pay in that situation. Effective people establish metrics that tack the value they are trying to deliver and make their case to those whose money is being spent in an effort to create change. As best I can tell the current school testing was established by legislatures and not the teachers, it seems the teachers resisted the idea of metrics and left them to non-professionals.What do you believe the 'classroom' should deliver, what results should a student achieve when the grade is completed?

Mon, 01/16/2017 - 11:41am

It should deliver materials that are relevant and in most cases current. It should be with a manageable number of student and when there are students who are manageable alternative need to be implemented . Special education until age 26 in the traditional classroom or school l is not a good idea. Not all students need 4 years of high school math , two years of a foreign language, and chemistry or physics. Look into the theory of Multiple Intelligences. It is not how smart you are but how you are smart. Like to hear your responses. R.L.

Mon, 01/16/2017 - 11:44am

My previous response should have been proof read. It should say not Manageable alternatives need to be implemented. SORRY. R.L.