Restorative Practices: Why We’re Talking in Circles ... and Why It Works

Restorative Practices: Why We’re Talking in Circles ... and Why It Works
Dr. Renée Greenfield, Head of School Blog
Listen to Renée read this article aloud.

Increasingly, restorative practices are being used in schools across the country as a powerful community-building tool. Not only do they offer an effective complement to traditional disciplinary measures, they help students to build important communication and relationship skills.

At Carroll, we began exploring the use of restorative practices several years ago. They feel like a natural extension of our work. After all, building skills and nurturing relationships are foundational to our mission. We understand that our students can’t maximize their learning and growth without trusting and connecting to not only their teachers, but one another.

Allison Harmon, our Director of Counseling, who co-led the introduction of restorative practices on our campuses, explains it well: “Restorative practices align really well with our philosophy and values at Carroll, where we blend social emotional and academic learning. They demonstrate our commitment to relationship-based teaching and learning. When something goes wrong, we want to learn from it. And often this learning happens in the context of caring relationships.”

So far, close to 30 Carroll educators and staff, across all three divisions, have received training in the facilitation of restorative practices, including Upper School Counselor Teresa Lacks.

While restorative practices can take many forms, the most well known application in schools is gathering in circles.

Proactive (Relationship Building) Circles

Restorative Practices at Carroll School

Last school year, we piloted the use of proactive—or relationship-building—circles during morning meetings, community time, flex blocks, and in our health and wellness curriculum. Guided by a facilitator, students assemble in a circle. Following structured prompts, they are invited to share their perspectives and experiences. The guidelines are simple:

  • Respect those who are talking
  • Speak from the heart
  • Share just enough
  • Listen (avoid worrying about what you’ll say) 
  • Remain in the circle
  • Honor confidentiality 

Adults at Carroll also began weaving in circles last year during all-employee meetings and in our Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). 

Responsive (Relationship Repairing) Circles

This school year, we’re introducing responsive—or relationship-repairing—circles, which provide a structure for repairing harm and restoring relationships. Responsive circles are offered in a situation when those involved show a readiness and willingness to participate in this structure. They are facilitated by Carroll adults who have completed training in this practice so they can support all participants and ensure the integrity of the process.

Circles have been a tremendously valuable tool for us at Carroll.

Here’s what I’ve noticed:

Restorative Practices at Carroll School

→Circles support us in living out Carroll’s mission and values

We are invested in educating the whole child. Yes, we specialize in teaching our students how to become more fluent readers and writers, but we are also teaching them how to advocate for themselves, communicate effectively, build confidence, and solve problems. Circles are a concrete example of our whole-child approach. We don’t deploy it only in times of disagreement, or when a relationship repair is needed. Circles are woven into our school culture. So, when disagreement does arise, we are all familiar and comfortable with the format and skills needed to process a situation effectively.

Worth noting: Our use of restorative practices doesn't mean that we have abandoned traditional discipline and consequences. That said, we know that stand-alone punitive measures are not always effective. They don’t allow for reflection and skill-building. Because they scaffold growth and encourage perspective-taking, restorative practices are an essential complement to our existing system.

→Circles are empowering 

During circles, no one is forced to speak but everyone is expected to be present and everyone has an opportunity to share. The sense of belonging and acceptance this fosters is palpable. Allison, who often facilitates student circles, noticed how some students who rarely offer a comment in a traditional group discussion will choose to share something during a circle. When the circle guidelines are in place, students can feel the attention and care from their peers in a way that is distinct from other discussion formats.

And while an adult facilitator always guides circle time, the students are the ones leading the conversation. As Allison points out, the agency and voice this affords them—not to mention a sense of accountability and responsibility—makes for an empowering experience. 

Restorative Practices at Carroll School

→Circles are a great equalizer

I can’t think of any other tool or structure at Carroll that is used by students and adults. Because all our (nearly) 200 employees use circles, we reinforce its importance in our community. I find the six key questions used in an authentic, relationship-repairing circle so impactful. We ask:

  • From your perspective, what happened?
  • What were you thinking and feeling at the time?
  • What have you thought about and felt since?
  • Who has been affected by what happened and how?
  • What about this has been the hardest for you?
  • What do you need to do to make things as right as possible?

Adults and students on campus are asked to tackle the same questions. As Head of School, I can confidently report that they have helped me to frame very productive, transparent, and healing conversations among educators, staff, and parents. 

Like every tool we use at Carroll to advance student growth, circles have been thoughtfully considered and implemented, slowly and intentionally. I’m proud of how many of our employees  have sought out training to learn more. And I’m excited to watch our community grow as a result.

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