At Last! A Review of Research on Restorative Justice In Schools

Published by — Early studies of RJ programs in the US show their impact in reducing suspensions and harmful behavior.


Local Restorative Practices/Restorative Justice (RP/RJ) initiatives have been starving for research on America’s efforts to implement programs.  The large body of evidence showing the ineffectiveness of punishment doesn’t seem to make an adequately compelling argument for supporting Restoration.  And international research, while positive, has limited utility because each country’s educational system is somewhat different from each other’s, making comparisons hard.

So I’m relieved that the Robert Wood Johnston Foundation published a review of the existing literature this past February.  Restorative Justice in Schools: A Research Review concludes that overall, Restorative Justice (RJ) has been showing promising results.  “Teachers who implemented RJ frequently had better relationships with their students. The students felt respected by their teachers, and teachers generally issued fewer referrals.”  Those of us in the field have known this for some time.  Now we can say so with some clout, although the authors concede that this research is still “in its infancy.”

What is Restorative Justice in Schools?

There is no standardized definition of RJ, so the heavily-footnoted report turns to The National Centre for Restorative Approaches in Youth Settings.  They define it as “an innovative approach to offending and inappropriate behavior which puts repairing harm done to relationships and people over and above the need for assigning blame and dispensing punishment. A restorative approach in a school shifts the emphasis from managing behavior to focusing on the building, nurturing and repairing of relationships.”

In other words, RJ gets away from a myopic focus on guilt or innocence and works on reknitting relationships and community.

A summary of the obstacles to implementing RJ in schools:

The report states, “RJ requires staff time and buy-in, training, and resources that traditional sanctions such as suspension do not impose on the school. With RJ, teachers are often required to perform duties traditionally outside of their job description, such as attending RJ trainings, conducting circles during instruction time, and spending more time one-on-one talking with students. Some educators and other stakeholders are resistant to RJ because it is sometimes perceived as being “too soft” on student offenses. Finally, while RJ programs will certainly vary by the size of the school and scope of the program, some researchers suggest that a shift in attitudes toward punishment may take one to three years, and the deep shift to a restorative-oriented school climate might take up to three to five years.”

The critical issue of racial disparities

Punitive sanctions have the toxic effect of driving students — particularly minority and poor students — out of school altogether.  Furthermore, research shows significant disparities in exclusionary punishment for racial minorities and students with disabilities. “For example, minority students are suspended three times more than White students… A study from one Texas district that found African American students were 26.2% more likely to receive out-of-school suspension for their first offense than White students. Students who are suspended, all things being equal, are more at risk for poor attendance, inability to progress to the next grade, failure to graduate, and subsequent involvement in the juvenile and adult justice systems.”

The disparities might be the result of the growing use of law-enforcement methods “(e.g., armed police or security forces patrolling the grounds, metal detectors, security cameras, locker searches)… These procedures have led to students perceiving that their schools are like prisons and that they are viewed as criminals committing crimes, especially as they are designated as ‘suspects’ and ‘under investigation.’”

A few images of RP/RJ’s impact

RP/RJ has been most successful where the programs have stood the test of time, grown and become sustainable — such as some in California, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.  But RJ programs or models can be successful whether implemented in public, private, or alternative schools, in urban or suburban environments, in one school or every school in a district.

“All the empirical studies we reviewed report a decrease in exclusionary discipline and harmful behavior (e.g., violence) after implementing some type of RJ program.

For example, (one researcher) reports an 84% drop in out-of-school suspensions among sixth graders in one Texas school during the first year RJ was introduced, and a 19% drop in all suspensions… Denver schools that implemented restorative circles and conferencing report a 44% reduction in out-of-school suspensions. They also report an overall decrease in expulsions across the three-year post-implementation period.  In Oakland, Cole Middle School experienced an 87% drop in suspensions across the first two years of implementation compared to the prior three years; expulsions were eliminated entirely after RJ was put in place. More recent figures from Oakland suggest continued success, with a 74% drop in suspensions and a 77% decrease in referrals for violence during a two-year follow up.”

Not too shabby.  The report notes that other large-scale research is taking place now and that more hard data will be available within the foreseeable future.  In the meantime, for those looking for an “evidence-base,” the gold standard for getting grants and credibility, this worthy report is a welcome, if early, addition.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see or contact her at The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Restore Kindergarten to Boost Social Skills

Published by — What’s most fun for young kids is also what best prepares them for success.  So why are schools eliminating playtime?


Picture wriggly, shrieky, busy 5-year-olds exploring the kindergarten play yard’s treasures.  The sandbox brims with budding builders, diggers, landscape designers.  Some kids need mostly to run and scream.  Others settle into swinging, climbing and kicking balls to each other.  The luckiest kids have a bit a nature where they can make fairy houses for a community of imaginary beings living through dramatic, magical adventures.  They learn the arts of taking turns, helping one another on projects and solving their own problems.

Maria Montessori said that “Play is the work of childhood.”

Picture a wise adult or two, standing at a distance, perhaps out of earshot, eyeing the elements of the kids’ evolving social world.  The adults respond when asked to admire an accomplishment or play a role, but stay out of disputes unless it gets out of control.  A new kid or loner needs adult help connecting to others.  Grown-ups might redirect the aggressive impulses of a little bully and try to help her develop empathy by walking in her classmates’ shoes somehow.

But those were the kindergartens of yesteryear. 

These days kids spend precious little time playing at all in school.  Play and socializing might happen during short breaks between academic instruction, but many schools did away with recess altogether.  Now kindergarten teachers teach first-grade skills and have no mandate to help 5-year-olds develop the social skills that will serve them for life.  The Alliance for Childhood’s Crisis in the Kindergarten says, “Skepticism about the value of play is compounded by the widespread assumption that the earlier children begin to master the basic elements of reading, such as phonics and letter recognition, the more likely they are to succeed in school.”  That assumption is wrong.

And recently yet more research shows how wrong the assumption is.  In “Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health:  The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness,” Drs. Jones, Greenberg and Crowly examine the value of what they call the “non-cognitive” skills, or those skills not associated with IQ or achievement.  They argue that these playing-nicely-in-the-sandbox skills actually support the “cognitive,” or academic, abilities of the child.  The researchers mined the rich longitudinal data from the “Fast Track” study of low-income neighborhoods which collected teacher descriptions of a large sample of kindergartners starting in 1991 and then followed those kids’ outcomes 13 to 19 years later — until 2000.

Their studies reveal that when kindergarteners develop strong social skills, they have significantly higher odds of future success in a range of domains from physical health to academics.  Little kids who cannot manage feelings or negotiate well with others are more likely, statistically, to become young adults who use drugs, struggle in school, get involved in the justice system, be unemployed, and so on.

“Kindergarten” means “child’s garden,” where kids grow organically.

Common Core, while marvelous in some ways, is only the most recent instrument of pushing academic instruction into kindergarten.  In the 1990s, when computer-scored testing became cost-effective, states and their schools became obsessed with boosting their public image and value by increasing their scores.  I’m all for testing as a way of checking on the equity and quality of certain academic efforts, but schools became all about testing, needlessly squeezing everything else out.  Many early childhood experts are aghast about it.  Losing supervised play as the best and most natural way for young kids to learn cripples curiosity.  Developing self-control, cooperation and solving their own problems will produce the desired academic results, but only in good time.

Pre-literacy and play are not mutually exclusive. 

By all means, steep kindergartners in rich literature and intriguing stories.  Nourish the curiosity of those yearning to unlock the mysteries of reading.  Build out their vocabularies at every opportunity.  But mostly, let them love being at school — socializing, exploring.  That will do far more to boost 3rd-grade reading than un-fun reading instruction.

Kindergarten teachers wouldn’t mind teaching social skills if they weren’t also saddled with the pain of pushing instruction that many argue is inappropriately premature.  Harder, faster, younger isn’t working out.  And oh what a turn-off it is for so many kids.

So restore play in kindergarten.  Play is how children learn and how adults relax, recreate and restore well-being.  It’s the ultimate restorative practice.  In a world gone mad with aggression, you’d think we could agree that giving the kids a rich year of supervised play, learning empathy, would set them up with a higher quality of life.

Indeed, research strongly argues it will.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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What Does a Flourishing, Healthy, Competent Kid Look Like?

Published by — Child Trends is working on a new project to track positive trends among children and youth.

Child Trends has started a “Flourishing Child Project.”

Ironically, Child Trends (CT) has long been among my most reliable sources of data about the state of American kids, almost all of which is depressingly negative.  Their briefs cover substance abuse, grandparents taking over for parents, obesity, and other sad social indicators.

But getting away from this intense negativity is precisely the point.  As their site notes, “There is a critical need to monitor positive development among children and youth.”

Yes.  What gets measured, gets valued.  What gets valued get attention and resources.

So they want to balance our obsession with kids’ deficits and problems — teen pregnancy, poverty, juvenile incarceration — with attention to the qualities we want to see in kids.  What do we hope for them?  Only to graduate and get good test scores?  Really?

What else does it look like when we’ve got it right?  Not for the schools, not for the tests, not for meeting state accountability standards — but for the flesh-and-blood kids themselves?

What, in Child Trend’s words, does a flourishing kid look like?

They’ve come up with a draft of 19 qualities, under six domains.  Under the largest domain, “Personal Flourishing,” includes Gratitude, Forgiveness, Hope, Goal Orientation, Life Satisfaction, Purpose, and Spirituality.  Environmental Stewardship stands alone in the smallest domain of the same name.

With these and other qualities in hand, the next task is to find or invent ways of measuring whether we’re getting better at helping kids develop them.  This will be a big job, to be sure.

But as the site insists, “It’s good science.  The study of child development, and of human development more broadly, encompasses both positive and negative developmental processes.”

Education as a field is terrific at measuring the negative.  Or at least coming up with negative conclusions thanks to narrow measures.

So, for example, the Project will develop reliable measures for characteristics like “educational engagement.” Test scores indicate what kids have learned, but tell us nothing about whether they actually give a fig about the stuff.

When educators, officials and the public — though definitely not parents — look to see if students meet goals, they look at a few bits of data.  Winning scores and graduation rates keep the state and federal accountability police at bay.  Schools with low scores are named, shamed and in some cases threatened with take-overs and job losses.

I’m all for accountability and test scores, but where on earth are the kids in all this?  We don’t measure whether students are kind, generous or civic-minded?  And if those qualities don’t matter, what does?  Do we just want schools to feed a workforce to the Economy — a goal that’s not working out all that well anyway?

I love Child Trends’ use of the word “flourishing.”  It’s organic, like juicy apples and happy babies.

Under the right conditions, all children can flourish.  They may not finish college, though there should be more of that.  However, they might thrive in a trade apprenticeship that will lead to good money and useful occupation.  They might be content supporting themselves in a dumb day job while pursuing an art or personal passion.  They might know how to gather a team around themselves to help the struggle through illness, a parent’s death, a bad break-up, or major disappointment.  They might develop the critical combination of altruism and thick skin allowing them to become effective leaders.

Whatever their test scores, these are adults-in-the-making whom we would love to have among us.

And it only stands to reason that kids who are flourishing would, oh btw, get better test scores.

So Child Trends will counter-balance miserable indicators with measures of healthy kids.  Qualities like self-control, empathy and optimism can all change for the better under improved conditions.

For example, it’s possible Child Trends’ research will show that girls with a strong sense of purpose reliably avoid premature pregnancies.  Okay.  Well, both community service and career exploration are very good at helping middle-school kids get their heads in their futures, sparking dreams and ambitions that give them a sense of purpose.  Both initiatives have slipped out of fashion in recent years.  But surely they’re a wiser, never mind cheaper investment than paying the expenses incurred over the lifetimes of the roughly one million babies born to unprepared teens each year.

The Project is hoping that documenting trends in such data will be able to convince the folks with the purse strings to invest in kids’ positive development, instead of spending gobs of resources on prisons and other failures to clean up our social messes after the fact.

The Flourishing Child Project is an overdue effort to shift to a more satisfying conversation about kids.  What do we want?  How do we measure it?  A love of learning is innate.  So the healthier the kid, the more she’ll take charge of her own learning, on her own, for her own reasons.

Given decent teachers, an optimistic focus, and juicy opportunities, students will make sure the test scores take care of themselves.

Accentuate the positive.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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