Traditionally schools have adopted a student management model based on existing western criminal justice systems.  The basis of which is that schools have rules, when students break rules sanctions are applied to the wrongdoers.  This authoritarian system is based on the belief that punishment is the best form of deterrence and sends a clear message to others, that control must be restored and that it can achieve behaviour change.  It is offender focused and fails to address the harm the behaviour may have caused others.  By focusing on the individual rather than the context in which the behaviour occurred, it fails to address the complex dynamics operating in schools and families that may have been contributing factors.  Punishment is quick and easy but it fails to produce results.  Research shows, punishment has zero effect on any of the above outcomes and in fact has been shown to increase feelings of shame and humiliation, emotions that are the catalyst for negative and harmful behaviours.

Restorative Justice principles and processes have existed in some cultures for hundreds of years and have been implemented in schools all around the world over the last 30 years.  The Restorative Justice Framework is a values-based, collaborative approach to dealing with harmful behaviour.  People and relationships are viewed as the most important aspect of schools and communities.  Wrongdoing is seen as a violation of people and relationships rather than rules. The approaches and processes used bring all stakeholders together to heal the harm and set things right.  The behaviour is confronted in terms of how it has affected the individuals within the community involved, such that social and emotional healing can take place.  The broad aim is to build understanding and collective resolve (Morrison, 2007).  From a restorative perspective, both the person harmed and the person responsible for the harm are of equal value.  Both have needs and both should be offered an opportunity to play their part in the restoration and repair of relationships and community.

So what would a restorative approach sound like?  Below are some examples of the dialogue you might hear following a conflict or incident of harm.

Traditionally in schools (homes, business, organisations) discipline or behaviour management has taken an adversarial standpoint. We would most often hear questions such as:

  1. What rule has been broken?
  2. Who did it?
  3. What punishment will be imposed?


A restorative approach asks a different set of questions:

  1. What happened?
  2. Who has been affected or harmed?
  3. What needs to be done to repair the harm and restore the relationship?

These are open-ended questions, they are directed to the behaviour not the person therefore they are no-blame and can be answered by anyone who was involved making this a ‘fair’ process. They seek to build understanding and develop empathy. When bigger issues arise, further questioning can be included to gather more information:

  1. What happened?
  2. What were you thinking about when it occurred?
  3. What have you thought about since?
  4. Who has been affected or harmed? Who else?
  5. In what way have they been affected or harmed?
  6. What needs to be done to fix it?
  7. What do you think _______ needs to hear or see from you?
  8. What support or help do you need to do that?

In this set of questions, we can observe meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) which gives us an insight into motive or cognitive skills as well as the opportunity to express remorse and empathy. It also provides people the opportunity to seek help to repair things if required.

Further still, questions can be directed toward particular participants, for example when questioning the person harmed:

  1. What did you think when you realised what happened?
  2. What’s been the hardest thing for you?
  3. What do you need to hear or see from _____ to feel better?

This provides the opportunity for the person harmed to share their story, to detail the level of harm and impact and to outline what they need to move forward thereby empowering them.  It also provides a forum for perspective taking, developing understanding for one another and therefore increasing the capacity for empathy.

John Braithwaite is a Distinguished Professor and Founder of RegNet (the Regulatory Institutions Network) at the Australian National University .  His best known work is on the ideas of responsive regulation and restorative justice.  In this short lecture John Braithwaite examines some of the key theories and applications of Restorative Justice. To access the video please click here.

Click here to read documented real life case studies involving students and teachers in order to further your understanding of restorative approaches.