Staff at Hoosick Falls Elementary School are using an innovative process to help their students work through their social relationships and build more positive connections with others.
School-based restorative justice is a big term for a basic concept: when you provide opportunities for children to communicate in a safe environment and encourage them to accept full responsibility for their words and actions, they learn how to actively form positive relationships.
Policies with emphasis on punishment focus only on the rule that was broken and what punishment is deserved. It responds to the original harm with an additional harm. This approach does not explore the root cause of the harm and fails to prevent more of the same from happening again. It actually has a negative impact on students.
“We know from studies and experience that just punishing children when they act inappropriately towards others doesn’t make sense. Punishment alone doesn’t help them build respect and empathy for others,” said Sarah Fleming, assistant principal of the elementary school.
“When you ask a child to take responsibility for their words and actions and then include them in repairing the harm done, they take an active role in creating a positive outcome.”
Restorative justice rests on the values of respect, inclusion, responsibility, empathy, honesty, openness, and accountability. After an incident, the process raises questions centered on who has been hurt and what their needs are, as well as who has the obligation to help make things right again.
“We’re not saying a child can do something inappropriate, say a few words of apology, and walk away without any consequences,” said Fleming. “The child who inflicted the harm, directly or indirectly, must take ownership of what happened. The child who was harmed is encouraged to express how it affected him. Other involved students have a chance to express their feelings about it. We also include families in finding the best solution to right the wrong.
“We’re educating children on how their actions or words can have an emotional impact on others. When we involve them in righting the harm that has been done, all participants gain a sense of empowerment. It provides an opportunity for everyone involved to return to the school community without feelings of shame or guilt.”
Often, students use a restorative circle. Participants sit in a circle with an adult facilitator. Each student is given the opportunity to speak in a confidential atmosphere of respect and safety.
“The restorative circle really helped me with my problem,” said one recent student participant. “I would recommend it for anyone else with a [relationship] problem.”
“Families find the process to be fair and appreciate the learning experience their children go through,” said Fleming.
The process of restorative justice can be applied to incidents of any level and every student is elevated to thrive. At HFCS, the key ideas are “remorse, responsibility, and repair.”
The method is part of Hoosick Falls Central School District’s overarching approach and commitment to a child’s social-emotional development (SED). Encouraging the social-emotional development of students while teaching traditional academic subjects builds a positive school climate focused on fairness and caring about others — and helps to foster healthy, confident adults.
Restorative justice is being used in schools across the country and has been proven to reduce violence and bullying; improve human interactions; offer effective leadership for managing interactions; restore relationships; and repair harm done to another person.
“The restorative justice process is interactive, giving it more meaning to those involved,” added Fleming. “It provides young children with relationship skills they can build on and use throughout their lives, helping them become happier, more productive adult members of any community.”