Restorative practices appear to be an effective alternative to exclusionary and punitive zero-tolerance behavior policies mandated in many schools today. This was published in the December 2011 issue of The Prevention Researcher, a quarterly journal that focuses on successful adolescent development and serves professionals who work with young people.

The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) in Bethlehem, PA has gathered data – mainly discipline statistics – from approximately 40 schools since 1999 to evaluate the effects of restorative practices. Mirsky, assistant director of communications and technology for IIRP, says the restorative approach engages students in processes where they can take responsibility for their behavior.

It also includes proactive ways for them to build relationships and community. She discusses 11 elements used to change the learning climate in schools. Seven of these are school-wide and used by all staff members who come in contact with children.

One – affective statements – underpins all other elements. Affective statements are “personal expressions of feelings in response to specific positive or negative behaviors of others.” “Understanding and using affective statements can help foster an immediate change in the dynamic between teacher and student,” says Mirsky.

In the fall of 2010, City Springs Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, Maryland began concentrating wholeheartedly on affective statements and the 10 other elements of whole-school change.

The number of suspensions at City Springs declined from 86 in 2008-2009 to nine in 2010-2011. While affective statements are the most informal restorative practice, at the other end of the 11-step continuum is the most formal one: the restorative conference.

This is a structured protocol used in response to serious incidents. All persons involved come together to explore what happened, who was affected, and what needs to be done to make things right. The conference is run by a trained facilitator who leads participants through a series of scripted questions to think about the incident, who it affected and how, and how they can repair the situation.

One student at Hamtramck High School said “Before we had circles we didn’t feel like our voices mattered. Now the violence and fighting have stopped. Circles make you feel safe. We all come together. A lot of us want to change the world.”

Mirsky’s paper is titled “Restorative Practices: Giving Everyone a Voice to Create Safer, Saner School Communities.”

Each issue of The Prevention Researcher covers a single topic.