Restorative Practices in Elementary Schools

Restorative Practices are ALL THE RAGE and while I’m typically critical of the latest trends in education, I love restorative practices and encourage everyone to jump in. The truth is that most school counselors will find themselves really connecting with all of the ideas. The tricky work is in figuring out how to help your school begin to adopt them. A piece of this is understanding some of the main beliefs and strategies in order to better explain them to others. Another piece is fitting them into the elementary school tier, since the majority of the books and trainings out there are secondary-based.

Hold onto your hats, y’all. This is a long post! I tried to be comprehensive and provide information for teachers and counselors alike as you start or continue in your journey to use restorative practices at your school. And if you’re looking for an easy way to share this information and more with your faculty, I created a Restorative Practices Faculty Training Presentation.

restorative practices in elementary schools

What are restorative practices?

Restorative practices are a mindset, a set of beliefs about why people choose positive behavior and the power of relationships. Restorative practices are also a set of strategies schools can use. They are rooted in repairing harm and building and repairing relationships. And restorative practices value student empowerment. This student empowerment also serves to develop intrinsic motivation, something I know we’re all seeking to do.

International Institute for Restorative Practices developed what is called the “social discipline window”. It shows different types of discipline based on the amount of CONTROL and the amount of SUPPORT involved. When there’s very little control or support, it is neglectful, essentially it’s not there at all. When our control is high but our support is low, discipline is something we are doing TO the students and it’s punitive. In the reverse, when our support is high but our control is low, it’s a permissive style. Our goal is high control and high support. An environment and style of discipline that holds our students accountable to high expectations while providing them the support they need to achieve it. That is restorative practices.

social discipline window

Restorative practices are NOT an “instead of”. They work hand in hand with trauma-informed practices, with social emotional learning, and even with PBIS. Restorative practices are also not about letting students “get away” with things. Student accountability and responsibility and consequences are still present, but shame and punitive punishment are not.

In traditional discipline, the focus was on asking “what rule was broken?”, “who did it?”, and “how should they be punished?”. Restorative practices asks about who was harmed, how they were harmed, and what needs to happen to fix it. Traditional discipline says: “I found this pair of headphones that were broken! Someone snapped them. Who did it? They are going to have some consequences for this!” Restorative practices says: “This pair of headphones was broken. Now not as many people can use our listening center. I need to talk to the person who did it so we can try to make this better.”

Building Relationships and Repairing Harm

There are lots of ways to build relationships between faculty or staff and students and this probably comes naturally to you and is important to you as well. Building relationships between students is just as important! Here are some ideas for doing that:

  • Intentionally finding and naming commonalities. You can do low-pressure activities where students share information about their interests and disinterests. Ask students to find classmates they have things in common with. You can point out positive or neutral things you see as similar between students.
  • Having shared fun experiences also promotes relationship development. When you do a messy science project together, when you do a silly brain break, when you do a lesson outside…doing things together as a class that make students smile and laugh, you’re helping them to connect.
  • Facilitating discussions and activities with your class where they create goals, class expectations, or future visions together, you’re building class relationships. When people are working together towards a common goal, there’s something called “positive interdependence” that occurs.
  • Even upper elementary students are not too old for show and tell. It’s a way to share about parts of themselves that they may not ordinarily get a chance to.
  • Changing up the seating plan also serves to build relationships between students because they have the chance to connect with more of one another.

When a student has engaged in inappropriate behavior or not followed the agreed upon expectations, the focus turns to identifying and repairing the harm. Asking WHO or WHAT was harmed or wronged, and then taking action. Harm can be repaired through: apologies, cleaning up, providing help, giving positive/kind words, or redoing the action/behavior correctly.

Social Emotional Skills

Restorative practices absolutely serve to help students develop important social emotional skills. And at the same time, especially in an elementary school, students need some social emotional skills in order to really engage with restorative practices. Most books and articles and videos on restorative practices are focused on the secondary level and just assume that students already have some basic social skills mastered. The truth is, elementary kiddos don’t. Using the practices will help develop them, but it may also be the case that your class needs some lessons or practice with these skills explicitly in order to really engage with and understand them.

These are some of the skills that are part of restorative practices. On the one hand, this sounds like extra work for you as already super busy teachers. On the other hand, these skills will make your students better learners and better citizens, so they’re incredibly helpful outside of restorative practices, too.

  • Identifying Feelings in Self and Others
  • Expressing and Regulating Feelings
  • Responsibilities in the Classroom and School
  • Taking Responsibility For My Own Actions
  • Choices and Consequences
  • Peaceful Conflict Resolution
  • Apologies and Forgiveness
  • Perspective Taking and Empathy

Knowing the importance of circles (read below!) and thinking about how educators can help embed these SEL skills even further into their day, I created a set of questions/prompts for elementary educators to use in community circles, morning meetings, etc.

restorative circles in elementary schools


One of the social emotional skills really embedded in restorative practices are I-statements/I-messages, which are called “affective statements” in the RP world. This is how adults and students alike can share their feelings and needs, while those around are developing empathy. I’ve written about teaching students how to use I-statements a few times before, here and here. I-statements are incredibly helpful in both developing AND repairing relationships.

The Power of Circles

Circles are incredibly powerful. When people sit or stand in a circle, there is an increased sense of equality, shared responsibility, ownership, safety and trust, and connections. And the best part, is that circles can be used in so many situations. Proactively, responsively, for academics, for social-emotional skills…all the things. Any time you have the kiddos sitting on the rug facing you, sit in a circle. Small change, big impact. They are a huge component of restorative practices.

restorative practices in elementary schools

There are three main models of having a discussion in a circle. In the sequential model, you go around the circle and each person has the chance to participate by answering a question or adding a comment. This model is great for getting a somewhat equal amount of participation and is best used when the prompt is something that allows for short answers.  In the non-sequential model, people participate just by raising their hand and getting the talking piece. This works great when not everyone needs to share an idea, or when responses might be longer. And finally, fishbowl is another circle discussion model. In this model, a few students (maybe 3-4) sit in the center of a circle and have a discussion while those on the outside listen and observe.

Informal Conferencing

Informal conferencing is something you are probably already doing, but there is a specific language to use for them to be restorative (see in the picture below!) It can also be hard to remember these questions in the moment, so I made classroom posters for my teachers to hang as well as reminder cards for their lanyards.

restorative prompts in elementary schools

This type of conferencing is great for minor misbehaviors that don’t respond to your usual tricks of the trade: redirection, proximity, etc. It’s having a quick, private chat with the wrongdoer. You can tell them to meet you at the doorway, or you can bend down at their desk, or invite them to your desk. I also encourage putting just as much emphasis on the person harmed to model the importance of the repair. If we see someone push someone else in line waiting for the bathroom, it is most of our first instincts to address the pusher first. Using a restorative mindset, our concern is first and foremost with the person being pushed. We check in with them first to make sure they’re alright, and to demonstrate concern and empathy.

With as important as informal conferencing is, it can be challenging to consistently do this for two reasons:

  1. Some students, knowing that they’ve done something wrong, shut down a little, and struggle to verbally process what happened.
  2. Time! If you’re in the middle of providing direct instruction to students, you can’t always stop and conference.

Something I did, first to tackle problem #1 and then to tackle problem #2, was create restorative question “think sheets” to use when a student has engaged in an inappropriate behavior. It gives them a chance to process independently with less pressure. They’re also helpful for teachers to give students when they can’t conference with them right away, but they want the student to start thinking about things while it’s still fresh on their mind.

restorative conferencing in elementary

I hope this rundown of restorative practices in elementary schools was helpful for you! Where is your school at on the journey towards using restorative practices?


7 Responses

  1. I have been a teacher for 18 years and am now branching out to get my masters in guidance. I am so excited about this new adventure!

    1. It truly is an adventure with ups and downs, but it’s totally worth it! Best of luck on your journey!

  2. Where can I find the informal conferencing questions for lanyards? It’d be great to have with me at all times. Thank you!

  3. I stumbled upon this and wonder where this has been all my life! I am printing and taking to school tomorrow. Amazing!

  4. I’m studying to transition to elementary age teaching from a 28 year career as a engineer. Are morning meetings different than restorative circles? Are community circles different than morning meetings or restorative circles or are all three the same basic thing?

    1. Hi! I think we can first view everything under a big umbrella of “Community Gatherings.” Getting everyone in the class together to both develop connection and then also for whatever other purpose there might be. I think of Morning Meetings as following a four-part format created by Responsive Classroom, but the term is often used for any community gathering in the morning. Community circles might be a part of a gathering, or the whole gathering. They can be proactive or reactive.

      Restorative circles can also be proactive or reactive, but people use the term more commonly to describe using them reactively (to process an existing problem and make a plan for moving forward).

      I hope that helps! While I often differentiate between the terms some, others use them more interchangeably.


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Hello, I’m Sara!

With 10 years of experience in
elementary school counseling,
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