Making the Case for Restorative Practices

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Another great blog post from friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro! This time she’s taking a look at the powerful results that can come from incorporating restorative practices into schools and how it’s being done at Paladin Career and Technical High School.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


Making the Case for Restorative Practices

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

“If you do things to kids, that’s punishment.  If you do things for them, that’s permissive.  Do nothing at all, and that’s neglect.  But if you do things with them, that’s restorative.”  -Brandon Wait, Paladin Career & Technical High School

School discipline is something few people really like to discuss.  Let’s be honest – the topic is rife with negative connotations.  The conversation usually focuses on negative behaviors, and an inordinate amount of time is usually spent on determining the appropriate punishment.  “We need to hold kids accountable,” we say. “They must suffer the consequence of their choices.”    

Traditional discipline models were designed for one purpose:  to keep kids in line. This was usually done by threat of what would happen if students didn’t behave.  In the second half of the 20th century, we started to include incentives and a progressive plan of attack in hopes of modifying behavior before it went too far.  But even such good intentions as these were still dependent on denying privileges.  Missing recess, being sent out of class, suspension, and the big daddy of them all – expulsion – prevailed and continue to this day.

But has a system of threats really worked?  Perhaps it has acted as a deterrent for some students.  After all, if you go through a red traffic light, you know you’ll get a ticket.  We all get that. However, as teachers and administrators it’s as much our duty to teach students about appropriate behavior and how to make good choices as it is to teach them how to read and write.  Unfortunately, we are quick to judge and dish out consequences. For some students that just doesn’t work. In fact, we may be doing them more harm than good.

We are also perpetuating inequity in the system.  Take for example the disproportionate suspension and exclusion rates for students of color and students with disabilities, as well as the prevalence for boys to be punished at much higher rates than girls.  This is a topic of grave concern throughout the nation. Moreover, at a time when school staff report alarming increases in mental health issues in students, our standard practice of crime and punishment is simply unacceptable.  

Gradual changes in practice show that better options exist.  Some immediate examples that come to mind are Responsive Classroom, Conscious Discipline, and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, in which each seeks to promote pro-social behavior in an intentional, proactive way.  

Preceding them all, however, was restorative justice. Restorative justice began in the early 1970s as an alternative to the court system.  At its core was restitution, used as a way to compensate for a victim’s loss. Gradually, victim-offender mediation and victim-offender dialogue were added.  The idea migrated to schools and since the early 1990s has gained in popularity as a model for discipline.  Today, a broader set of strategies known as restorative practices are dotting the landscape.

Restorative practices begin with a different end in mind.  Rather than seeking to control student behavior through external reward and consequence, practitioners seek to teach students to manage their own behavior.  Trust, relationship, and community-building are key elements in developing social-emotional skill and awareness. These can be cultivated in a variety of ways, which means how restorative practices look in one school to the next varies widely.     

One school that has embraced restorative practices with sustained dedication is Paladin Career & Technical High School, a public charter high school in Blaine, Minnesota.  Their curriculum specializes in experiential learning, project-based learning, work-based learning, and service learning.  But what makes them special is their trauma-informed lens for working with students.

In existence since 2002, Paladin became keenly aware that many of their students were coming to school having experienced significant trauma, which was affecting every aspect of their lives, including learning.  Five years ago, they decided to develop a trauma-informed approach to managing behavior.  They wanted to take into consideration whether a student had experienced trauma and how it may be affecting how they responded to a situation, why they were withdrawing, or why they were acting out.  Today, they are proud to consider themselves a trauma-responsive school.  

The cumulative effect of childhood trauma has been examined, and the data are heartbreaking.  An oft-cited study on the topic is the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, more commonly referred to as ACEs.  ACEs was conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente in the mid to late 1990s.  According to the CDC, ACEs “is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being.”  

The CDC continues to collect data on the original participants.  What has become clear over time is that childhood trauma is likely to have an adverse effect on a child’s growth and development, as well as their overall health condition.  The more adverse childhood experiences a person has, the greater the risk for a list of potential negative health, social, psychological, physical, and academic outcomes.

According to the study, adverse childhood experiences disrupt neurodevelopment, which in turn affects social, emotional, and cognitive development.  When their development is negatively impacted, students are likely to take on behaviors that present risk to their health and safety, which can lead to disease, disability, and social problems.  Ultimately, this can mean early death.  

I spoke recently with Brandon Wait, the Executive Director at Paladin.  He began his tenure at Paladin as the school counselor in 2008 when he was asked to create the student support program.  It was a “dream job for him, he said, because he could really counsel students.  He took over as director five years ago.  

Staff and students will say Paladin used to be a violent place.  Wait himself recalls the school environment five years ago. “We were suspending students at an unfair, high rate.  We were only treating the behaviors, not addressing the causes.  In fact, we were inflicting more harm and re-traumatizing students [with suspensions].  We had to change our approach.”  

The ACES study spawned the work around becoming a trauma-informed school.  When they read the study, he noted, “there was this aha moment when we knew our students had adverse childhood experiences and traumatic events.  Our students had been used and abused and beat up.  As a counselor, I knew that stuff comes out different ways.  Some students act out, others turn inward.” The ACES study showed that without addressing their previous trauma, students can’t thrive.  They decided to take action and become informed about the effects of trauma.

The first stage in becoming trauma-informed, Wait says, is trauma awareness.  Saff learned what trauma was and how it manifests itself. “For us, it was the awareness that childhood trauma events exist.  Then it was realizing, ‘now that you know they exist, what are you going to do about it?’”  Only then did they begin to change policy. Their search for solutions eventually brought them to restorative practices.

The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP)  defines restorative practices as “a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision making.”  They further state,

“The use of restorative practices helps to:

  • reduce crime, violence and bullying
  • improve human behavior
  • strengthen civil society
  • provide effective leadership
  • restore relationships
  • repair harm”

The IIRP considers restorative justice one of many restorative practices, noting that restorative justice is in response to a harm done.  Restorative practices, on the other hand, are proactive and seek to build culture and community so as to avoid harm altogether.

Now, five years later, suspensions are extremely rare at Paladin.  Students still come to school with a host of issues they must deal with, but they are finding success.  “It’s not just because we aren’t suspending kids,” said Wait. “It’s because we get to the root cause. As a result, kids are growing.  We are helping them get to where they want to be.”

What is most compelling about Paladin is that students who’ve experienced trauma are finding a way to restore themselves.  They find their voice, they gain self-control, and they begin to feel empowered to make better choices.  At the same time, they learn how to contribute to a restorative community.  

Just how does a turnaround like this happen in a school with roughly 200 students ages 14-21?   

Wait explained.  “Instead of asking why did you do that or what’s wrong with you, we started asking, what happened – what’s going on with you?  What do I need to know that I don’t that maybe I should?” In short, they probed the behavior to get at the root cause.  Usually, he says, it can be traced to a prior event.  “There is always more story to the outburst. Finding out more, you will likely be surprised.”

At first, they started with restorative justice.  Staff also embraced a belief supported by research that a trusted adult in a student’s life can mitigate the impact of the trauma.  They wanted to be those trusted adults and help students find other trusted adults in their lives.  But they realized they were still doing things to students, not with students.  “That’s when the flip happened,” he notes.  “Now it [responsive practices] is a way of being.  It’s how we run our school; restorative practices happen everywhere.”  

The school recently reaffirmed their commitment to the work underway.  “Paladin Career & Technical High School seeks to inspire education systems to cultivate resilience in all students by engaging their strengths through innovative, individualized learning with a restorative and trauma-responsive approach.”  So says their newly minted vision statement where the reference to trauma is explicit.  

Their mission statement is equally clear:  “Paladin Career & Technical High School nurtures a learning community that empowers students in their pursuit of social, emotional, and academic growth, thereby creating a foundation for a successful future.”  To them, it’s all about equipping students with the skills to overcome the effects of trauma in order to live successfully in whatever future awaits.

A central component of Paladin’s restorative approach is circles.  “We are in circles all the time,” said Wait.  “Every staff meeting starts in a circle. Every school day starts in a circle.”  There are guidelines for circles even though some staff use a modified approach. But in all circles, participants are given a voice and choice.  This allows all voices to be heard, and people can participate in a way that feels comfortable for them. Participants practice listening skills when everyone has a chance to speak their truth.  Circles also create a space where students can feel safe and build confidence.

Paladin learned a lot about their progress in implementing restorative practices when a University of Minnesota graduate student, Jennifer Blevins, completed a case study of Paladin during the 2017-18 school year.  The study affirmed Paladin’s work in this area and contributed greatly to the growing body of research on restorative practices.  In her dissertation, Disrupting the Status Quo: Case Study of Paladin Career and Technical High School’s Use of Restorative Practices, Blevin stated in her findings that, “Paladin disrupts the status quo for students and staff by making the system fit the individual, not the individual fit the system, restoring self, strengthening interpersonal relationships, being a safer school, and focusing on solutions not suspensions (p. iii).  

Paladin’s success is good news for those seeking a different way to support students.  But by all accounts, restorative practices embedded in the system on a school-wide level is time and staff intensive.  Even Wait, as passionate as he is about restorative approaches, is honest about the challenge in taking on a whole-school approach.  “You can’t put restorative practices in a box,” he cautions.  “You can’t have a policy manual for it.  You have to treat each situation on a case-by-case basis.”  He went on to say it must be embedded into a larger strategy.  They talk about student strengths. They talk about and teach resiliency.  They help students see they have resiliency within them, all in an effort to help students confront and overcome the trauma they have experienced, rather than letting the trauma defining them.  

One has to ask, could a traditional school do what Paladin is doing to individualize support for students in a restorative as well as educational context?  Or is it reserved for smaller learning environments such as Paladin?  

“It would look different,” said Wait, who teaches restorative practices at the post-secondary level and is frequently asked to speak to schools on the topic. He is convinced that if more people were aware of trauma and how trauma comes out in behavior, teachers and administrators would start treating behavior differently.  They would come to understand how punishment re-traumatizes students.  “Suspension is easy.  It’s what we’re used to.  I’d like to see schools begin with learning about trauma-informed care, which everyone can do in their own classroom.  Being aware and understanding gives you the tools and the ability to dig beneath and understand the behavior and will bring you to a better solution than suspension.  Nine times out of 10, the story behind the behavior won’t make you angry; it will break your heart.”

Not surprisingly, restorative practice has its critics, too.  Some argue it is a soft and permissive approach to discipline that doesn’t hold students accountable.  Wait offers a different view. “If you do things to kids, that’s punishment.  If you do things for them, that’s permissive.  Do nothing at all, and that’s neglect.  But if you do things with them, that’s restorative.”  

Wait also challenges the traditional meaning of how to hold kids accountable.  “Being accountable literally means to hold one’s self responsible for one’s action.  There’s no accountability in suspension,” he insists. “Using restorative practices, we say to a student, ‘You caused this harm; what are you going to do to repair it?’  Kids hold themselves way more accountable than adults do.  If you did this, it would change your traditional school.”

What’s his advice to schools that want to embed restorative practices in their school culture?  Wait urges schools to be realistic about the commitment they are taking on.  “It’s not a one-day training. Too many times schools grab on to the next buzzword and move on to something else.  You have to stick with it. This is a journey, and it will take time.”

But if schools are willing to go on that journey, Wait’s advice is simple:

  • Understand that it’s a way of being, not a program
  • Highlight the importance of trauma and start there, and
  • Look at your current approach and determine what needs to change

Most of all, Wait says, be open, not judgmental.  “If we’re curious about why a student acts out and not jump to judgment, we get more information.  With more information, we have more understanding.  With more understanding comes better resolutions and better outcomes.”

Maybe, just maybe, student discipline is less about what students do, and more about what the adults in your school do.  What do you think?


You can reach Brandon Wait at or by calling 763.786.4799.  

Click here for an American Public Media podcast on Paladin’s trauma-informed approach.