As schools move to replace punitive discipline policies with a restorative approach, educators often express concern about what the consequences will be for students who misbehave. They worry that restorative discipline is “soft,” or, worse, that there are no consequences for problematic or harmful behavior. 

Consequences for behavior are important—they help reinforce a community’s high expectations for behavior throughout the school day. A restorative approach to discipline calls into question the logic of a system that resorts to quick “fixes” without considering the underlying reasons—the context—or what lasting, long-term benefits could look like. Instead, a restorative approach starts from the premise that behavior is a means to an end. According to American psychiatrist William Glasser, human behavior is driven by the desire to satisfy five basic human needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. Students meet these needs the best way they know how. This is important to keep in mind as we discuss different approaches to school discipline.

Within a punitive framework, the word “consequence” is used as a euphemism for punishment: Breaking “x” rule results in “y” consequence, intended to dissuade students from problematic and harmful behaviors. And though a punitive consequence may send a message to students not to do this again, it doesn’t tell them why not to do it again, let alone how not to do it again. The goal is to deter, not to educate or repair.

This punitive approach is especially harmful for students of color, as they are often disciplined more harshly and more frequently for the same behaviors as their white peers. According to a 2013 report, “Roundtable: The Perspectives of Youth Affected by Exclusionary School Discipline” from the American Institutes for Research, pushing students out of classrooms and schools sends a message of “we don’t want you here” and often adds to marginalized students’ sense of alienation. Additionally, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights’ survey in 2013–14, this approach is the entry point of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Restorative discipline encourages us as educators to do the opposite: to build and maintain relationships and to keep students in school where learning can happen—both on an academic and a behavioral level. This requires a mindset shift that doesn’t simply seek to replace a punitive consequence with a restorative one—like a restorative circle or conference instead of a suspension. Instead, it requires us to look at restorative practices holistically, using community and skill-building circles as the beginning steps, with restorative consequences as supports and reinforcement. This allows educators to send a different, powerful message: “We want you here and we care.” 

At their best, restorative consequences are:

  1. Consistent: Our consequences must draw on a shared set of values and beliefs that guide our work with young people. These principles include recognizing relationships as central to community, taking responsibility for everyone’s well-being, honoring all voices, and seeking to maintain people’s dignity at all times.
  2. Layered: Punitive consequences are often used as a one-off disincentive. The goal is to stop the misbehavior, “or else.” Restorative consequences go much deeper. The starting point is having a relationship with each other, which requires upfront investment. This allows us, as educators, to understand our students, consider their needs, and support behavior as needed.
  3. Ongoing: Even with extremely effective instruction, people tend to forget part of their learning from one day to the next, especially with the high levels of stress and trauma many of our students have been exposed to. The same is true for behavior. We need to be patient and approach discipline as a process that supports behavior over time. 
  4. Integrated: Rather than a relay approach to discipline, in which one adult (e.g., the teacher) passes the disciplinary baton to another (e.g., the dean), disciplinary supports for behavior are shared throughout the school day. Responsibility for discipline does not reside with a select group of adults. It requires a more integrated approach in which the adults as a team provide supportive consequences that gradually, repeatedly reinforce behaviors that work in school. 
  5. Collaborative: Young people and adults should be partners in creating and maintaining a welcoming, supportive, culturally sustaining, and respectful school environment. This means working to create an environment where students feel that they belong, have voice, and are cared for (even if we don’t always care for their behavior). When problematic behavior arises, we connect and talk with young people to explore the needs underlying their behavior. Together, we look for ways to address those needs with behaviors that are aligned with our shared community values. 
  6. Supportive: Students should be encouraged and supported to be their best selves. When young people veer off track, we need to connect, de-​escalate, and provide reminders and redirection so they can refocus on school expectations, rules, and values. Most importantly, the support must continue when students misbehave, disrupt, or inflict harm. We set high expectations for all our students and provide them with the help they need to meet those expectations, even—and especially—when the going gets tough. 
  7. Instructional: As educators, we need to teach practices and skills so that our students can meet their own needs without negatively impacting themselves and others. This means making time for mindful awareness practice and social and emotional learning. It also means that as adults, we model the skills and practices ourselves and use teachable moments to deepen student understanding in real-time. 
  8. Relevant: Consequences need to be related to the behavior that triggered them, so that the student can learn about cause and effect. For instance, a time-out can help a student de-​escalate so that they’re able to wrap their mind around what happened and the impact of their actions. This provides an opportunity not only for restoration and healing but also for reflection to develop strategies that can prevent these situations from recurring. 
  9. Realistic: Just like the importance of setting realistic high expectations and rules to guide behavior, a consequence should be something the teacher, student, and community can realistically implement. Empty promises or threats risk damaging trust. As teachers, we need to follow through on promises to build and maintain our integrity; without this credibility, our ability to lead is vastly diminished. Relational trust promotes collaboration, communication, and facilitates the kind of challenging conversations needed to address problematic behaviors. 
  10. Differentiated: Consequences must take into account a student’s need, skill level, and the context of the behavior. Like in the academic classroom, students come to us with varying levels of aptitude and skill in social and emotional learning. We also know that some students are exposed to high levels of stress, distraction and even trauma, which make learning of any kind more difficult. Keeping this in mind, we tailor our consequences so that, over time, students can become self-disciplined and choose appropriate behaviors, whether or not an adult is around to guide them. 
  11. Reflective: Everyone in the school community should be encouraged to reflect on their behavior and the impact of that behavior on others. This allows us to gain insight, promote understanding, and build empathy. Instead of telling students what to do or not to do, we are better off creating opportunities for students to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions about what choices to make and why. 
  12. Restorative: We need to provide opportunities for those who have caused harm to (re)connect with those affected by their behavior, and work to repair the damage they caused. This means involving the people affected by what happened and giving them a say in how to best resolve or repair things. A well-prepared and facilitated restorative intervention allows the person who caused the harm to rebuild relationships and meet some of the needs of those they harmed.

The Latin root of the word discipline means to teach and to learn. Restorative consequences help us to return discipline to it roots and fulfill our role in teaching students about themselves, their behavior, and community expectations. 

Marieke van Woerkom is a senior trainer and coach at Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility in New York City.