Two Steps to Better Parent Teacher Meetings

Whether you are a teacher, a parent, or both, parent-teacher conferences do not have to be stressful. Instead, they can be an opportunity for everyone to get on the same page on how to best support our children.

This is because, underneath all the facts, figures, and rubrics, we care about the same fundamental things.

We want to support kids in values such as:

  • TAKING RESPONSIBILITY for their work
  • PERSEVERING when things are tough

We want to have adults in the kids’ live who can:

  • HELP and GUIDE them

The other thing we share as a “team” of adults are underlying feelings – such as WORRY, FEAR, CONCERN, HOPE, CONFUSION, and GRATITUDE.

These fundamental SHARED VALUES and SHARED FEELINGS can create a connecting language for us during parent-teacher meetings.


So, What Are the Two Steps To Improve Parent Teacher Meetings?


When YOU speak, tell the other adult what is important to you UNDERNEATH rather than focusing on your JUDGMENTS of them or their actions.


When THEY speak, say back to them the SHARED VALUES and FEELINGS you hear – even if they are speaking in judgments. This gives them the sense of being heard at a deeper, connecting level.



TEACHER SPEAKING IN JUDGMENTS: The main issue is that John is talking too much (judgment). He is a bright kid (judgment) but he needs to stop (judgment). I have talked to him several times and he’s continuing (observation). It’s actually disrespectful to me (judgment) and the whole class (judgment).

TEACHER SPEAKING IN SHARED VALUES: I’m worried about John (feeling) because he is a bright young man (judgment) and his talking is getting in the way of his learning (shared value) and other people’s learning (shared value). I want him to be able to express himself (shared value) but I also want him to know (shared value) when it is time to settle down and work (shared value). Do you know what I mean? (inviting parent as ally)



PARENT LISTENING FOR JUDGMENTS: “I think you are being too harsh on John. I know other boys in that class are always talking too, but they don’t get in trouble.” [hearing judgment of John and responding defensively]

PARENT LISTENING FOR SHARED VALUES: “So you are worried about John talking because you want him to be able to succeed in your class? And for all the other students to be able to learn?” [hearing the judgment but then looking one level deeper to see what shared values are also there – and then saying which shared values you heard out loud]

You only have a few minutes. If you can connect quickly on shared values, you can be more creative in finding an action plan that works – and that will feel more like a win-win.


Many people tell me this sounds intriguing but they could use a little help with listening for feelings and values. This way of communicating is based on Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication (NVC).

This handout lists common feelings and values (called needs there) on one page. More thorough lists are available at

What Does It Mean to Have the Right Supports?

In the last post, I talked bout what it means to be a Restorative Leader to combine High Expectations with High Supports for yourself – and those you lead.

Sometimes, however, it is not about trying to match our high expectations with MORE and MORE support – but trying to figure out what the RIGHT support might be for this person – this group – or this situation.

Restorative Leadership Matrix3_right support


Joshua did well with his in-class assignments but was losing points on missing and incomplete homework.

Ms. Kratz had tried to be supportive with Joshua.

She had taken time to problem solve with him about how to organize his work better, talked to his mother about organizing solutions for home, showed him how to use the website to track assignments, and was patient with him when he turned in late work.

She believed that she was truly combining High Expectations with High Supports.

Yet, Joshua’s grades continued to plummet as he continued to miss homework assignments. She didn’t want to lower her expectations and she didn’t want Joshua to fail – when he seemed so capable in class.

One day, at a loss of what to do, Ms. Kratz invited Joshua to her room during lunch and asked him what it would really take for him to do his homework assignments.

After a bit of back and forth, Joshua shared that he could not get himself started with all that was happening in the evening at his home – and could not concentrate on his homework.

“If someone sat down with me every day and helped me – you know – like sat there while I did it – and answered questions and stuff – I think I could do it.”

This surprised Ms. Kratz – because she had a different impression of Joshua and his family. Also, Joshua did not seem like the kind of student who would need a tutor: he was bright and seemed to understand the material. However, Ms. Kratz decided to go with what she had heard.

Based on their conversation, Ms. Kratz was able to connect Joshua to a small-group tutoring program that met in the local library after school three times per week.

To her relief, Joshua began to hand in more homework assignments  – and his grades – and spirits – improved.

Ms. Kratz did not give up.

She RESISTED THE TEMPTATION TO LOWER HER EXPECTATIONS and just kept asking the question: what is the RIGHT support for this situation with this HIGH expectation?

My guess is that the OTHER supportive actions Ms. Kratz took with Joshua let him know that she cared about his success – and believed in him. It also allowed the two of them to discover which supports were NOT the RIGHT SUPPORTS for this situation – which eventually led to their success.

The Three Secrets of Restorative Leadership


Whether you are a teacher or a preacher, a mentor or a manager, a coach or a caretaker – if you are trying to guide and influence others in this world – you are a leader.

There is much advice out there about effective leadership – from being more vulnerable to focusing on resilience to including more soul and spirit in your leadership to starting with the Why.

Today we will focus on what research has shown us about the three secrets of being a more Restorative Leader.

Secret #1: Set Higher Expectations


In a classic 1964 experiment, Dr. Robert Rosenthal randomly labeled some students in a San Francisco public school as “Bloomers”, telling their teachers these kids had the special ability to make dramatic academic improvements over the course of the year.

Indeed, the randomly labeled Bloomers showed astounding improvements on standardized tests, compared to their same age peers – as a result of the higher expectations of their teachers.

More than 50 years later, a plethora of studies have shown the powerful effects of high expectations across multiple settings. As reported in a Discover Magazine article on the subject:

“… when managers have high hopes for their employees, the workers become more productive. When military instructors believe trainees have superior skills, the trainees perform better.”

Even couples on the dating sight OKCupid who were told they were a good match (even though they were NOT) spent more time engaging with each other online.

Dr. Carol Dweck’s lifetime of research about the Growth Mindset shows the same results. Watch her video about the Power of Yet – about ways that different expectations can lead to improved student learning, effort, and progress – especially with struggling students.

Secret #2: Provide The Right Supports 

The Right Supports.png

Often, by the time we figure out our strategic plan and set our High Expectations, we have run out of energy and resources for providing the right supports to those we lead.
Yet, providing the right supports can make the difference between progress and failure on our watch.Studies from the educational and business world show that Supportive Leadership is directly linked to productivity, creativity and even safety in employees.

Business. Business leaders who are supportive of their teams have more productive and creative teams. Specific supportive actions include:

  • Showing empathy and interest in people
  • Taking time to coach or explain tasks
  • Showing a positive attitude towards new ideas and questions
  • Removing obstacles to ensure people receive the attention and resources they need
  • Linking core mission and goals to what matters most to people
  • Celebrating effort and ideas – not just success
  • Neutralizing negativity and creating an environment that has a tolerance for risk and failure
  • Leading by example by participating in idea generation and trial and error

Occupational Safety.  A study of more than 3,000 utility employees, which tracked injuries and first aid incidents over three years, found that teams with supportive leaders were more engaged and experienced fewer injuries!

Education. Several studies have shown that teachers consider supportive leadership as one of the most important factors in their job satisfaction and retention. Multiple studies have shown that emotional and instrumental support from teachers increases academic success and class climate.

Secret #3: Merge High Expectations with High Support to Create Winning Combination

Restorative Leadership Matrix.png


It is easy to see how a combination of HIGH EXPECTATIONS AND HIGH SUPPORT makes for a Restorative Leadership style which leads to ownership, motivation, and sustainability in those we lead.

However, when it comes to the Leadership Matrix, we all have a quadrant to which we SLIDE when we are under stress or duress.


Some of us slide to the left towards High Expectations-Low Support and find ourselves being snappy and harsh with others. This is often where we go to in our business or work lives when we are stretched.

Unfortunately, this only makes our lives harder in the long run, as this leadership style tends to elicit sabotage, resentment, and eventually hopelessness from those we lead.


Some of us find ourselves sliding SouthWest to the Low Expectations-Low Support quadrant – where we practice a kind of exhausted and (hopefully) benign neglect. Many people report that this is where they find themselves sliding at home when life is rough.

Alas, over time, this leadership style creates a confusing chaos and lack of productivity that eventually makes more work and headache for us.


Finally, some of us head straight South where we offer lots of praise and high-fives for “just showing up”.

Ironically, this leadership style leads to BOTH insecurity (they know they haven’t earned it) and entitlement (out of the habit of not working hard).

February is a traditionally hard months for many people – so if you find yourself slipping and sliding away from the Restorative Leadership Quadrant – you are not alone.

Take a minute to think about the ways in which you slide and ONE way you can raise either expectations or supports or both in order to slide on back to the top right corner – for that winning combination.



Three Lists of Books by African American Authors to Read in February and Beyond – Great Books – 10 Books I Wish My White Teachers Had Read

Washington Post – I Read All Books By Minority Authors for a Year (list at bottom of post)

How One School Dramatically Decreased Discipline Numbers

Last week, in “How A Sloppy Joe Changed the Way I Teach” I sharedone teacher’s true story about a restorative shift in her approach to students.

This week I share how one school has used three restorative practices to dramatically decrease their discipline numbers.


Urbana Middle School (UMS) embarked on a whole-school restorative shift in the summer of 2015. A year and a half later, they are beginning to enjoy the fruits of their restorative labor. 

Out of class behavioral referrals by teachers are down by 20%.

Fights are down by 35%, with a steep drop in REPEAT fights by the same kids.

Out of school suspensions are down by a dramatic 67%.

What are the staff, faculty, students, and administrators of UMS doing to help improve school climate and connection?

1. RELATE: Daily Listening Circles and Team Building Activities


Listening circles are the perfect venue for practicing social and emotional skills such collaboration, empathy, patience, and understanding.

At Urbana Middle School, each staff and faculty person facilitates a DAILY 20 minute community building activity with a group of students during the morning Advisory period. Other schools do this during various flexible times that are build into the school week.

The team-building activities wary. On any given day, the kids may be:

  • seated in a circle sharing answers to a set of community building questions (What is the most surprising thing that ever happened to you?)
  • seated in a circle to discuss an ethical dilemma (What would you do in this situation?)
  • seated in a circle to process something that happened in the cafeteria (How did you feel when it happened? What were you wishing for? What is one small thing you can do to make it better?)

The change did not happen over night. Both students and staff took time to get used to the circles. Social skills and cohesion build slowly as people change their expectations and begin to make a restorative shift.

Sitting in circles daily also prepares students for listening and problem-solving in other kinds of restorative and conflict circles.

Interested in trying out classroom circles or learning how to make them more fun?

Brief (one page) Guidelines for hosting a listening circle

Full (68 page) Manual on PeaceMaking Circles from Center for Restorative Practices in San Francisco

2. REPAIR: Informal Restorative Conversations


It turns out that difficult conversations need “containers”.

Often, when we try to “talk about it” without pausing and creating a restorative intention, we dig ourselves deeper into Dis-Connection.

At UMS, many students and staff members are experimenting with having connecting conversations after small conflicts.

Some people are using

These sheets ask people to pause and reflect on their FEELINGS and NEEDS around the conflict – before they talk about it together.

Some of the short restorative conversations (7-10 minutes in length) are facilitated by a trained staff member; others happen fluidly between people.

The difference is the intention. When people are curious about each other’s Feelings, Needs, and Decisions, they are able to treat each other with dignity and find a win-win.

3. RESTORE: Formal Restorative Dialogue Circles


When conflict has been “stuck” for a while or the harm is deeper, UMS students and faculty engage in formal conflict circles facilitated by a trained staff member.

These dialogue based Restorative Circles derive from the process developed by Dominic Barter in the Brazilian favelas.

The goal of the circles is to get to the root of the problem by helping participants hear the underlying unmet needs in the conflict. Sometimes, participants use tools such as Conflict Cards to increase clarity and mutual understanding.

An example of a classroom-wide Restorative Circle can be found in the Listening Underneath blog post.

In this way, the daily community building circles, informal restorative conversations, and formal conflict circles work together to weave a more restorative building culture and community.

These are three examples of restorative practices that have helped UMS decrease their discipline numbers.

A whole-school restorative shift

What are Restorative Practices?
  • Practices that help people RELATE better
  • Practices that help REPAIR small rifts in relationships
  • Practices that RESTORE dignity and community after harmful acts



Empty Classroom: Photo by Allison Meier (2008 CC BY 2.0)

Kids in Circle: KQED news – A restorative justice circle at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, California (Sam Pasarow/Edna Brewer Middle School)

How A Sloppy Joe Changed the Way I Teach

teacher_student_laughingPhoto by Dept of Ed (2004 CC BY 2.0)

[True story told to me by a local teacher. All identifying information changed.]

It was Wednesday morning and Ashanti was sleeping at her desk again. I was so fed up!

These students don’t care about academics any more, I thought to myself. They’re up all night playing video games and then they snooze all day in school.

The last time I caught Ashanti napping, just that Monday, I rapped my knuckles on her desk like I often do. She jumped right awake.

“Are you ready to grace us with your presence” I said to her.

I really don’t like when students sleep in class. It’s so disrespectful.

The other students began to kind of snicker and laugh. I tell you – that girl went from sleeping to spitting mad in seconds.

She started hollering at them and calling them names. I told her in a loud voice several times she needed to quiet down. She just kept on going. Once she starts it’s hard to stop her. At that point I had no choice but to send her to the referral room.

And as she was leaving, she was shouting: “I don’t care! I hate this stupid class anyway!”

I was thinking “In my day, we never talked to an adult like that!”

When she came back the next day (Tuesday) – she didn’t seem remorseful at all. Kind of sullen, I’d say. She also didn’t finish the assignment I gave her. She was really falling behind.

I just felt weary to the bone. This is not what I had signed up to do.

And then, that Wednesday, as she was nodding off AGAIN, I paused to collect myself.

And then something shifted inside me. It’s like I got CURIOUS.

What if it wasn’t just apathy?

What if something else was going on?

I remembered how in one of your workshops you talked about “breaking bread” and how having lunch with kids helped other teachers.

The faculty actually fought hard through the Union to get a “duty-free” lunch. But it felt different because it was voluntary.

That day, I let Ashanti nap until the the bell rang. Then I came over and said:

“Ashanti, I know things have not been great between us lately. I’m wondering if you would be willing to bring your lunch to my classroom today so we can eat together.
No lectures. Just food.”

She looked surprised and a little suspicious, but after giving it a moment, she just nodded her head. I wasn’t sure if she’d even show up.

When she shuffled in with her tray that afternoon, I started off by expressing concern. I said:

“I’ve noticed you’ve been kind of tired lately. I’m a bit worried about you. Anything going on?”

At first, her face was all closed up. She was moving her sloppy joe meat back and forth on her tray with her fork.

Photo by Amanda Wong (2010 CC BY 2.0)

Then, she smiled kind of shyly and said “My mom’s getting out of the hospital this week.”

For the rest of that lunch period, I learned all about her mom’s illness and how it affected Ashanti for a long time. I learned why her homework was often half-done, why she was often late for class in the morning, and how that week, Ashanti, her younger siblings, and her Uncle Jim had stayed up late every night installing a special mechanical bed, cleaning, and getting the house ready for the big day of her mom’s return.

That sloppy-joe lunch was a turning point for how I approached my students from then on.

Ashanti and I haven’t had conflict since that, and we figured out a way to help her get caught up. I stopped being so angry and tired. I became CURIOUS.

I started asking more open questions. I gave myself permission to take class time for collaborative activities and to talk about things that mattered to the kids. I thought it would take valuable time away from learning, but I think we are all learning better now.

Of course Ashanti is not a perfect student and I do not have a perfect classroom. But it is so much better.

I feel like I am doing what I love again: teaching kids who want to learn.


Have a story to share about how restorative practices are helping you? Write to me at

Want to receive Restorative News & Tips in your email? Sign up here.

Looking for more tools for connecting with students and reducing conflict? Check out our page.

Next week on the Conflict 180 blog I share three restorative practices that have dramatically shifted one’s school’s discipline numbers.

Three Strategies That Transform Classroom Dynamics and Student Lives

In my last post – What Do Students Really Need – I shared the surprising brain science behind human connection.

For instance, we now know that students who feel that they belong in their school, are included by their peers, and have connection with even one caring adult, are more likely to succeed and thrive.

This week we share three specific ways educators can increase this sense of inclusion, belonging, and connection in their settings.

We call these strategies Breaking Good.

1. Break Bread Together


The last thing we may want to do is share a meal with a child (or adult!) with whom we are struggling. Our natural reaction in these cases is to avoid them as much as possible.

In addition, breakfast and lunch are precious times for educators to prep, have some down-time, and do self-care.

However, sharing a “no pressure” meal can turn around a challenging relationship. Sitting down with kids at lunch or inviting them into your space for a quick bite allows you get to know each other in a new light.

One teacher, after one of our workshops, chose a specific child with whom she was having a hard time, and started having a casual lunch with him weekly. A month later, she was already reaping the benefits of their meals through greater connection and less struggles during class.

A weekly meal can also be a way to re-connect a small group of kids who are having a rough patch with each other. Another teacher in a Conflict 180 school started having a weekly lunch with a group of five girls who were friends, but often had small skirmishes in school. One week, when the teacher could not make it, the girls asked if they could still have lunch together, maybe with another adult, as the Friday meals were really helping them build peace with each other.

Of course, it is important to be mindful and fair about who is being invited, so this does not become another way to leave out the same marginalized kids. Another teacher, after a class circle that let him know his kids needed to get to know each other better as people, created a rotating schedule to have lunch with four of his kids every Friday. This way, he wound up having a casual lunch with everyone in his class about twice a semester.

Whether you’d like to improve a relationship with a student or a colleague, food is the universal language of care and connection.

Give it a try and have fun with it!

2. Break Ice Together


We all know that Ice-breaking activities are helpful in the beginning of the school year to help build a classroom community.

However, ice-breakers can be a life-saver well beyond the first week of school.

Activities that let kids and adults get to know each other promote social bonding and team-building throughout the year. This can be particularly useful as things start to get tough and class morale breaks down.

Some teachers use a short ice-breaker once a week (usually on Fridays) to keep the wheels of connection in their class lubricated.

Others break out the ice-breakers as an intervention for tough times.

For instance, one teacher told me that she finds January to be a difficult time for her kids and she uses ice-breakers liberally after they return from break.

It’s important to remember that not all ice-breakers are created equal. Try to choose activities that help vulnerable kids feel safe and free from teasing, especially in a class where relational aggression is present.

Here are a three suggestions from Cult of Pedagogy:

Icebreakers That Rock

As with all other team-building activities, have fun and choose something you actually want to do with them! After all, part of the goal is connection with YOU.

3. Break Formation Together


For building classroom community and a sense of cohesion, the formation that works best is a circle or U shape – where people can see each other’s faces.

Many classrooms around the country are experimenting with using circles to learn academics, from Spanish to Social Studies to Writing, as described in the book “Circle Forward” by Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis.

Of course, circles are not ideal for every learning activity.

Studies have shown that, for doing independent work, students seated in rows stay on task better and work more diligently.

For classroom discussions and cooperative learning activities, students benefit from sitting in circles (or semi-circles).

Students seated in circles and semi-circles for cooperative learning activities have been found to:

  • interact more with each other
  • ask more questions
  • develop a greater sense of community
  • learn more
  • report more satisfaction with the discussions

Circles also allow students to see each other’s faces during vulnerable or sensitive discussions (e.g., about gender, race, identity), creating more openness and less friction.

In many classrooms, learning in a circle even once a week has made a big difference in increasing engagement, reducing classroom struggles, and improving student connection.

Let us know how it goes!

Have a story to share about how restorative practices are helping you? Write to me at

Want to receive this blog and other Restorative News & Tips in your email? Sign up here.

Want more tools for connecting with students and reducing conflict? Check out our page.

Next week – in the Conflict 180 blog – a teacher tells the true story of how a sloppy joe transformed her classroom and her approach to students.

What Do Students Really Need?


Of course there is no doubt that our students are in need of many things. As schools are being asked to do more with less, educators can begin to feel like magicians, juggling priorities and pulling tricks out of their top hats.

Yet, the surprising answer from science is that the most important thing we can give our young people is still free and in plentiful supply. It remains the gift of meaningful connection.

Why Invest in Connection?

1. Our Brains Are Wired to Connect


Photo by Mathew Purdy (2007 CC BY-ND 2.0)

In a series of MRI studies, social psychologists Matthew Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger found that our brain’s pain centers light up when we experience social rejection – even in a game. Social rejection was even minimized by study participants who took Tylenol ahead of time.

Kids who feel socially marginalized or disconnected will often “act out” their pain in ways that look destructive. However, there is good news.

The flip side of the equation is that social connection feeds our brain’s “pleasure center” and insulates us from losses.

In MRI studies, our brain’s pleasure centers light up when we contribute to others – by helping them through a painful situation, for instance, or giving them a gift. Similarly, young people who feel that they belong and someone cares about them are more likely to thrive in school.

Kids who find meaningful connection in school are also more resilient, even in the face of trauma and hardship.


2. Connection Can Be A Life Saver

Longitudinal research with kids living in hardship has found that kids who experienced a strong connection with ONE CARING adult – often a teacher – were more resilient in the face of trauma. They were able to thrive despite the odds stacked against them.

This is also true for kids experiencing mental health struggles.

A meaningful relationship with ONE caring adult helps protect kids against depression, suicidal thoughts, violence, and substance use.


3. Connection Can Help Academically

Research also suggests that strong student-teacher relationships can lead to better grades, especially for traditionally under-served kids.

Studies have also found that student grades are higher in classrooms where teachers show “caring behaviors” (e.g., willingness to listen; focusing on strengths; ability to reduce anxiety).

There is no better time to begin building meaningful connection with your students than in today’s disconnected, conflict-ridden world.

Find out what matters to them and what you have in common. Ask questions and slow down to listen. Show curiosity before assuming the worst.

And remember – what students really need is already there.


Have a story to share about how restorative practices are helping you? Write to me at

Want to receive this blog and other Restorative News & Tips in your email? Sign up here.

Want more tools for connecting with students and reducing conflict? Check out our page.

Next week – in the Conflict 180 blog – a teacher tells the true story of how a sloppy joe transformed her classroom and her approach to students.

Listening Underneath: How 4 Mornings of Dialogue Transformed 2 Months of Misery

janene_prothro_iceberg_hutui6It was Monday morning and Mr. Keaton was not looking forward to his 6th grade first period.

Johnny and Ricky had been at it for two months, with no sign of letting up.

Last Friday had been typical. In the first 10 minutes of class, Johnny had interrupted other students 3 times to share something urgent. Ricky took it upon himself to teach Johnny some manners:

“Shut up already! It ain’t your turn!”

Johnny spun around and cussed Ricky out. Other kids joined in. Kelli was hissing “shhh”, Louis was laughing at Johnny, and Bernard was attacking Ricky:

“Man! YOU shut up! You making it WORSE!”

From there, things predictably went down hill.

Over the past two months, Mr. Keaton had tried everything in his toolbox to put an end to the nonsense. He:

  • sternly brought the students back to task
  • reminded them of classroom norms
  • talked to each boy separately
  • sent them out of the room multiple times with referrals
  • showed his temper!

Nothing seemed to help. What had been a pleasurable 1st period at the beginning of the year was turning into a daily, dreaded headache.

Mr. Keaton realized there was one thing he had not yet tried.

Dialogue-Based Restorative Circles were a new school initiative and Mr. Keaton had heard circles took time. However, he felt like the conflict had aleady cost a ton of time, patience, and goodwill. They could afford to spend some time building community and peace.

That afternoon, Mr. Keaton emailed Ms. Noble, the school’s Restorative Practices coordinator. She took it from there.

time_memeDerivative of “Time” by Karen / CC BY / © Conflict180

Circle Prep Meetings

The goal of Dialogue-Based Restorative Circles is to get to the roots of the conflict. We do this by listening underneath for the deeper feelings and hopes that are not easily seen above the surface.

Mr. Keaton, Johnny, and Ricky first started exploring their underlying needs during individual circle prep meetings with Ms. Noble and Jacki (one of a dozen 8th graders learning to be circle keepers).

  1. Tuesday morning Ms. Noble and Jacki met with Mr. Keaton during his prep period. In this meeting, Mr. Keaton clarified, for himself, that he had been preoccupied with challenging events in his life (a wife on bed rest with twins; a sister back in rehab again) and that maybe he was not giving his students the kind of positive attention they needed. He wasn’t planning to share all this in the circle, and Ms. Noble wouldn’t “out” him. However, having clarity about his unmet needs would help him take responsibility for his choices later on.
  1. Wednesday morning  they met with Johnny, who chose to use a deck of Feelings and Needs cards to help him get clarity on what was happening for him.


  1. Thursday morning Ms. Noble and Jacki met with Ricky, who became clear that he wanted to stay out of detention and be a better student. This conflict was sinking his academic boat.
  1. Friday morning Ms. Noble and Jacki met with the whole class (minus Ricky and Johnny) to do a brief prep. When the boys came back in, the dialogue-based restorative circle began.

Everyone sat in a semi-circle, facing each other. A set of Restorative Questions were taped to the board for all to see.

Restorative Questions try to shift the focus from “What rule was broken?” to “How do we repair harm and restore community?”


Everyone took a turn answering each question, with an option to pass.

Many students shared that they felt frustrated and exhausted by the conflict. When Mr. Keaton shared that he sometimes made things worse by not responding to the boys quickly enough, the students seemed impressed that their teacher was taking responsibility for harm. Many students then shared ways they had made things worse.


When someone spoke directly to someone else, rather than to the whole group, Ms. Noble shifted from a traditional circle-sharing format to a “facilitated dialogue.”

For instance, at one point, Johnny, not meeting Ricky’s eyes, told him that he got to class upset most days because he was teased by a bunch of older boys on the way to school every morning.

“What are you hearing underneath that?” Ms. Noble prompted Ricky.

“That his patience is all wore out by the time he gets here,” Ricky said. Johnny nodded, looking relieved to be understood.

At another point, Mr. Keaton made a long speech to Ricky about how Ricky was a natural leader and even though he did not expect him to always be the peace-maker, he did have high expectations for him, and on and on in that vein. When Ms. Noble asked Ricky what he was hearing, Ricky looked a bit overwhelmed.

“That was a lot of words,” she said kindly, “What is the main thing you heard underneath?”

Ricky replied directly to Mr. Keaton: “That you’re proud of me. And you love me like a son.” “Yes, you got it” Mr. Keaton said, his eyes a little moist.

During the last round, the students agreed on 7 actions to make things better, including:

  1. Mr. Keaton will meet with Johnny 10 minutes before class every morning to connect and debrief.

  2. Mr. Keaton and Ricky will now have a “peace” signal.

  3. All students will wait for Mr. Keaton to address conflicts before trying to “help”.

  4. Mr. Keaton will have a weekly sign-up sheet for students to join him for a friendly lunch.

2 Months Later

 Two months later, Mr. Keaton reports that all is well. Johnny and Ricky have not become friends, but they are civil and there have been no more class conflicts.

In addition, to Mr. Keaton’s delight, Ricky has applied to be a student Circle Keeper.

The Restorative Revolution

Call me crazy – but I think we are ready for a Revolution. 

I’m talking about a revolution in the way we approach justice, transgression, punishment, crime, and every day conflict among ordinary people. I am talking about the way we treat each other after we hurt each other – even in very deep ways – and the way we treat those who are less powerful than us when “justice” is placed in our hands.

I am talking a transformational, society-wide, lens-shifting, all-affecting revolution the scale of the 1960’s civil rights and women’s rights movements, a revolution in how we think about who we are and how we live, work, and love together.

Not a solution to everything. Not panacea, utopia, peace and love for all. But a fundamental shift in the collective understanding of what might be possible.

I feel it in my bones, like the rumble of a train coming down the tracks way before you see its lights appear from behind the bend.

People are sensing the heavy creaking of the current justice system, the way it is over-burdened and under-humane, the way it takes our sons and daughters and nieces and nephews and puts them back into our communities more hardened and less integrated than they were before, the way it creates rifts among us, decreasing rather than increasing the sense of safety for which we all long.

And people are becoming dissatisfied with the way we inadvertently replicate that same model in our homes, with people most precious to us, and in our communities, the places where we spend our waking hours.

I work with a lot of communication modalities and I have been talking to people about empathy and healing and dialogue for a long time.

But when I mention the restorative practices work in which I am involved, people respond with the kind of excitement, the kind of energy I have not seen before. Their eyes light up. They smile.  They want to learn more. They want to get involved.

I am talking about people across all economic, class, age, and race differences: administrators working in the formal justice system and grandmothers of boys in the local jail, academics and activists, rabbis and conservative ministers, teachers and parents, college students and poets. When I share what might be possible, there is a spark, an electrical surge of hope.

And what is possible is a way of doing conflict and justice in which each voice and each side gets heard, in which people who have been hurt get to ask their toughest questions and those who have caused pain get to experience the impact of what they have done and come out feeling more human, not less. What is possible are solutions to conflicts that are not believable until you hear them, that stem from human creativity that is untapped by the current way we do things, and are agreed upon by everyone who is impacted by the conflict.

Restorative practices, as ancient as human society, have been making their way back into our collective knowledge. Some of them, like the Restorative Circles practice which I have been learning, are laced with a modern edge, an edge forged in the fires of inner-city Brazilian favelas where drugs, gun violence, racialized tensions and numbing poverty overlay the struggle for daily survival.

And that is what makes the possibility so palpable. There is another way and it works. It works to re-humanize people to each other in the most trying of circumstances across deeply etched lines. In a place where unbelievable beauty and unbelievable disparity go hand in hand, restorative practices are growing and being embraced by school districts, youth courts, youth prisons, neighborhoods and homes, presidential candidates and major news networks. Restorative Circles are winning awards and changing circumstances, changing lives, changing how people think about and live with conflict.

Not a solution to everything. Not panacea, utopia, peace and love for all. But a fundamental shift in the collective understanding of what might be possible.

A Restorative Revolution.  It’s coming.

Wanna get on board?


Photo credit: Train Tracks by Denise RosserCC BY-ND 2.0

Blog post: Copyrighted 2015 Conflict 180.