Given the lack of teacher training, the minimal support from school administrations, and the large class sizes, it is not surprising that teachers struggle to respond appropriately to discipline issues while attempting to serve the remaining pupils in the classroom. Discipline issues are greatly exacerbated by the fact that teachers are often not taught about the developmental psychology of youth, including the effects of chronic trauma and toxic stress on children’s learning. Educators often misunderstand youth of color, asking the question “What is wrong with them?” as opposed to “What has happened to them?” Unfortunately, racial trauma is just one area of trauma that many students face. Students must also overcome trauma associated with poverty, violence, abuse, and other forms of victimization. In order for teachers to be successful in helping students learn and develop high-level cognitive skills, they must first be educated about and respond to student behavior through trauma-informed practices. Most are not trained to do so.
Expressions of explicit bias (discrimination, hate speech, etc.) occur as the result of deliberate thought. Thus, they can be consciously regulated. People are more motivated to control their biases if there are social norms in place which dictate that prejudice is not socially acceptable. As we start forming our biases at an early age, it is important that we reinforce norms in our homes, schools, and in the media that promote respect for one’s own and other groups. Research shows that emphasizing a common group identity (such as “we are all Americans”) can help reduce interracial tensions that may arise between majority and minority ethnic groups in the U.S. Also, when conducted under the right conditions, studies show intergroup contact between people of different races can increase trust and reduce the anxiety that underlies bias.
Schools are implementing Restorative Justice in Education (RJE) initiatives across the United States, often to reduce the use of out-of-school suspension, which is known to increase the risk for dropout and arrest. Many RJE initiatives also aim to strengthen social and emotional competencies, reduce gender and racial disparities in discipline, and increase access to equitable and supportive environments for students from marginalized groups. This policy brief summarizes research on restorative initiatives, with a focus on implementation and outcomes in U.S. schools. After examining the evidence, the authors offer recommendations for comprehensive RJE models and strategic implementation plans to drive more consistently positive outcomes. School-based practices that (a) center healthy relationships, (b) work to heal harms and transform conflict, and (c) advocate for justice and equity include both preventative and responsive practices. As responsive practices, restorative approaches to discipline contrast with punitive models in that they address the needs of the person(s) harmed and provide opportunities for those who caused the harm to make amends.