Restorative Practices in ResLife: A Restorative Model for Residential Education and Learning

This post serves as the first in a series about integrating Restorative Practices into a model for residential learning.  Other posts in this series include more detailed strategies centering on specific restorative tools.  However, restorative practices are less about what you do than how you do it, so before integrating any individual strategy, I’d recommend giving this intro post a quick read.

Introduction | Roommate Agreements | Circles


While more common in the K-12 environment, the work of Restorative Practices is becoming increasingly common in higher education. Particularly in a time where we’ve been forced to reexamine how to best connect with our students in the face of a pandemic, an approach that centers building community and restoring relationships seems like a promising way to re-learn how to connect and engage. My work in Restorative Practices (or RP) started in student conduct. However, more recently, my work with RP has shifted to building community and integrating Restorative Practices into a residential learning model.

Though it’s often integrated in the realm of student conduct, Restorative Practices differs from Restorative Justice in that it is not exclusively a reactive approach to harm. Restorative Justice outlines processes for involving the perpetrator in repairing relationships once harm has already occurred. To prevent further harm when bringing victims and perpetrators together, much RJ work is done exclusively through formal conferences, while RP utilizes a range of formal and informal elements, many of which are proactive in nature. While RJ is considered a subset of RP, the reactive work done through RJ is only a small part of RP.

While the formal conferences used in Restorative Justice are an element of Restorative Practices, at least 80% of RP should be the more informal strategies that center on creating connections and building community. While it’s hard to picture centering a residential learning model on formal conferences, the informal components of RP are compatible with many learning goals we often see in residence life. For example, using affective statements might prompt self-discovery and emotional intelligence. Affective questions are a strong tool to manage conflicts and better understand others. By engaging in informal circles, students will likely gain new insights and knowledge into leadership.

While it’s my goal to break the elements of Restorative Practices into practical takeaways for residential learning in a series of posts, it’s important to keep in mind that the RP philosophy is core to its practice. You can sit with people in a circle or teach them the nine affects, but you may fail to achieve the outcomes associated with an RP approach if you do so without considering how you’re interacting with people as a leader. The fundamental hypothesis of Restorative Practices is that “human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.” This is most frequently displayed on the Social Discipline Window.

In this illustration, working “with” people as opposed to “for” them or “to” them is a function of support and control. Note that support and control are on separate axes, meaning that one can be supportive when holding others accountable or still maintain control as a leader while providing people what they need. That, however, is more easily said than done since we often favor either support or control.

As the Social Discipline Window shows, a leader who is supportive but lacks control – or doesn’t hold followers accountable – is permissive and falls in the “for” box since they do things for people rather than with them. In a residential learning environment, permissive leadership may resemble a programming model rooted in satisfaction rather than learning outcomes or institutional goals. We may be offering events and engagement opportunities for students based on what they want to attend but fail to hold them accountable to any goals of the institution. While the result may be high engagement, any learning is unstructured and may or may not relate to meaningful learning aims.

Conversely, a leader who is controlling but fails to support their followers falls in the “to” box and may be perceived as punitive or authoritarian. A rigid curricular model that fails to engage students in its design or assessment may fall into the “to” box. In this case, institutional goals may be prioritized through highly structured learning aims and corresponding strategies, but if students do not feel seen and supported in these strategies, they likely will not engage and consequently will not learn. We are merely delivering content to them.

I raise these examples, not to say that a programming model or curricular model are inherently permissive or punitive, but rather to demonstrate falling in the “with” box – to engage in a restorative approach – is a bit more nuanced and complex that the “to” or “for” box, as it requires a balance of control and support. What this might look like is a bit harder to typify, but it might look like a programming approach with a stronger method of creating and assessing learning outcomes or a curricular approach where students and student leaders are engaged in the design in partnership with professional staff. While I can’t offer you a step-by step set of instructions on how to achieve either of those models (because that would fall into the “to” box), in future posts, I hope to provide more tangible examples that will spark your curiosity to join me in exploring how we can better work and learn with our students and become more restorative leaders.

Key Questions

  • How might you encourage restorative leadership practices amongst your staff–at all levels?
  • Regardless of what model you may use, what are ways you work with your students in its construction? With your student staff?
  • How do you engage your staff in honest conversation about departmental leadership and practice?

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