Restorative Practices in ResLife: Prioritizing Connection in Intentional Conversations & Interactions

This post is one in a series about integrating Restorative Practices into a model for residential learning.  Start with the introduction as a primer and explore posts on other strategies you can utilize with a restorative lens.

| Introduction | Roommate Agreements | Floor Meetings & Circles | Curriculum Development | Residential Curriculum | Intentional Conversations & Interactions | Assessment | Organizational Culture | Into Practice |

A residential curriculum can and should have strategies that take many forms to best achieve the learning aims, but amidst the variety, certain strategies remain constants , like intentional interactions.  Regardless of what unique methods we may create to achieve specific learning goals, there’s something essential about student staff having one-on-one conversations with their residents.   

In my experience, this conversation-based strategy has also promoted a great deal of dialogue among professional staff members, as I’ve worked with teams who have grappled with the purpose and approach to these conversations.  While the disagreements often focused on what to call intentional interactions, how to frame them for student staff, or the logistics of assessment, I noticed that some disagreements stemmed from differences in the assumed purpose of the strategy.  The intention of “intentional” interactions was not clear, but some possibilities included:

  • Assessment – Regardless of the depth of the assessment and type of data, these conversations feature some level of collecting information from residents to better understand their needs or how they are experiencing the curriculum.
  • Accountability for connections– Having RAs provide information about the conversations provides a structure for them to indicate that they are indeed interacting with all residents.
  • Early intervention – Something of a check-in, these conversations can provide a touchpoint to identify residents’ unique needs and connect them with the appropriate resources.
  • Educational experience – While not universal, sometimes the conversation itself is framed as an educational experience that intends to help students achieve learning outcomes.  This involves having RAs ask reflective questions that promote meaning-making.

Thankfully, these priorities are not mutually exclusive, so intentional interactions may have multiple overlapping purposes.  However, given the unique form of this strategy, some purposes may be better fulfilled than others, and since in-person conversations build relationships, intentional interactions can be a great restorative tool.

At its core, Restorative Practices is about building and maintaining relationships in community, and while more formal tools like circles and conferences may garner the most attention, the bulk of the work is done through more informal means of developing relationships.  While it seems simple, having a genuine conversation to build connection is foundational to Restorative Practices.  Community members are not likely to engage in restorative tools to address harm if they feel no investment in a community, and they will not feel a part of the community if they’ve never had an opportunity to connect with others.  Hence, if there are no opportunities for informal conversation, the formal work of Restorative Practices falls apart.  The key is a philosophy rather than a tool: prioritizing connection and relationships.

From a curricular lens, this may pose a tension between priorities.  Focus placed on connection may be taken away from focus on learning outcomes.  However, even if learning is your primary goal, an early investment in relationships is likely helpful to achieve long-term goals.  Though it may not be a learning outcome, the community building that comes from interactions like social programs and one-on-one conversations better positions RAs to engage with residents around more meaningful topics.  If residents feel a sense of belonging and connection to their RA and community, they’ll be more likely to engage with that community around some of the harder topics that might be targeted by a curriculum, like self-awareness or diversity and inclusion.  Regardless of your intended outcome, connection is a great foundation for learning.

Placing a priority on connection does not mean that the conversations should be aimless and devoid of planned content.  However, if we choose to prioritize connection over content in intentional interactions, it’s worth considering the ways to best position student staff for success in connecting with their residents.


One means of preparing RAs to interact is through training on ways to ensure these conversations – or any conversation – can build connection.   Don’t neglect teaching the standby skills of active listening: eye contact, affirmations, open-ended questions, and summarizing.  Perhaps more important than teaching conversation skills, however, is modeling connection in interactions with student staff.  RAs will experience an incongruity if staff meetings and training are run in a business-like manner while they are asked to prioritize connecting with residents.  Consider ways your training and interactions can model the balance of connection and content you’d like RAs to find with their residents. 


It’s certainly possible to guide the direction of a conversation while maintaining authenticity and allowing room for students to organically engage.  However, the greater the quantity and complexity of the topics required in the conversation, the less likely it is that the conversation will feel like a connection opportunity.  For example, if you’re looking to engage a curricular outcome related to academic success, it’s not unreasonable to require RAs to ask how a student feels about their classes and how they’ve been managing.  Asking about on-campus academic resources or introducing specific study strategies, on the other hand, might make the conversation feel more like an advising session.

Follow-up and assessment:

Like prescribed content, the means of recording interactions may make the strategy feel less organic to students, so it’s important to strike a balance of getting the data you’re looking for while not overwhelming RAs.  Asking RAs to write long summaries of conversations or utilize rubrics to assess residents’ learning may provide rich data, but this can shift the priority from connecting to recordkeeping.  Having RAs provide just a short summary or answer a few questions about the interaction is more manageable.  If you’re struggling to pare down the amount of information RAs collect, remember that there are other techniques to collect data, and the data may be more reliable coming from direct outreach to residents rather than being filtered through the lens of an RA.


As with any curricular strategy, intentional interactions are simultaneously an opportunity for connection and learning and a job requirement.  To ensure RAs are fulfilling their job responsibilities, there must be concrete expectations that a supervisor can assess for completeness.  While this will likely necessitate numerical expectations of duration and number of conversations, these can distract from the purpose.  If an RA focuses too much on making a conversation last 20 minutes or chasing down every single resident, they may be thinking less about making a connection.  While ensuring RAs meet minimum requirements is important, building a vision around the outcome of connection may help center the conversations.  That could take place through frequent reminders of the goal or an accountability measure that asks the RA to reflect on the depth of their connections rather than the quantity.

While it may seem almost too simple of a strategy to include in scaffolding toward your learning goals, intentional interactions prioritizing connection are a strong foundation for a developing community.  From that starting place, strategies with a greater focus on content can be added, building toward more complex learning goals and a community where residents experience engagement and belonging.

Key Questions:

  • What is the priority of intentional interactions within your curriculum?  Learning, connection, assessment, some combination of those, or something else?
  • How do you set up your RAs for success in developing connections with their residents?  What challenges do you experience?
  •  If you use your intentional interactions as an assessment tool, what are you assessing?  How do you collect the data?  Could that data collection impede RAs from connecting with their residents?
  • How can you model prioritizing connection in your interactions with RAs and other students?

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