Four Ways to Incorporate Restorative Practices into your ResLife Work

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 |

Depending on your position in an organization structure, it might feel impossible for you to make major changes or influence the culture of a team.  However, a lack of positional authority doesn’t prevent you from practicing and promoting Restorative Practices within your work.  While you might not be able to reshape departmental or divisional practices, there are numerous ways to create restorative change within the scope of your own work. 

1. Focus on Building Relationships

Many who work in ResLife are naturally inclined to build relationships, so it might not even feel like work to prioritize them when interacting with students and staff.  Even if it comes effortlessly to you, building relationships is a particularly powerful way to begin implementing RP, as these connections center community and promote the establishment of norms.  If you happen to be a process-oriented person and struggle with prioritizing relationships, it may be helpful to remember that though a restorative philosophy centers relationships, the relationships aren’t the only end.  Rather, it is through building relationships and community that we ensure the folks with whom we work are happier, more cooperative, and more productive.  Hence, even if building relationships isn’t your primary motivation, doing so will likely make achieving your goals easier.  Students are more likely to engage in a learning experience if they have relationships with those designing and facilitating it, and staff members who feel seen and connected do better work.  Hence, carving out time for relationships and community, as you would with other tasks, may enhance your aspirations.

While you certainly can use restorative tools, like circles and community standards, to achieve this end, they aren’t necessary.  Informal interactions may prove the most powerful in building connections, leading to trust and effective working relationships.  Some easy ways to prioritize these informal interactions include: 

  • Taking the first few minutes of a 1-1 to check in with colleagues on a personal level
  • Showing up to a meeting a few minutes early or staying a few minutes late to informally engage with colleagues
  • Making time for quick hello when passing by someone’s office
  • Grabbing lunch or coffee with a colleague
  • Finding connection opportunities in otherwise administrative tasks.  For example:
    • Take time to get to know the student – not just the incident – in a conduct hearing
    • Stop to talk to residents when walking around your community
    • Meet new students when verifying a roster

That said, every job will contain some administrative elements that are bound to focus on the process rather than relationships.  For example, submitting student payroll, filling out a purchase order, and analyzing assessment data are necessary tasks, but it’s hard to imagine ways to leverage them to build relationships.  In cases like these, finding ways to tackle the task efficiently means creating time for other priorities that might center relationships.

2. Form Community Traditions

While connections with those you work with are key, it’s also important to create community among those folks.  Regardless of your position in an organizational hierarchy, this can be challenging.  If you do not have positional power, it might feel difficult to create opportunities for connection, and if you have power to plan opportunities for students and staff to engage in community, it’s difficult to mandate connections.  We’ve all attended a “fun-datory” event or two that built resentment rather than community.  This is because creating community requires us to work with others, not to or for them, so simply creating a space or mandating participation isn’t necessarily effective.  Instead, it’s key to collaborate with your community – whether that’s staff, students, or both – to create traditions specific to your community’s needs and interests.  Some examples of effective traditions I’ve taken part in include:

  • Structured regular connections opportunities like check-in circles at the beginning of staff meetings or teambuilders at an all-staff meeting
  • Regular lunch traditions after a meeting, like Taco Tuesdays or board game lunches
  • Formal work traditions, especially around holidays/end of the semester, like potlucks
  •  Informal get-togethers after work, like trivia night at a local bar or happy hour
  •  A social group chat for kudos, connections, and announcements of bonding opportunities

Not all these traditions took hold in every group I’ve worked with.  It’s important to find room for co-creation and understand the group’s preferences.  For example, lunch traditions never stuck around long in departments where it was an unspoken norm to not schedule over lunch. 

While creating a tradition is more difficult than simply imposing expectations, it also means that it doesn’t require the positional authority necessary to do so.  Anyone can extend an invitation to attempt to create a tradition, not just the boss or the leader, and the active involvement and contribution of various team members make them thrive.

3. Consider Accountability from a Restorative Lens

  Often when we consider the place of accountability in the work of ResLife, student conduct immediately comes to mind.  While a conduct hearing is a great example of accountability, limiting a restorative approach to only formal measures limits the scope of RP within our practice.  Accountability may take the form of a formal reprimand or job action, but accountability itself is simply taking responsibility for violating standards and finding a way to make things right.  Hence, accountability occurs much more frequently than these formal conversations, and practicing RP entails using a more restorative accountability model even in informal settings.  For example, if a student staff member is doing the bare minimum required of them and impacting the staff; if a colleague is gossiping about you; or if a supervisor is regularly late for your 1-1, how do you show up in that situation?

The Social Discipline Window can be a great tool to analyze your typical response to these sorts of situations.  It may be difficult to admit to yourself that your typical way of handling accountability falls short of restorative, so it may be helpful to consider how you show up at your worst.  Perhaps consider a busy day after a duty night that left you without 5 consecutive hours of sleep.  Do you end up avoidant (neglectful), permissive, or punitive?  Knowing where you stand can help you step into the “with box” by knowing whether you need to increase accountability or support – and remember, the two can be achieved simultaneously.

The Social Discipline Window

  One challenge of embracing accountability outside of a leadership role might mean that you lack the framework or authority of existing accountability measures.  For example, it’s easy to identify what high control looks like when reprimanding a student staff member since there’s a protocol in place.  However, the same structure might not exist when working with a colleague or even a supervisor.  In cases like these, it might be worth considering some Restorative Justice techniques.  Start by naming the harm and who was harmed, and then invite both the harming and harmed parties to consider what must be done to make things right.  While you can’t force a harming party to hold themselves accountable in all informal settings, it’s more likely they will partake if they can hear about the harm and its impact directly from a harmed party, even if the harm is just the way others feel when someone is showing up late.

4. Practice or Advocate for Fair Process

Fair Process is a component of Restorative Practices that involves taking the views of those impacted by a decision into account when making a decision.  In short, when deciding, identify the stakeholders, engage them to collect their feedback, explain how their feedback was used in making the decision, and make sure expectations are clear moving forward.  It’s remarkable how perceptive we are when those leading us fail to engage in Fair Process.  Think of a time when “the higher ups” made a decision that impacted your job without consulting you.  (Didn’t take long – did it?)  What could have been done better in that situation?

While you may not think of yourself as “a higher up,” recognize that there are spaces where you have decision making authority or sit at a table where decisions are being made.  A student has probably viewed you as one of the “higher ups” they were frustrated with.  One simple shift to be more restorative is to leverage these positions to advocate for Fair Practice.  If you hold decision-making authority, for example over a group of student staff members you supervisor, you can implement Fair Practice in that context.  If you sit at a table where decision-making occurs, you can advocate for it, and the advocacy doesn’t need to be complicated.  You don’t need to explain the construct of Fair Process if that wouldn’t be helpful.  Simply identifying stakeholders, their views, and opportunities to explain decisions can be enough.  For example:

  • Encouraging engagement of stakeholders:
    • “I think this decision will impact our RA staff.  Maybe it would be helpful to ask some RAs about what they think.”
    • “As we identified stakeholders, I think we overlooked the students impacted by the possible policy change.”
    • “My graduate assistant gave some feedback that would be helpful here.”
    • ”Let’s refer back to the assessment data we collected.”
  • Advocating for explanation of decision-making and clear expectations:
    • “When we make the announcement of this change, let’s tell everyone it was based on the survey results, so they know we’ve listened to their feedback.”
    • “This decision seems right for the department but is not in line with popular opinion.  Can we share our decision-making process out with everyone?”
    • “To be clear, the expectation moving forward is X, Y, and Z.  Correct?  Can we write that down and send it out to the staff?”


While it may be more difficult to directly influence organizational culture if you aren’t in a leadership role, there’s a plethora of ways you can start utilizing Restorative Practices in your own work.  Centering relationships, prioritizing people over process, and advocating for accountability when harm is done and when decisions are made are some strong places to start.  Not all change is top-down, so just a handful of folks making an effort to be more restorative might be the seed of a much greater change.

Key Questions:

  • Where in your work do you feel like you are effective in creating connections with staff and students?  Are there parts of your job where you feel you connect less?  If so, are there ways you can change your work style?
  • Does your current team have any community traditions?  If so, how can you add to them to build community?  If not, what has made the traditions ineffective?
  • Where in your role – both formally and informally – are you faced with holding others accountable?  Which box of the Social Discipline Window do you show up in?  How can you shift to a more restorative approach?
  • Where in your job are you a decision-maker and who are your stakeholders?  What decision-making spaces does your job place you in?  Is Fair Process used in those spaces?  If not, what might you be able to do to advocate for Fair Process?

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