Restorative Circles

Building Community With Restorative Circles

A variety of issues preoccupy the minds and hearts of our students as they arrive at school each day. As educators, we can assist them in processing their thoughts and feelings so that they can better deal with their situations and be more attentive in class.

Restorative circles are helpful practice for accomplishing this goal. However, while restorative circles are frequently used to replace punitive forms of discipline, they are also important in proactively developing the relationships and skills that students will need to support one another and collectively address the challenges they will encounter.

Restorative circles are most effective when they are integrated into the fabric of the school’s overall culture. After all, you can’t “restore” a community that hasn’t been built or maintained from the beginning.


1. Cocreate a safe, supportive space: It is most effective for circles to be established early in the school year so that teachers can draw on these relationships, skills, and practices throughout the school year—especially when the going gets tough.

Early in the process, teachers and students work together to identify values—such as empathy, patience, kindness, courage, and open-mindedness—that must be respected for people to be willing to share openly and honestly in a circle with one another. They also determine the most effective ways to collaborate (circle practices). Participants may choose to pass if they do not wish to speak. Other expectations include respecting the talking piece, which is passed around the circle as an invitation to share while the rest of the group listens. People are encouraged to speak and listen from the heart when they speak or listen. Moreover, what is shared within a circle remains within the circle, though educators should inform students from the outset that we are required by law to report when a student threatens to harm themselves or others, or when students disclose abuse.

Be prepared: Make certain that you, as the facilitator, are well-rested, calm, and focused before you begin.

It is critical to be fully present and able to sit with other people’s stories and feelings as well as your own to effectively hold the circle space. Take a deep breath and center yourself. Consider notifying support staff if you’re investigating sensitive issues that may necessitate further investigation.

3. Plan ahead of time: Come up with a topic or theme that will hold students’ attention for an extended period.

Discover or create a meaningful opening ceremony for the circle space, such as a poem, a quotation, or a piece of music, to welcome everyone in. The use of a mindfulness activity can also be used to draw students back into the space after a particularly stressful class or a particularly noisy hallway experience.

Look for information that will help to ground the conversation, and develop questions and prompts that will allow students to share their perspectives.

Take note that the larger the circle, the more time you’ll need to allow for the talking piece to make its way through the group. Consider the possibilities of how things might unfold and be prepared to adapt to whatever arises.

Make sure to schedule time for a closing ceremony, which will provide students with an opportunity to transition into environments that are less conducive to feeling vulnerable. A closing ceremony can be a pledge to protect the stories that have been shared in a circle, or it can be a breathing exercise in which we provide students with prompts and time to put themselves back together after they have been broken apart.

Inviting students’ personal experiences into the space can help students connect with the circle content by sharing stories from their own lives.

Add in a storytelling round by asking students to share their experiences with “a person in your life who…” or “a time when…” Share your true self with the audience. Those around you will have permission to do the same. As the talking piece makes its way around the circle, demonstrate effective listening skills. While others are speaking, pay attention to what they are saying. Remind everyone that the most important ingredient in circles is listening. True listening can help to create the kind of welcoming environment that encourages even the most hushed voices to express themselves.

Acknowledge, paraphrase, summarise, and demonstrate empathy: Pay close attention to what students say so that you can build on their experiences.

When the talking piece is returned to you, express your feelings, observations, or hearings about what you heard or saw. If you have a sense that there is more to the discussion than what has been brought to the surface in the first round, circulate the talking piece a second or third time, asking students for their connections, reflections, or additions.

If difficult or painful issues arise, model, the agreed-upon circle practices for students to follow as they participate. People’s experiences can be made more supportive and healing by paying attention to them mindfully and being present with them. This can lead to stronger community connections and the development of compassion for others.

If necessary, inform students that you will be available to check in with them later in the day or week if they so desire. Alternatively, you could suggest that they speak with other supportive adults or students to find solace if they are distressed.

6. Learn about the characteristics of an effective ally: In addition to providing a safe and supportive listening environment, consider what else students might require from you and one another.

Investigate ways to be more effective allies in a circle so that students are aware that they do not have to face their challenges alone. Request that they describe someone in their lives who is either an excellent friend or ally or someone with whom they would like to have a more fruitful friendship or ally relationship. Discuss the characteristics that these people possess (or lack) as well as how they make us feel. During class, ask students to share a time when they have been an excellent friend or ally for someone else, as well as what gets in the way of being our best selves with one another.

7. Take a step back to gain a better understanding of the larger system: Investigate whether there are larger systemic forces at work that are contributing to the difficulties that students have mentioned (such as racism, sexism, or lack of access to resources). Introduce information, stories, and voices that may shed light on the operation of these systems, if possible. Look for examples of people who took action to disrupt these and other oppressive systems, and document their experiences.

Activate student participation by asking them to connect this information to their thoughts, feelings, and related experiences.

Students can gain a better understanding of their situation by studying larger, systemic forces in society. It can also serve as a useful springboard for students to become more active in their communities. Hope, connection, and healing can be elicited through action and activism.