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Fostering Belonging, Transforming Schools: The Impact of Restorative Practices

By Sean Darling-Hammond
Guidance Counselor speaking with three students.

Many schools use exclusionary discipline—such as suspensions and expulsions—to deter students from misbehaving and to protect students from the harms associated with exposure to student misbehavior. Research indicates that, while often implemented with good intentions, exclusionary discipline increases (rather than deters) misbehavior and risks of dropout and juvenile and adult incarceration. Moreover, exclusionary discipline exerts secondary harms, negatively impacting school climate among those who see their peers suspended.

Research has also detected racial disparities in how exclusionary discipline is applied. Black students are far more likely to experience exclusionary discipline and its negative side effects. Black students are nearly 4 times more likely than White students to receive an out-of-school suspension, and Black–White disparities in suspensions and expulsions emerge in all student subpopulations—across all demographic groups, educational contexts, and grade levels. Research demonstrates that stark racial disparities in discipline are not a function of racial disparities in student misbehavior, nor of how students sort into schools. Instead, disparities are largely driven by school practices. The harmfulness and unevenness of exclusionary discipline thus present a pressing equity issue: How can schools both reduce exclusionary discipline and ameliorate racial disparities in its use?

In response, schools have implemented restorative practices, which include proactive practices to inculcate conflict resolution skills and strengthen community bonds (for example, through community-building circles) and responsive practices to resolve conflicts and repair relationships (for example, through mediation and harm-repair circles). Proponents argue that because these practices address root causes of student misbehavior while reducing exclusionary approaches, they have the potential to ameliorate racial disparities while enhancing school climates, academic engagement, and academic performance.

Because [restorative] practices address root causes of student misbehavior while reducing exclusionary approaches, they have the potential to ameliorate racial disparities while enhancing school climates, academic engagement, and academic performance.

However, a review of extant quantitative research surfaces a critical distinction between restorative programs and restorative practices. Restorative programs offer various kinds of training to staff to help them learn to use restorative practices. Restorative practices are the specific actions in which community members might engage in a restorative school (i.e., a school in which a comprehensive program is being implemented). Restorative programs vary in their design and implementation, and many factors—such as program quality, teacher readiness, and teacher discretion—moderate whether a program results in students being exposed to restorative practices. Ample evidence indicates that programs often fail to shift school practices in a pervasive way; nonetheless, research has focused almost exclusively on evaluating the impact of the adoption of restorative programs.

Prior research leaves unclear the extent to which restorative practices can reduce misbehavior and discipline rates, abridge racial disparities, improve school climates, and deepen academic engagement. This research gap is significant given that practices (rather than programs) are the drivers of outcomes. From a policy perspective, identifying the impacts of restorative practices may inform the shifts in practice and the school conditions that empower sustained implementation. This report thus seeks to answer two paramount questions: (1) Does student exposure to restorative practices drive improvements in academic, disciplinary, mental health, and school climate measures? (2) Can it reduce racial disparities in exclusionary discipline and academic achievement?

This study is unique in its focus on the effects of practices rather than programs, the range of student outcomes it examines, and its scale. It examines the effects of restorative practices on academic, disciplinary, behavioral, and health outcomes by combining data regarding the practices in place in 485 middle schools with detailed school attendance and student outcome data for approximately 2 million middle school students. It tracks student exposure to these practices over time and analyzes how exposure to restorative practices affects outcomes at the individual and school levels, controlling for student and school characteristics.


Exposure to restorative practices improved students’ academic achievement and reduced suspension rates and duration. Increasing exposure to restorative practices during the transition from 5th to 6th grade improved standardized test performance in both English language arts and mathematics, reduced the probability of experiencing a suspension, and decreased the number of days suspended among students receiving suspension.

The effects of restorative practices on academic outcomes were positive for all students while stronger for Black and Latino/a students, thus reducing discipline gaps and achievement gaps. Student of all backgrounds (including White and Asian students) saw a positive association between restorative practice exposure and academic achievement. Because associations were stronger for Black and Latino/a students than for White students, all else being equal, these findings suggest that restorative practices can reduce racial disparities in discipline and academic achievement.

Schools that increased their use of restorative practices saw improved student behavior and school safety. School-level use of restorative practice caused declines in schoolwide student misbehavior, gang membership, victimization, depressive symptoms, and substance abuse. Schools that increased utilization of restorative practices also saw improvements in average school GPA and school climate. Schools that reduced their utilization of restorative practices saw declines in these outcomes.

Access to restorative practices was not equitable across student groups. Even after controlling for a range of other school-level factors, schools with higher proportions of Black students and/or economically disadvantaged students evidenced lower levels of restorative practice utilization.

School-level use of restorative practices caused declines in schoolwide student misbehavior, gang membership, victimization, depressive symptoms, and substance abuse.


Shift from a culture of exclusion to a relational culture. This requires shifting community members’ views about misbehavior and punishment as well as abandoning practices that are incompatible with restorative practices, such as zero-tolerance policies in which exclusionary discipline must be applied whenever students engage in certain conduct. For schools that employ school resource officers (SROs), these staff are also key players in cultural transformations for restorative schools.

Develop staff mastery. Restorative programming often fails to shift school practices, in part because staff sometimes express hesitation to adopt restorative practices. Professional development, proactive discussions and early trainings, social signaling, and preparation for temporary setbacks can help schools sustain implementation.

Ensure that students of all backgrounds gain access to restorative practices. Even within a given school, restorative practice exposure is lower for Black students and students from low-income families (two groups that are particularly at risk of exposure to exclusionary discipline). Trainings and other interventions may be powerful tools for ensuring that teachers can leverage restorative practices with students of all backgrounds.

Empower sustained implementation. Institutions hoping to realize the positive impacts of restorative practices can seek (or provide) funding that is structured to support multiple years of implementation and communicate that funding is not tied to near-term results.


Replace zero-tolerance policies and punitive discipline frameworks with relational approaches. To empower schools to realize a restorative culture shift, states, districts, and schools can shift away from zero-tolerance and punitive frameworks so that exclusionary discipline is not a default.

Incorporate indicators of exclusion, restorative practices, and school climate in continuous improvement and accountability systems. A first step for state leaders seeking to ensure that all students have access to restorative practices is to incorporate suspension rates, which are readily available, into state accountability systems. States and districts also can create measures of site climate and restorative practices that they use as part of continuous improvement and, eventually, accountability systems.

Secure buy-in from school staff and community members. To establish strong buy-in, district and school leaders may consider tapping staff who are already interested in restorative practice as early implementers; adopting social signaling by allowing educators and leaders to publicly celebrate restorative practice successes; and proactively communicating the value of restorative practices to educators, community members, and caregivers.

Invest in ongoing education and support for all staff to develop restorative mastery and to expand access to restorative practices among all students. Comprehensive training provided to all school staff—including teachers, administrators, counselors, support staff, and SROs where they are present—can better equip staff to more equitably and effectively implement restorative practices. To fund training and ongoing support, states and districts can leverage the Every Student Succeeds Act Title IV, Part A—the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant Program.

Provide long-term investment and support for restorative practice implementation. Fully implementing restorative practices takes time and continual effort. Districts and schools hoping to realize the positive impacts of restorative practices should plan for multiyear investments in implementation support.

Evaluating the Effects of School-Based Restorative Practices by Sean Darling-Hammond is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by a grant from the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which receives funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for its AERA-NSF Grants Program award, NSF-DRL #1749275. Opinions reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of AERA or NSF. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.