Mar 16 2021

A Restorative Approach for Equitable Education


The events of 2020 and 2021 have rocked our country to its core and made plain the long-standing racism and deep structural inequities that undergird all aspects of U.S. society. The police shootings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks, among others, have triggered uprisings across the nation and have reinvigorated calls for police reform, including the removal of police in schools, and an end to the criminalization and dehumanization of Black and Indigenous communities as well as other people of color.

The COVID-19 pandemic that has upended nearly all aspects of daily life has exacted a particularly devastating toll on the same communities that acutely bear the brunt of systemic racism and its felt effects. Because of long-standing structural inequities, these communities have greater infection and mortality rates, higher unemployment, more housing and food instability, and less access to technology and the internet—essential tools for learning, as well as many aspects of daily life.

These multiple and ongoing crises are contributing to a collective and individual trauma that has deep implications for the mental health, wellness, and opportunities to learn for youth across the nation. They are also causing many to reflect on our traditional way of “doing school.” This includes both holding a mirror to how educational systems have contributed to societal inequities and shifting increased attention to the essential role that trusting relationships and school-based supports play in creating the conditions necessary for students to learn and thrive.

As school and district leaders rethink school structures and practices for both the short and long term, their work should be grounded in two essential questions: How can we address the acute needs of young people and adults who continue to grapple with the dual impacts of COVID-19 and systemic racism? And how can we take this moment to advance long-needed changes to transform schools into nurturing communities that are committed to equity, diversity, and anti-racism?

Advancing Equity Through a Restorative Approach to School

While the current moment is wrought with crises and difficult reflections, it also presents significant opportunities for schools to reimagine and redesign their structures and practices to pave a more equitable path forward. Redesigning schools so that they are restorative spaces—environments where young people are known, nurtured, and healed—is a key way that schools can embody more equitable approaches to meet students’ immediate and long-term needs.

Restorative approaches are a central dimension of a whole child approach to education, which recognizes and attends to the unique strengths, needs, and interests of students. Based in the science of learning and development, restorative approaches support students’ academic, cognitive, and social-emotional growth; their physical and mental health and well-being; and the promotion of their distinct individual identities. Restorative approaches also recognize the long-standing inequities present in both schools and society and are grounded in ameliorating those inequities by building safe, inclusive learning environments where consistent, caring relationships can thrive and every young person is valued and affirmed.

This brief is the first in a series of publications that will explore ways schools can adopt more equitable and restorative approaches. It provides an overview of essential practices for building safe, inclusive learning environments that meet learners’ acute needs, while nurturing their healthy development and success. Future briefs will dive deeper into these practices, including identity-safe school environments, culturally responsive pedagogy, restorative discipline practices and policies, and relationship-centered schools.

Building Safe, Inclusive School Environments

Safe, supportive learning environments—where students feel a sense of belonging and where relational trust prevails—are the foundation of a restorative approach to education, whether in person, online, or in a blended model.Darling-Hammond, L., Schachner, A., & Edgerton, A. K. (with Badrinarayan, A., Cardichon, J., Cookson, P. W., Jr., Griffith, M., Klevan, S., Maier, A., Martinez, M., Melnick, H., Truong, N., & Wojcikiewicz, S.). (2020). Restarting and reinventing school: Learning in the time of COVID and beyond. Learning Policy Institute. Research emerging from the science of learning and development shows that positive, supportive relationships build strong brain structure and buffer against adverse experiences.Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2019). Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: How children learn and develop in context. Applied Developmental Science, 23(4), 307–337. Stable, caring relationships with teachers and other adults are also linked to better school performance and engagement.Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2019). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(1), 6–36. Even one stable relationship with a committed adult can help buffer a child from the effects of serious adversity.National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2015). Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience [Working paper 13].

Authentic relationship building requires dedicated time and space for students and practitioners to engage and for educators to learn about students’ unique experiences away from school. Restorative structures, such as advisory systems, support community building and relationships and provide consistent opportunities for teachers to check in on students’ academic, social-emotional, and mental health needs and connect them to appropriate supports. Staff development is also essential to creating learning environments that are physically and psychologically safe and that can also provide engaging learning experiences that foster curiosity and cognitive growth. The impact of COVID-19 on under-resourced communities also amplifies the need for states, districts, and schools to challenge the biases and discriminatory policies that hold students back.

With the disruption of an already inequitable school system, we have the opportunity to rebuild in ways that create a long-lasting transformation of educational experiences, enabling all students to learn in safe, inclusive, and supportive environments. To achieve this, we must invest in culturally responsive teacher training, reduce discriminatory discipline policies, and provide tools and personnel to meet students’ diverse needs.

Invest in Adult Capacity to Develop Cultural Responsiveness and Create Identity-Safe, Affirming Learning Environments

To build strong relationships and safe, supportive learning environments, teachers must understand, value, and build upon the cultures, identities, and experiences of students and their families.Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., & Osher, D. (2020). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(2), 97–140. This includes understanding and acknowledging biases that may negatively affect how they view and treat their students and the students’ caretakers, based on race, ethnicity, language background, gender, sexual orientation, or income. This implicit bias is particularly felt among Black students, who often are taught by teachers with racial backgrounds that do not match their own. On average, non-Black teachers of Black students have significantly lower expectations than Black teachers, interact with Black students less positively than with white students, and are more likely to label them “troublemakers.”Gershenson, S., Holt, S. B., & Papageorge, N. W. (2016). Who believes in me? The effect of student–teacher demographic match on teacher expectations. Economics of Education Review, 52, 209–224.

Though many teachers enter the profession with the best intentions, holding these implicit biases can lead to social-identity threat, in which students feel stigmatized and attacked based on their identities. Students experiencing threats to their identities in school, including stereotyping, may feel less capable or less worthy, which can lead to negative self-perceptions and impaired performance.Schmader, T., & Johns, M. (2003). Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(3), 440–452. Anti-racist and culturally responsive training can support teachers and school leaders to recognize the conscious and unconscious biases that can lead to segregated tracking systems, disproportionate disciplinary actions, inauthentic family engagement, and inequitable access to extracurricular opportunities.

Anti-racist educators value and respect the abilities and humanity of their Black, Indigenous, and other students of color and see and elevate their potential. They also take a holistic approach to seeing where inequities occur throughout the school, including teaching and learning practices, staff demographics, definitions and measures of student and teacher success, school and district policies, resource allocation, and teacher opportunities for growth and leadership, and they commit to developing and growing their critical consciousness. Educators who are aware of existing inequities and stereotype threats can affirm and convey confidence in their students and families, hold high expectations, and provide them with needed supports.Dweck, C. (2000). Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development (Essays in Social Psychology). Psychology Press; Ladson-Billings, G. (2013). The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass; Steele, C. M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Can Affect Us and What We Can Do. W.W. Norton & Co.

Culturally responsive educators also view the experiences of students and families through an asset-based lens. This includes, for example, elevating students’ voices in the classroom, providing materials and activities that draw upon students’ knowledge and cultures, building upon students’ experiences, and promoting equity.Lee, C. D. (2017). Integrating research on how people learn and learning across settings as a window of opportunity to address inequality in educational processes and outcomes. Review of Research in Education, 41(1), 88–111; Villegas, A. M., & Lucas, T. (2001). Educating Culturally Responsive Teachers: A Coherent Approach. SUNY Press; Carter, P., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2016). “Teaching Diverse Learners” in Gitomer, D. H., & Bell, C. A. (Eds.). Handbook of Research on Teaching (5th ed.) (pp. 593–638). American Educational Research Association. Such teachers learn about their students’ communities and develop strong connections with students’ families and larger social networks. These ties can be sustained through check-ins and class meetings; conferencing; journaling; close observations of students; and consistent, positive communication with students’ families, including through home visits.

Replace Discriminatory Discipline Policies With Restorative Approaches and Social-Emotional Learning

The harsh discipline practices and over-policing of Black and Indigenous students and other marginalized groups that occurs in many schools have also undermined the creation of safe and inclusive learning environments. Disproportionalities in suspension and expulsion rates between students of color and their white peers appear as early as preschool and continue throughout the pre-k through 12th grades.U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights Data Collection. (2016). 2013–14 Civil rights data collection: A first look. These punitive, exclusionary punishments are particularly inflicted on Black youth, who often receive harsher punishments for minor offenses and are more than twice as likely as white students to receive a referral to law enforcement or be subject to a school-related arrest.Losen, D. J. (Ed.). (2015). Closing the School Discipline Gap: Equitable Remedies for Excessive Exclusion. Teachers College Press.

Students of color are more likely to attend schools employing law enforcement officers but no school counselor.U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights Data Collection. (2016). 2013–14 Civil rights data collection: A first look. Middle and high schools where Black students comprise the demographic majority are also more likely to have security staff but not mental health providers, further reflecting what is often called the “school-to-prison pipeline” that places schools among the web of institutions and practices that contribute to the criminalization of Black youth. For many Black students and other students of color, the presence of police officers in their schools poses a physical and psychological threat in a place that should be supportive and welcoming.Bachman, R., Randolph, A., & Brown, B. L. (2011). Predicting perceptions of fear at school and going to and from school for African American and White students: The effects of school security measures. Youth & Society, 43, 705–726; Perumean-Chaney, S. E., & Sutton, L. M. (2013). Students and perceived school safety: The impact of school security measures. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 38, 570–588. The long-standing racial disparities in school discipline and lack of available supports for students have been at the core of calls for police-free schools that have gained momentum in the wake of protests against police killings. During the spring and summer of 2020, several school districts across the country voted to remove police from school campuses, and many others have taken the issue under consideration.

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced new concerns about the use of exclusionary discipline policies. The mix of lost instructional time, the emotional toll of the pandemic and the nation’s racial reckoning, and the added pressures of adjusting to new routines in person or virtually have created new stresses for students and teachers. Many fear this will lead to more students acting out, and with teachers and schools stretched to their limits, it could mean a greater rush to discipline students instead of providing the social and emotional support they need.Belsha, K. (2020, August 21). Virtual suspensions. Mask rules. More trauma. Why some worry a student discipline crisis is on the horizon. For example, Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, FL, instituted a mask-wearing policy for in-person learning, which can lead to increasingly harsh penalties for students caught without one, including being barred from attending school, while several North Texas school districts adopted disciplinary action for sneezing or coughing in someone’s direction, if deemed intentional. Students attending virtually must also contend with the threat of exclusionary discipline (e.g., being locked out of online classrooms) for not following the school’s dress code, eating or drinking or getting up during class, cyberbullying, or purposely disturbing class. With so many students feeling disengaged from their teachers and peers, using exclusion as punishment, instead of getting to the root causes of misbehavior, may exacerbate the stress and trauma young people currently face.

As schools and districts move away from punitive discipline policies and practices, it is critical that funds are invested in restorative practices and social and emotional learning that can eliminate racial discipline disparities and provide teachers and students with more proactive, evidence-based solutions for supporting positive behavior. Restorative practices replace punitive, coercive, and exclusionary disciplinary approaches with proactive development of community caring, coping mechanisms, and conflict-resolution skills that help students develop empathy for one another and an understanding of their own behavior. Such practices result in fewer and less racially disparate suspensions and expulsions, fewer disciplinary referrals, improved school climate, higher-quality teacher–student relationships, and improved academic achievement across elementary and secondary classrooms.Fronius, T., Persson, H., Guckenburg, S., Hurley, N., & Petrosino, A. (2016). Restorative justice in U.S. schools: A research review. WestEd. 

Social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools—a key element of restorative practice—has shown results in supporting positive student behaviors and self-perception.Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.  It is important to note, however, that SEL programming must be culturally affirming, and not another form of policing Black and Brown students. This often happens when SEL is used as a mechanism for schools to regulate student behavior and conform to cultural and gender norms and values, instead of encouraging students to exercise agency and interrogate systems of oppression. To avoid this, schools should look to take a transformative approach to SEL that is grounded in a social justice framework and orients traditional SEL competencies (e.g., self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills) as a means to critically examine racial inequities and transform systems of oppression in schools, communities, and the broader social system.Jagers, R. J., Rivas-Drake, D., Williams, B. (2019). Transformative social and emotional learning (SEL): Toward SEL in service of educational equity and excellence. Educational Psychologist, 54(3), 162–184. 

Provide Tools and Personnel to Understand and Support the Diverse Needs of Students

Alongside transitions to restorative practices and social and emotional learning supports, educators must have tools to understand students’ strengths and needs in order to create learning environments for students that are safe and inclusive. Schools can implement universal assessments for social, emotional, and behavioral health issues when school begins, and again in the winter and spring, to monitor students and connect them to needed supports.Romer, N., von der Embse, N., Eklund, K., Kilgus, S., Perales, K., Splett, J. W., Sudlo, S., & Wheeler, D. (2020). Best practices in universal screening for social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes: An implementation guide. School Mental Health Collaborative (accessed 08/12/20). Some states, including Louisiana and North Dakota, advised schools to use universal assessment tools (e.g., teacher, parent, and student self-reports through interviews, rating scales, and surveys) in their school reopening guidance.Louisiana Department of Education. (n.d.). Guide to supporting the well-being of students and staff (accessed 08/12/20); North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. (n.d.). North Dakota k–12 smart restart fall 2020 (accessed 08/12/20).

Developmentally appropriate assessments of students’ SEL competencies can also be used to learn more about the social and emotional assets and felt needs students bring with them to the classroom, as well as to understand the effectiveness of SEL programs. Teachers can use the results of SEL assessments to determine students’ strengths and provide more personalized instruction to support the growth of new competencies. SEL assessments should be used universally to improve teaching and learning, and not as a punitive accountability measure.

Many states and districts already use school climate surveys to evaluate student, family, and teacher experiences within a school community—an important first step.Kostyo, S., Cardichon, J., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2018). Making ESSA’s equity promise real: State strategies to close the opportunity gap. Learning Policy Institute (accessed 08/11/20). To understand students’ unique situations and better meet their needs, climate surveys and other measures of students’ experiences in school should be disaggregated by race, gender, English learner status, economic background, and other traits. This allows staff to understand if disparate treatment or experiences are occurring and to take steps to address what may be the result of implicit bias and flag the need for particular strategies to support students in various circumstances.

Teachers can be trained to use data from these assessments and surveys, but they alone cannot provide the identified supports and interventions students may need. Students need access to counselors and mental health personnel who are trained to work with young people and respond to the root cause of behavior. Schools can invest in holistic integrated student support systems—school-based approaches to supporting students’ success that secure and coordinate supports that target academic and nonacademic barriers to achievement. Integrated student support counselors or coordinators can help connect students and families to the appropriate services and serve as an essential link between schools, families, and communities.

Meeting the Equity Challenge Through Restorative Schooling

The science of learning and development tells us that U.S. schools and districts can implement structures and approaches that help students develop their voices and full identities while providing protections and support that mitigate the impact of adverse circumstances. Schools and districts can begin by developing teachers so that they enact culturally responsive and anti-racist pedagogy; replace harsh, discriminatory discipline policies with restorative practices; and provide tools and personnel to understand and support students’ holistic needs.

These practices advance a restorative approach to schooling that can increase equity in U.S. schools and improve their ability to become spaces where students and educators heal from the trauma and disconnection that the coronavirus pandemic and heightened attention to racial injustice have caused. These approaches, which align with a whole child vision of education, can support students through challenges while tapping into the resilience and agency that many young people have developed as they have persisted through difficulties, made their voices heard, and exercised leadership in calls and demonstrations for racial justice. It is up to state and local education leaders to meet this challenge to ensure that every young person receives the benefits of a supportive learning environment.


A Restorative Approach for Equitable Education by Jennifer DePaoli, Laura E. Hernández, Roberta C. Furger, and Linda Darling-Hammond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Funding for this project has been provided by the California Endowment. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, and Sandler Foundation.

Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.