How Can Christian Educators Practice Restorative Justice?

May 14, 2010

Al Boerema raises the issue:

As Christian schools continue to explore ways to become places of shalom and to find means for having a larger impact on how their students live, the idea of restorative justice is moving into greater prominence. Restorative justice can be seen as an approach to discipline that is communitarian rather than individualistic, and focuses on healing and reconciliation rather than punishment and retaliation. Restorative justice can also be seen in a larger perspective of infusing the life of the school more broadly, not just in disciplinary situations. I would like us to discuss this in terms of examples of the restorative approach in practice and the barriers to its implementation in the life of a school.

May 24, 2010

Rebecca De Smith starts off:

I support using restorative justice to bring shalom into our schools classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds. It respects students as image bearers of God and promotes forgiveness, accountability, and reconciliation. It can be used with all ages of students in a variety of situations. Restorative justice also encourages students to take ownership of their actions, and if handled properly, provides students with a model for working through problems and disagreements.

But, just as with many good ideas, restorative justice can be tricky to put into practice. The steps to resolving conflict need to be carried out deliberately and consistently. It takes time to develop an understanding of the process with students, and it takes consistency to work through different and difficult situations. Everyone involved needs patience as trust is developed and restoration replaces hurt and fear. Practically, this approach seems to work better with older students, say grade 5 and above, who can understand the causes and effects of their actions. Younger students can benefit from a restorative justice approach, but they may not be developmentally ready to accept responsibility for their actions or generate ideas for reconciliation with other children. They could be ready to begin understanding the steps involved in restorative justice, becoming aware of their actions, learning to listen to others, and how to talk about their conflicts.

If done well and applied regularly, restorative justice can build a strong, mutually respectful community. If done poorly, it merely becomes another process for gaining power and producing humiliation.

May 26, 2010

Tim Leugs adds:

Well said, Rebecca. I think restorative justice is best seen as a how-to manual of building and maintaining relationships. In this perspective, its role in classroom community and in the community of God’s kingdom, it is very evident in how it values and celebrates relationships. From the very beginning, God has placed great value on relationships, giving humans the ability to know him and to know one another. God has also allowed humans the capacity to hurt one another, but thankfully, he has stepped in to heal this pain through relationships, reconciling our sin through Christ and restoring shalom to our world through the Holy Spirit.

In a similar way, schools are called to recognize discipline not as a response to breaking a rule in the book, but a response to the hurts of the community of the classroom, hurts that damage the relationships built and the trust that exists between the members of the classroom. When pain occurs through damaging this trust, it is felt by all, and the best solution involves engaging both those who have broken the trust and those who have been hurt by it.

I disagree, though, with your thought that restorative justice is practical only for older grades. I really think that the lessons on using restorative justice can be understood by anyone who has a sense of right and wrong. A second grader who is crying because of something another second grader said can be addressed by the community. Working to understand that simply saying “sorry” does not solve the larger problem the classroom faces is valuable, and is practiced by many teachers in schools today. Although developmentally there will be differences in the discussion in this area, the basics of working with relationship development are as universal as forgiveness itself.

May 26, 2010

Mary Ashun contributes:

I would add to the already rich conversation by letting children know that restorative justice is happening in communities throughout the world: our First Nations communities here in Canada, in South Africa, and in Rwanda. Whether the children are young or not, they can respond to issues of injustice and hurt and telling them how adults are dealing with these issues can be powerful.

June 5, 2010

Tony Kamphuis continues:

If justice is a situation in which all of creation and all of God’s creatures “get what they deserve” as creations of a loving God, then we’ve got a great chance to move restorative justice out of the realm of being just a strategy for resolving interpersonal conflicts (though that is good) and introduce ideas that will help promote and restore justice in other ways, too.

A few years ago we started a service club at Smithville Christian High School and we cleaned ditches (they didn’t deserve to have trash thrown in them!), worked in a street youth ministry setting (they didn’t deserve some of the challenges they faced), and hosted baby showers for teen moms-to-be (well, that may be more of a “mercy” or “grace” example than a justice one).

In any case, restorative justice ideas can go beyond the interpersonal and beyond the walls of the school, and are in line beautifully with many Christian school mission and vision statements!

June 7, 2010

Christian Altena contributes:

Greetings, everyone! For me, the most important part of a restorative approach to discipline involves something that Rebecca mentioned—that everyone in the school building is an image-bearer of God. Restorative justice can become a powerful tool for peace within a Christian community when focus is directed on the concept of being made in God’s likeness. Why should I care about my neighbor? Because God cares for that person. We are all brothers and sisters in the Lord. Unfortunately, there are no fights like family fights.

Conversely, we’re all broken. The school my children attend recognizes a continuum of violence that begins with “eye rolling” and ends with “shooting someone with a gun.” What I like about this continuum is the way it reminds us that we are all disturbers of the peace. Every day we can place ourselves somewhere along the spectrum. Even though most of us will never venture past “name calling/mean teasing,” we can be humbled to know that we need to be forgiven as much the person who has wronged us. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous quote reminds us that it’s not a simple matter of separating out the evil people from the rest of us, “but the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

June 11, 2010

Bruce Wergeland adds:

During the past school year, I have been very conscious of this idea, and I spent the first term intentionally implementing a strategy for reconciliation in my grade 8 classroom. Like the rest of you, I see this collective activity as an important source of healing in a Christian community, our local community, and our world.

However, I was not satisfied with what I attempted. I quickly discovered that restorative justice was the other half of a wholesome community, and unless I addressed the purpose of community, with intentional education and application, restorative justice was simply a “band-aid” solution that addressed culpability, but not our complete identity in a Christian community. Consequently, my great intentions faded as I experienced the frustration of repeated offenses between students and my inconsistent efforts to address their conflicts effectively.

The fundamental needs of any classroom community are the attitudes and relationship that we prescribe as role models, without pretense or assumption, rather than the consequences with which we respond. Although I would love to have a repertoire of restorative justice strategies, my heart is telling me that I must focus on strengthening relationships through mentorship, positive reinforcement, and cooperative activities. In other words, I need to always look for the good in my students, rather than waiting for their negative behavior to appear.

I think teachers (and adults in general) wrongly assume that a strong character will develop if we have guidelines and consequences in our classroom or at home. Let’s be honest, school brings out some of the worst behavior in our children because students have so many opportunities (beyond our control or emotional energy) to associate with their peers, rather than adults. As a Christian school teacher, scripture demands that I encourage strong character through modeling, teaching, reinforcing, and then correcting—again and again. Restorative justice is simply one element in our task of nurturing our students. After all, why would we expect them to be any different than ourselves?


The panel consists of:

  • Al Boerema, who teaches in the education department at Calvin College.
  • Rebecca DeSmith, who is the Discovery Room coordinator and the curriculum coordinator at Sioux Center Christian School in Sioux Center, Iowa.
  • Mary Ashun, who teaches in the education department at Redeemer University College.
  • Tony Kamphuis, who serves as the executive director of the Niagara Association for Christian Education in Smithville, Ontario.
  • Christian Altena, who teaches at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illinois.
  • Bruce Wergeland, who teaches at Langley Christian Middle School in Langley, British Columbia.