Repair the Harm: Teaching students to take direct responsibility for their actions

Suspensions, detentions, and referrals to the office all have one common flaw: they are exclusionary processes.

Asher threw pencil + Finlee threw pencil = two referrals to the office. They are both removed from the class and “taught” a lesson through the consequence. Throwing pencils = referral to the office.

What happens when Asher comes back to class the next day after he missed the lesson because he was in the office, and you give a pop quiz? Is he going to be able to conceptualize the skills he never learned, and do well on the quiz?

Or is he going to recall what happened the day before: “Oh, throwing pencils = I don’t have to be in this class?” This might come as a surprise to you, but some students don’t want to be in class. Those students quickly realize that traditional consequences will get them out of certain activities, and they can abuse the system for their own purposes. 

Traditional punitive systems also do very little teaching, and take very little thought. They barely even bother with student individuality. 

From there, we have a list of possible punishments, the most serious of which is suspension. A suspension might help a student who broke a rule or expectation—but it might not.

Traditional punishments don’t focus on the victims or the classroom climate of a negative behavior. They send a message that certain behavior isn’t tolerated, but Asher and Finlee are going to be coming back into that classroom.

They are going to return from the suspension, and little will have changed. Consequences were given out for a negative behavior, but the harm has not been repaired for any of the other impacted parties.

The students who were suspended learned that throwing pencils will get them out of class and then right back into it. 

The consequence did not link to the behavior, and so the behavior will not change. If a consequence isn’t logical (connected to the behavior) and the student is not emotionally invested in the effect of his behavior on others or the effect of the consequence to himself in the long-term, the consequence won’t be effective (this is when the magic of empathy is needed).

We need to find a different way to handle those consequences if we’re to teach our students to stop misbehaving.

In a book that should become your new blueprint for school discipline, teachers, presenters, and school leaders Nathan Maynard and Brad Weinstein help you eliminate punishment and build a culture of responsible students and independent learners. 

Eighteen straight months at #1 on Amazon, and still going strong, Hacking School Discipline is disrupting education like nothing teachers and school leaders have seen in decades–maybe centuries.


Taking responsibility for behavior is the foundation of every restorative consequence. Restorative consequences are those given to students to repair the harm they caused, and should directly relate to that harm.

For example, if a student throws food in the lunchroom, he or she could have a restorative consequence of cleaning the lunchroom after school. 

Creating a restorative consequence is simple, effective, and improves the school climate. Involving students in that creation allows them to take personal responsibility for the situation, and buy into the consequence.

When we’re seeking to repair the harm, we start by posing two questions: To whom was the harm caused? How are you going to repair the harm? The students must come up with what they want to say or do as a consequence, and be willing participants in serving that consequence.

You can do this by giving the student two options: 

1) You can come up with the solution with me, or 

2) I can come up with what your consequence will be, and I’m not going to be open to feedback. 

This normally drives the student to want to be a part of the consequence, and to have an investment in it. 

Restorative practice is effective because it turns every conflict into a learning opportunity. Instead of just labeling a negative behavior and assigning an automatic consequence, it seeks to understand the behavior.

This, in turn, makes sure that together, you address every factor that could have played a part in the decision. This focuses on the need to repair the harm that has occurred. It also creates a sense of community in school, and restores damaged relationships by allowing all voices to be heard. 

Another large component of why it is successful is that it helps students develop empathy by allowing the wrongdoer to hear exactly how the victim and/or stakeholders were affected by the behavior.

It is powerful to have a student sit across from someone he hurt, own his behavior, and ask how to “fix it” (repair the harm). Most of the time, it ends with just an apology, but it opens up a respectful dialogue during which all students address the issue. 

If students don’t feel like they are being heard, they may refuse to buy into any consequence. Allowing them to help build those consequences, however, encourages them to take part in repairing the harm, and growing from the experience.

How To Implement This Into Your Classroom

If a student makes a mistake in the classroom, have the student come up with a consequence that will allow her to repair the harm done to other individuals, the classroom climate, or the school climate as a whole. This creates investment and the opportunity to develop problem-solving skills.

Initiate. Identify what harm the student caused and to whom. The first questions you might ask include: 

What happened?
Who has been affected by what you have done?

Empathize. Students have to take in others’ perspectives to identify how they might have affected them. Use open-ended questions: 

How do you think they felt when ____ happened?

In what ways do you think ____ affected them? 

Analyze. In the analyze phase, the student must create a way to repair the harm. It is important for the student to come up with this on his own, with prompting. Try using these open-ended questions when designing a plan to make amends:

What do you think you need to do to make things right?
How are you going to carry out his plan to repair the harm? 

How does this repair the harm that was done? 

Does it take care of everyone affected by the negative behavior?

Execute. Carry out the solution you and the student created.

Reflect. This is when the student can collaborate with parents. Together, parents and the student can revisit the negative behavior and its impact on others, how the student came up with the solution to repair the harm, how the solution was carried out, and whether or not it truly repaired the harm.

They should also discuss how the student felt about the process. In addition to speaking with the parents, help the student build a plan of action to prevent the negative behavior from happening again. 

Restorative discipline takes incidents that might otherwise result in punishment and instead recognizes the opportunity. Conflicts are opportunities for students to understand the impact of their behavior, understand their obligation to take responsibility for their actions, and take steps toward making things right.

Allowing them to work through the problem and develop their own ways to repair the harm sets the foundation to change their behaviors permanently, rather than just putting a Band-Aid on a single situation.


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