4. Make Rituals & Relationships

Weaving restorative justice into the fabric of school life helps build community, increase comfort with RJ practices and values, and grow capacity for healing-centered responses to harm. Participants spoke about the importance of making RJ a “ritual” by designating time and physical space for youth and adults to use restorative practices in day-to-day school life.


Many people described the frequent use of talking circles—in school-wide gatherings, classes, community celebrations, etc.—as a key way to get comfortable with sharing emotions and experiences. Through this personal sharing, members of the school community are able to learn more about each other, deepen relationships, and build a stronger sense of community. We heard about the particular power of having adults model vulnerability, self-reflection, and admitting mistakes, all of which can make students feel more comfortable opening up. River explained this ripple effect this can have, telling us “Youth view [adults] as sort of like a robot, like they’re perfect. And I think when they have authenticity and they appear human and non-perfect, that’s when you get a better and more stable bridge between both communities.” Even the non-hierarchical format of talking circles is a simple way to interrupt the power dynamics in schools, ensuring everyone has a chance to speak.

Restorative practices take getting used to, and we shouldn’t first be introduced to them in the middle of conflict or the aftermath of harm. Ritualizing restorative justice creates regular opportunities to build the relationships, communication skills, and trust (in people and the process!) that enable people to work through conflict and harm when it does occur. For instance, Khione told us how in her middle school, “We have [community building] circles that are used for more than just problems on Friday. And that gets new students used to the idea that there’s a circle that’s used to solve problems.” Critically, the basic experience of participating in a talking circle was seen by many as a key way to build buy-in among the entire school community: youth, staff, and families.

At the same time, participants spoke about many obstacles to this sort of routine and relationship building, including inconsistent staffing, funding, and policy directives, with staffing changes seen as especially disruptive by both staff and students.

Listen to Community Voices

Hear from students, parents, and educators about why it’s so important to make rituals & relationships, as we build restorative school cultures.

Work through Contradictions

Vent Diagrams help us reflect on the challenges, complexities, and contradictions of doing this work, and figure out how we can keep moving forward. Here is one of the big tensions we heard from participants about making rituals & relationships in school communities.

left half of vent diagram, which is a venn diagram with nothing in the center, showing the tension between the two texts right half of vent diagram

RJ thrives with consistency

Schools face constant change

Talk with Your Community

What does this look like for you and the people in your life? Use these questions to explore ideas about rituals & relationships with others in your school and communities, laying the groundwork for community understanding and making change.

Make It Happen

The young people, educators, and parents we spoke with shared incredible examples of how they are already making rituals & relationships in their schools, as well as visions of the world we must keep fighting for.… This is what RJ can look like, when it’s On Our Terms.

Build School Practice

Here are specific ideas about how school communities can build rituals & relationships.

  • Integrate community-building circles into the routine for all students, staff, and families (via student advisory, staff meetings, family events, etc.) to foster the development of relationships and familiarity with restorative justice practices in a non-conflict setting.
  • Use circle practice and modeling of vulnerability (by staff, students, parent leaders) to build trust and normalize talking about feelings, asking for help, and learning from mistakes throughout the school community.
  • Center student-leadership in community-building efforts with other young people and in intergenerational spaces.
  • Provide consistent communication to the whole school community publicizing upcoming community events, leadership opportunities, and the growth of RJ practice.

Raphie S: The school where [we] had more of an RJ foundation everywhere, we had a really strong advisory program, everyday first period and a real social emotional learning space. And all the advisories had two advisors, one person whose background was more youth development and the other who was an academic teacher, who were partnered to work with these same 20-25 students for their full four years. So the relationships formed were pretty substantive, usually over time. And we had a pretty strict no switching policy. And so people really had to learn how to live with each other because you couldn’t just switch up… Advisory met in circles and checked in every morning, and had a lot of really strong existing ritual that you did every day, regardless. And so when something really upsetting or traumatizing or disruptive would happen [in the school community], there was a lot of built-in space…. students knew that they were going to have a space to talk about it… at the beginning of the day. That was really powerful.

Demand Policy Change.

Here are some key policies needed to better support our schools in making rituals and relationships.

  • Allocate specific time and funding to support community-building practices and programs (e.g., expand advisory to all schools, discretionary funding for community events, adult- and peer-led mentorship programs).
  • Fund RJ-related staff in every school, including RJ coordinators, social workers, guidance counselors, and other support staff (e.g., paraprofessionals), with an emphasis on recruiting BIPoC staff who reflect the student population.
  • Make RJ circle keeper training accessible to all DOE staff, as well as student and parent leaders in school communities or citywide positions.

Click here to learn more detail about these and other policy recommendations.