My son’s Montessori school had a ‘peace table’ where children could go to work out disagreements. On it were a few laminated cards with conversation prompts, such as “I feel…”, “I hear…”, “I want…”, as well as a ‘talking stick’ that the child speaking would hold to indicate it was their turn to be heard. There were also paper and markers for drawing when children had trouble expressing themselves or wanted to depict their peaceful resolutions.
What my son and his classmates were learning was a practice of restorative justice. A peace table encourages children to acknowledge and repair the harm they do to one another, whether by choice or because of unconscious bias. It provides an alternative to yelling, hitting, or suffering in silence.
Restorative justice practices signal that adults recognize the personal and communal trauma that children experience in a complex world. At the micro (between individual children) level, they help kids identify and address the root causes of conflict on a case-by-case basis. At the macro (systemic) level, they help children and adults identify and uproot oppressive policies and systems that benefit some at the expense of others.
These practices are not a behavior management technique. Just because children are able to express their pain and/or remorse does not mean that their behavior will immediately change. Instead, think of a restorative process as a strategy for building positive, more just, relationships over time. At first, children’s interactions may seem more transactional (if you do this, I’ll do that) than transformational. But regular practice leads to authentic care.
Restorative justice also requires adult leaders to examine their own culpability when conflicts arise. Assumptions like ‘boys will be boys’ can lead to permissiveness when a boy acts out and a lower tolerance for a girl behaving the same way. This unfair treatment can breed hurt feelings and frustration that children take out on each other because they don’t want to challenge an authority figure. Model accountability for the unintended harm your actions may cause, and invite children to help you change your community culture for the better.
Underlying the concept of restorative justice is the belief that we all have the power to transform an unjust situation into a more just reality. Instead of feeling captive to the harmful effects of social bias, children discover that they can be change agents. They learn the power of ‘I’ language and the art of reconciliation through simple, intentional interactions in a safe space.
To get started creating your own restorative justice practice, select an area where children can sit together, talk, and draw. Provide prompts that help them remember to use ‘I’ statements and a prop that they can pass back and forth as they take turns speaking. Then model some potential conflicts that they might want to resolve through this practice (e.g., being called a derogatory name, excluded from an activity, or treated as inferior). If a problem arises, suggest children move to the peace table, and affirm their efforts when they take the initiative themselves.