Gina Yacovetta currently serves as Stand Colorado’s Center for High School Success Coach and brings 30-years of experience in education, serving as a teacher, counselor, assistant principal and principal at the elementary and secondary level. Most recently she retired as the principal of Arvada High School in Jeffco School District. During her six years at Arvada High School she led the implementation of restorative practices.
We asked her about her experience with restorative practices in schools, how she’s seen students respond to it, and why now is the time to equip all educators with the knowledge and skills to implement restorative practices in schools.
What is a restorative approach?
The restorative approach is about building responsibility to and relationships with others in your community. It's creating a culture of safe space, respect, and relationship to build accountability and enable repair if there's been harm done in a community. It is an approach, not a program - it’s a way of being.
As an educator and school leader, why did you choose to include restorative practices in your school?
We had a lot of discipline issues at our school when I first arrived as a principal. We were suspending kids all the time, and we kept finding that the kids that were suspended were at the park, roaming the streets or at restaurants getting into more trouble. Also, they were often getting so far behind in school that they couldn't make up their work, and they would fail their classes. It felt like we were in a never-ending cycle of kids not being able to be successful once they made a mistake.
We incorporated restorative practices to support kids when they made a mistake, by really understanding and addressing the root cause of their behavior. We shifted to teaching students how to repair the harm they caused and to ensure they actually learned from their mistakes.
We had our whole staff trained; everybody from our custodians to our lunch staff, to security, to administrators and teachers. In doing so, we developed a shared mindset and shared terminology so that every adult in our building could support students.
What are examples of restorative practices in a classroom?
It’s all about taking a proactive approach. It starts with building positive relationships and providing opportunities for the community, the kids and staff in the classroom, to take responsibility for their behavior. For example, teachers may host community circles as a space for students to share their voice and build connections – it can be as simple as asking kids what they did over the weekend. In setting up proactive, intentional practices like these, it allows for strong relationships and students believing they have someone they can turn to in their classroom. When you build shared respect in a classroom, you’re going to have less behavior issues.
In your experience, how do students respond to restorative practices?
Initially, students may feel shy or hesitant to share about themselves in community circles, but as you build the classroom norm around respect and safe spaces, they become more comfortable. Once they’re comfortable sharing and listening in these proactive, informal circles, they become more comfortable in responsive circles.
Responsive circles are a tool to repair harm caused within the community. For example, if there is an issue between two students, we have a responsive circle where they both take ownership of whatever the situation was and come to a resolution. Students become equipped with shared language and tools to solve their problems. Students began to say “I need a restorative circle with so-and-so..." - they became a part of the solution.
What has been the impact of shifting your lens to addressing the root cause of a behavior versus punishing for a behavior in itself?
When you use punitive approaches like suspension, you miss an opportunity to ensure a student really learns from their mistake. For example, when a student gets into a fight with another student, you separate them. You don't ever bring them together. You suspend them, call their parents, send them home for a week. But they don't really learn from that behavior because you never really come to the root cause of why they were in the fight in the first place.
A restorative approach would seek to understand and resolve the root cause. A trained staff member would have a pre-conference with each student to understand their perspective of what happened. Once they feel more settled down, staff would support the students in a conversation where the students can take responsibility, repair harm, and resolve the issue. The solution comes from the students. It's their voice; it's their ideas. And then you usually don't have a problem again.
How do you see a restorative approach as a solution to current challenges around mental health, social-emotional well-being and school safety?
A lot of times students make mistakes or get into trouble because they don’t have an outlet, they don’t have somebody they trust to talk to, or they don’t have the skills to express what they’re holding inside. The restorative approach is all about building trusting relationships and teaching students how to talk about how they feel. The relationship piece is huge, but teaching students to reflect on how they feel is so meaningful for their social-emotional learning and well-being.
If a parent or teacher is interested in including restorative practices in their school, where should they start?
Start by building those strong communities and strong relationships, maybe having community agreements that you build with students and definitely talking to students about how to build a community of respect and responsibility. Incorporating proactive, community circles would be a great place to start to begin to familiarize students with having conversations with each other.
How do you see restorative practices fitting into our efforts towards equitable classrooms?
Our systemic punitive discipline practices are negatively impacting certain groups of students more than others. That’s not my opinion, it’s a fact. When you look at discipline statistics, they show that suspension rates are a lot higher for males, and especially males of color.
We know all students are going to make mistakes, and being at a school environment is a place where they should be able to make mistakes. It's our job to teach them. We teach them how to read, we teach them how to multiply, we also have to teach them how to behave and supporting them through making mistakes is a part of that.
And so that equity piece is supporting every individual student, not just as a whole, but every individual student in every situation. It’s about meeting students where they're at.
Why is this the right moment to incorporate restorative practices in our schools?
With everything going on right now, the social-emotional challenges that are happening, we want students to build connections with each other and to share respect, both with their peers and with the adults in their school buildings. This is the time for us to say, "Let's help our students out. Let's help them figure out the root cause of why they're making mistakes. Let’s make school a safe place where they can make mistakes, and let’s be there to help them and support them through all of it."
By the time I left the school that I was at with restorative practices, students would say, "I would've never graduated if we wouldn't have had this." Or, "I wouldn't have relationships with my teachers." Or, "I wouldn’t have had any friends."
It’s time to start now.