The pandemic not only robbed students of valuable in-person learning time, it also affected their social and emotional well-being and took away opportunities to learn how to positively interact with peers on campus. That’s why some educators have been concerned about a potential uptick in disruptive behavior issues now that the majority of students have returned to school.[1]

And if past patterns hold, that means Black students will bear the brunt of discipline practices that exclude students from class. Research has found that Black middle and high school students miss on average five times more instructional time due to out-of-school suspension than their White peers.[2] And a 2019 study suggests that the discipline gap between Black and White students is related to the achievement gap between those student groups.[3]

Knowing all this, what can be done to mitigate these racial disparities in schools?

A research team at WestEd explored that pressing question through a study examining whether restorative practices — such as school-facilitated conflict resolution — could bridge racial disparities in schools. The study found that exposure to restorative practices can reduce discipline disparities between Black and White students and lead to higher academic achievement.

Specifically, the study’s findings included the following:

  • Discipline disparities between Black and White students were five times smaller when students experienced the highest levels of exposure to restorative practices.
  • Higher levels of exposure to restorative practices also predicted lower rates of exposure to discipline for American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, and White students.
  • Regardless of race, students with more exposure to restorative practices had higher grade point averages, but exposure to restorative practices was not related to racial achievement gaps.

Understanding the impact of restorative practices

“Quite often when there is conflict in a school environment, there’s no attention to the teachable moments,” says Sean Darling-Hammond, a WestEd researcher and the study’s lead author. A restorative approach, however, creates space for reflection, learning, and personal growth. While restorative practices can vary widely, they generally address offending behavior by focusing on repairing harm and restoring relationships, rather than just doling out punishment.

To investigate the impact of restorative practices, the research team analyzed data from more than 835,000 secondary students who, between 2013/14 and 2018/19, completed the California Healthy Kids Survey, a WestEd-developed instrument long used in the state to measure students’ well-being. The survey includes eight questions about students’ experiences with restorative practices.

“Restorative practices involve students taking ownership of their behavior and working to get the impacted relationship back on track.”

Darling-Hammond approaches the restorative practices field not just as a researcher, but from the perspective of someone who has seen its impact. As a law student at the University of California, Berkeley, he ran a restorative practices program at Berkeley High School. He says he was impressed with how it transformed the students’ relationships with one another, and with themselves.

Even those who were “seriously misbehaving” improved their behavior and, in some cases, started running the program itself, he says. “There’s a ripple-in-a-pond effect.”

Ownership of the behavior

The Poway Unified School District (PUSD), near San Diego, is among those working to spread restorative practices districtwide as a way to reduce discipline disparities. And it shows. The WestEd study identified two of the district’s schools as those in which students have the highest exposure to restorative practices.

James Dayhoff, the Director of Student Attendance and Discipline for PUSD, said restorative practices can repair the damage between students and their peers or teachers.

“Restorative practices involve students taking ownership of their behavior and working to get the impacted relationship back on track,” says Dayhoff. “Our goal is not simply for the students to become friends, but to have them explore, ‘How can we co-exist and how can we understand each other’s perspective on campus?’”

Since PUSD began using restorative practices, part of its implementation of the widely used Positive Behavioral and Intervention Supports approach, expulsions have dropped from 40 to 50 per year to consistently less than 20. The district views restorative justice practices as a key strategy for achieving racial equity and addressing issues such as racial slurs and hate speech and behavior, says Dayhoff.

At Black Mountain Middle School in PUSD, Principal Scott Corso asked a student that used harmful language toward another student to write an essay on the importance of words and peer relationships. When he felt the essay fell short, he had the student work on it some more.

“We don’t want it to just be, ‘You’re suspended,’” says Corso. “We want to push students to learn from what has occurred. We believe that discipline is about learning opportunities.”

At the district level, Dayhoff says that even when officials move toward suspending or expelling a student, they can still “push pause” and instead give the student opportunities to make amends with those who were harmed. He would like to see more “restorative circles” in students’ homeroom classes, adding that it’s too easy for students to “tune out” in schoolwide assemblies.

Not just a “nice thing to do”

The recent WestEd study builds on previous reviews of research about restorative justice conducted by Darling-Hammond and other WestEd researchers,[4] as well as a 2018 study of the impact of a restorative practices program in Pittsburgh (PA) Public Schools.[5] The Pittsburgh study found reduced suspensions and increased attendance among students in the elementary grades and those with disabilities. The researchers also made several recommendations, such as weaving the practices throughout the school day, having support from a district-level administrator, and having school leaders model the practices for teachers.

The restorative practices model “doesn’t live in a silo,” says Keith Hickman, Executive Director of Collective Impact at the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP Graduate School). “It has to complement other initiatives.” His organization’s SaferSanerSchools program was implemented in Pittsburgh under an initiative called Pursuing Equitable and Restorative Communities.

Those in discipline-related positions, he said, need to work closely with educators leading social-emotional learning, for example. Otherwise, teachers too often will view restorative practices as just “one more program.”

While the study of Pittsburgh Public Schools was significant, the research base was still thin, says Hickman. WestEd’s study provides important new findings to bolster that research base.

Restorative practices are “not just fluff or a nice thing to do,” says Hickman. “These practices have teeth, have substance, and can be measured.”

Given that WestEd’s study found that students with higher exposure to restorative practices saw less exposure to exclusionary discipline, smaller racial disparities in discipline, and improved academic achievement, the authors wrote, “Schools and districts may want to invest in the kind of sustained professional development that can increase students’ levels of exposure to restorative practices.”

“In addition to widespread professional development, schools and districts could empower teachers to routinely use restorative practices with students of all backgrounds,” says Darling-Hammond, “whether by creating time in the school-day for community-building circles or by encouraging conflict-resolution conversations.”


[1] Jones, C. (October 1, 2021). Anticipating an increase in student misbehavior, California releases new discipline guidelines. EdSource.

[2] The Civil Rights Project. (October 11, 2020). National report calls attention to frequent use of suspension contributing to stark inequities in the opportunity to learn.

[3] Pearman, F. A., Curran, F. S., Fisher, B., & Gardella, J. (2019). Are achievement gaps related to discipline gaps? Evidence from national data. AERA Open 5(4).

[4] Fronius, T., Darling-Hammond, S., Persson, H., Guckenburg, S., Hurley, N., & Petrosino, A. (2019). Restorative justice in U.S. schools: An updated research review. WestEd.; Darling-Hammond, S., Fronius, T. A., Sutherland, H., Guckenburg, S., Petrosino, A., & Hurley, N. (2020). Effectiveness of restorative justice in U.S. K–12 schools: A review of quantitative research. Contemp School Psychol (24), 295–308.

[5] Augustine, C. H., Engberg, J., Grimm, G. E., Lee, E., Wang, E. L., Christianson, K., & Joseph, A. A. (2018). Can restorative practices improve school climate and curb suspensions? An evaluation of the impact of restorative practices in a mid-sized urban school district. RAND Corporation.