Restorative Practices in ResLife: Residential Curriculum and Curricular Approaches

This post is one in a series about integrating Restorative Practices into a model for residential learning.  Start with the introduction as a primer and explore posts on other strategies you can utilize with a restorative lens.

| Introduction | Roommate Agreements | Floor Meetings & Circles | Curriculum Development | Residential Curriculum | Intentional Conversations & Interactions | Assessment | Organizational Culture | Into Practice |

When folks think of Restorative Practices, Restorative Justice often comes to mind as a synonym.  It’s my hope that my past posts have challenged this direct association.  While Restorative Justice falls under the Restorative Practices umbrella, it specifically refers to the responsive work to restore relationships once harm has occurred.  Most of the work of Restorative Practices, including the pieces that lend themselves best to a residential curriculum, focus on proactively building relationships and establishing norms.  These practices mitigate the likelihood that harm will be perpetrated and establish commitments to community that make addressing harm in a restorative way easier.  Even with intentional planning of proactive elements of Restorative Practices, harm is bound to occur and necessitate some follow-up.  In residence life, responsive work might look like interpersonal conflicts, community disruptions, and policy violations.

The way that we address and respond to harm would not be considered curricular in the typical sense.  We don’t design these experiences, much less utilize learning outcomes to develop them, and we can’t sequence them into a learning plan since we can’t predict them.  However, the way we work with students around conflict and policy violations can make them some of the richest learning experiences we facilitate.  A student who engages in the effective mediation of a complicated roommate conflict will walk away with increased self-awareness and communication strategies that will assist them in future disagreements.  A student who engages in a successful restorative process to address harm they’ve caused to the community – whether it be minor, like a quiet hours violation, or severe, like vandalism – will have heightened awareness of how their actions can impact a community and a greater investment of that community as a result. 

Even if not entirely by our own design, these outcomes are very much in line with learning around self-awareness, understanding difference, and social responsibility, which are reflected in the learning aims of many residential curricula.  Hence, it may be worth considering how we can apply aspects of a curricular approach and restorative tools to these unplanned experiences that have strong potential for learning.

Training that consistently reflects the learning aims of the department

Essential Element 4 of a curriculum states that learning strategies should be driven by learning aims.  While harm itself cannot be planned based on learning outcomes, the way we respond can be.  For example, we can’t utilize learning goals of awareness of difference and conflict management to design a roommate conflict, but we can plan to respond to the conflict in a way that furthers these goals.  The key is training staff members, whether it’s professionals or student staff, to address harm in a manner that prioritizes relationships and promotes learning.  This also reinforces that student learning is not limited to intentionally designed curricular experiences and can be present in most elements of the work of residence life.

Focusing on relationships and learning means stepping away from the common retributive approach that conceptualizes harm as a violation of rules – for example a violation of quiet hours or a roommate agreement.  Instead, we can focus on how relationships have been impacted and how to restore those relationships.  Essentially, the goal is to involve a student who has caused harm in a process of recognizing their impact and seek ways to make things right.  This could include organized formal measures like Restorative Justice Conferences, but it’s effective to start these conversations in the community with those impacted.  An RA is uniquely positioned to start these dialogues as a peer leader, and the way they are trained can make the difference between response to harm being treated as an administrative duty or a restorative experience.  Hence, training RAs on restorative tools and the importance of centering relationships can be extremely impactful.  This outlook can be incorporated into any place a staff member is trained to respond to harm: conflicts, policy violations, and other student crises.

Use of facilitation guides for responsive measures

Training is essential to preparing staff to respond to harm, but it’s not a replacement for written policies and procedures, and it’s likely that your RAs already have written protocols, like a duty manual, for many of these situations.  While it may be unconventional, consider providing these materials for low-level* conduct or crisis response in the form of a curricular facilitation guide (or lesson plan).  While these guides will not be as comprehensive as that of a proactive curricular strategy, a guide that is created to center learning in a responsive situation – like a mediating a conflict or responding to a minor policy violation – can serve as a valuable reminder of the learning that can be facilitated and make these processes less intimidating for a student staff member.  Like a curricular facilitation plan, the guide can include a few sections to break down the response:

  • Learning Aims – Whether the guide is for a proactive strategy or a reactive measure, we can highlight what we hope students learn from the experience.
  • Preparation – In many responsive restorative situations, prework in the form of individual conversations with the party causing harm and those impacted can be helpful in moving forward.  Any prework can be outlined in a facilitation guide.
  • Facilitation techniques – While the facilitation won’t be as scripted as a proactive curricular strategy, a general set of steps to approach the response will be helpful.  This could also be a place to include information on restorative tools, like affective statements and restorative questions.
  • Assessment plans – Even in unplanned interactions that center learning, it’s worth considering how we can capture what students learned.  This may be from informal observations from a student staff member or more formal follow-up, for example in a conduct process.

*As a caveat, learning is central to much of our work, but in situations where harm has been done and the stakes are high, preventing further harm is the top priority.  Hence, for higher level situations, a simple protocol for student staff to follow, rather than a facilitation guide, is better to maintain safety ensure the situation is reported to the appropriate staff member.

Partnerships with other campus offices

In line with the eighth Essential Element of a curricular approach, it makes sense to involve campus partners in the implementation of a restorative approach to addressing harm in residential communities.  It’s likely that many of the disruptions in a residential community will involve some work with campus partners, like student conduct, case managers, civility educators, or other advocates.  If any of these offices do restorative work or have an interest in exploring Restorative Practices or Restorative Justice, this can create room for meaningful collaboration.  Involving these offices in generating our responsive protocols ensures that they can work with residence life to deliver a consistent and scaffolding experience for students.  For example, if a conduct hearing officer knows that an RA took a restorative approach to addressing a policy violation in the moment it was occurring, they can consider how to continue that conversation during the hearing and sanction accordingly.  Additionally, if restorative work already has a home on your campus, collaboration can provide a great means to get students connected to experts who are better equipped to facilitate formal Restorative Justice conferences and engage in experiences that student staff can’t deliver.

Key Questions:

  •  Where do you see opportunities for responsive work you do with students to align with your learning goals?
  • Are the ways that you currently respond to roommate conflicts and policy violations restorative?  If not, what steps can you take to prioritize community and learning?
  • Which offices on your campus might be helpful partners in creating a restorative approach to addressing harm in the community?

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