Is Restorative Justice “Soft” on Consequences?

By Mary Skillings M.ED

Part 1

A common misunderstanding about Restorative Justice in Education (RJE) is that it does not advocate use of consequences when a student misbehaves or causes harm.

Let’s take a closer look at what is meant by “consequences”. Most of the time when people refer to consequences in connection with misbehavior, they are thinking punishment. So, let’s take a look at what Webster has to say.

The dictionary definition of punish/punishment is: to subject to pain, loss, confinement, death, etc., as a penalty for some offense, transgression, or fault; to inflict a penalty for (an offense, fault, etc.). Words listed as related to punish/punishment include: retribution, discipline, forfeiture, torture, trial, suffering, abuse, sanction, beating, penance, sequestration, ostracism, purgatory, mortification, unhappiness, comeuppance, victimization, castigation.

The dictionary defines consequences as: the effect, result, or outcome of something occurring earlier; an act or instance of following something as an effect, result, or outcome. The dictionary list of words related to consequence includes: residue, weight, emanation, importance, residual, corollary, ramification, residuum, sequela, consecution, contrecoup. Please notice that neither the word punish nor punishment is in this list, nor part of the dictionary definition.

Restorative Justice does not advocate for punishment per the above definition. However, accountability for harm and wrongdoing is very much a part of RJE, requiring a person who has caused harm to acknowledge the effect of what they did and to make amends and repair the harm. In other words, there are consequences to our negative behavior—the harm that has resulted—in the same way that there are consequences to our positive behavior—friendship, trust, relaxed environment. Due to RJE’s non-punitive approach instances of misbehavior become learning opportunities for students. They learn to take responsibility for their actions and to make amends. They learn to problem solve. They learn to resolve conflict. They learn empathy. They learn to recognize their own stress responses and to deal with them appropriately.

Additionally, the needs of those who have been harmed are addressed, something that is often overlooked in traditional, punitive methods of dealing with misbehavior.

Part 2

Are there consequences for wrong-doing and misbehavior within the RJE philosophy? Absolutely! When I worked in Juvenile Probation, the kids would often say that owning their wrongdoing and repairing the harm was much more difficult than just doing their hours of community service or paying a fine or showing up to see their probation officer once a week. I once had a 15-year-old boy tearfully plead with me to give him 100 hours of community service rather than have to face the family whose home he had vandalized. He was so adverse to facing those he’d victimized that he was willing to opt out of our diversion program and go to court and face the Judge. The Judge, however, believed in the power of Restorative Justice and sentenced him to a Restorative Conference with the family. Some months later the boy told me, “You were right. I’m glad I had to face them and apologize because now when I see them around town, we talk to each other and everything’s cool between us. We have an understanding. If I’d done the community service and never talked to them, they’d still be mad and I’d be scared to ever face them.”

Sometimes a necessary response to a situation appears on the surface to be punitive. Perhaps a student needs to be given ISS or OSS after a violent act or fight or other serious infraction that puts others at risk. The difference between whether this action will be restorative or punitive depends on what happens next. If when they return the student is welcomed and supported in resolving the problem and repairing the harm, the entire event becomes restorative. If nothing further is done besides the suspension, then we’re simply punishing. It also depends on the attitude of the staff in dealing with the student and the situation. Despite the offense, do they maintain honoring the child’s dignity? Is it clear to the student that they are supported in both repairing what happened and in learning how to better deal with future situations?

Consequences for misbehavior may also involve the student having to give up his/her recess time in order to do what needs to be done to make amends or repair the harm they caused. This might include helping a staff member in order to give back time they took being disruptive, or cleaning with the janitor to make up for having made a mess, or because it is the time that a meeting can take place to have a restorative conversation or Circle with those they harmed. Taking away recess as a punishment doesn’t really benefit anyone unless that time is put to use by the student to repair the harm that resulted from their behavior.

The practice of Restorative Justice is not about punishment. It is about being accountable for the harm a student’s negative behavior has caused someone and to the classroom or school community. This means we let our students know that a negative behavior is not okay. It requires us to be honest and real with them about how we ourselves are impacted. Again, how we communicate this will be restorative if we maintain respect for their dignity and focus on the behavior, but punitive and undermining if we resort to shaming and blaming them as a person.

Restorative Justice is about repairing harm and restoring relationships. Whatever it takes to achieve this is what the consequences for misbehavior should be about.


  1. FACTS: Understanding the facts of the Incident
  2. CONTEXT: Understanding the Context of the incident / Needs of those involved
  3. IMPACT: Identifying who has been affected and how have they been affected
  4. ACCOUNTABILITY: Repairing the Harm – repairing relationships