Readers who have a background in education and restorative practice are largely familiar with the continuum of practice in restorative responses to incidents of harm in the school community — on one end, the use of formal processes such as restorative conferencing, and at the other, informal processes designed to ‘keep the small things small’ with an array of processes in between. What has been a particular challenge to practitioners is the issue of using such processes with those who are neurotypically different and have a wide variety of diverse needs and for whom participating in these processes can be difficult.

Margaret Thorsborne


This article is best seen as a summary of the messages about what is possible, contained in our text, Restorative practice and special needs (2015). The authors, Nick and Marg, connected when Nick attended local restorative practice facilitator training in 2013. Nick, having worked extensively in special school/unit settings, saw the possibility of how the processes, underlined by the principles of restorative justice, might be adapted to meet the needs of a special group of students of all age groups, who are sometimes those responsible for harm, and sometimes harmed by others. Like most of our work, the book developed from a series of well-received workshops with educators — nothing like a powerpoint presentation to become the bones of a book!
We will explore, in general, the nature of the challenges and provide some guidelines, drawn from practitioners in the additional needs space, about how we can remove some of the barriers to participation.

Photo: Margaret Thorsborne

Nick Burnett

History of restorative practice in schools

Restorative Practice (RP) in schools has developed, since the mid-90’s, from a response to serious incidents of harm to reduce the suspension and exclusion rates to a much broader approach that encompasses the need for behaviour development rather than a command-and-control approach around behaviour management. Ross Greene (2016)  lists a number of particular skills which foster the better side of human nature:

  • empathy,
  • understanding how one’s behaviour impacts on others,
  • being able to resolve disagreements without conflict,
  • perspective taking and
  • honesty.

This list of skills is exactly what restorative practitioners understand to be what we might hope restorative processes can achieve with persistent, consistent policy and practice. The implication here is the need and challenge of teaching these skills before anything goes wrong — social and emotional competence and the very important life skill of self-regulation.

Photo:  Nick Burnett

… a much clearer picture of brain development across childhood and adolescence and more humane ways of responding to incidents of harm that is informed by this.

In the early years of RP in schools, pioneering efforts were adapted from the youth justice sector and were deeply challenging to the prevailing authoritarian approaches to behaviour management (Cameron and Thorsborne, 2001). Since then, the practices of suspension and exclusion have been shown to contribute to the ‘School to Prison Pipeline’ (Skiba and Rausch, 2006)  in significant ways — particularly for student populations that are already disadvantaged and include those students with diverse needs. This includes a much clearer picture of brain development across childhood and adolescence and more humane ways of responding to incidents of harm that is informed by this. Thankfully, enlightened schools, school districts and regions are now working in a space around a more relational approach to pedagogy, school well-being and positive psychology and whole school approaches to relationship and behaviour development. We also acknowledge that concepts of ‘harm’ and ‘making things right’ also need to be taught in explicit ways as these notions of healing may well be foreign to some.

The restorative process

The RP process usually involves:

  • Telling the story about what happened (the what and the why). What happened? What were you thinking? What were you wanting to happen?
  • Exploring the harm done. What did you think when it happened? How has this been for you? What has been the worst of it?
  • Acknowledging this harm (this may or may not include apology). What do you think now that you’ve heard from … about how it’s been for them? Is there anything you could say to begin to make it right?
  • Developing a plan to make things right. What’s needed here to make it right?

The process has implications for participation for students who have diverse needs.

Participating successfully in such a process will mean particular barriers will need to be addressed:

  • the nature of the special need;
  • the largely verbal process, involving dialogue with all involved parties;
  • the level of awareness of self and others;
  • the social skills of those involved;
  • the willingness of the young person to participate;
  • the willingness of the adults to work in this paradigm.

In our text, we have suggested these barriers largely fall into three broad groups:

⇒ Communication: expressive, receptive, non-verbal;
⇒ Cognition: story telling, memory and sequencing, understanding of self and others;
⇒ Behaviour: dis-inhibition, sitting still, social and relationship skills.

Each of them, as restorative practitioners, had found ways to overcome some of these barriers and had managed to adapt the processes in order to achieve the kind of healing we know is possible.

The authors visited practitioners in a range of settings: special needs units in large primary and secondary schools, individual teachers in regular classrooms teaching students with diverse needs, and special schools. Each of them, as restorative practitioners, had found ways to overcome some of these barriers and had managed to adapt the processes in order to achieve the kind of healing we know is possible. In our text, these case studies showcase these adaptations for a range of diversity that includes Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual Disability and Speech, Language and Communication Needs.

Guidance for accessibility

From examining all the different elements that can impact on the RP process we believe there are some overarching implications.

Preparation: this is key in any RP process but we would suggest even more important when one or more of those involved in the RP process have special needs. This preparation is for everyone likely to participate — to ready them for the adaptations of process that may be needed.

Access: what do we need to provide for the individual with special needs to enable them to access the RP process? This could be special seating, awareness of venue, timelines, something soothing to hold, role-play, lighting etc.

Visual supports: even for those students who may not have significant language difficulties we believe the use of visuals to support communication and memory are important — especially around identifying feelings. Common props used include comic strips, social stories, timelines on whiteboards, graphics from such programs as Boardmaker, PECS, emoticons etc.

Language: the language in RP is very important but we need to Keep It Short and Simple (KISS). Some of the questions may need adapting to enable the individual with special needs to understand them.

Practice: repetition and sometimes rehearsal of the process questions and social skills we want to teach the individual within the RP process is advised. At other times, using circle time, and other social skill programmes to teach social and emotional knowledge and skills is an effective preventative measure.

Relationships: this is the cornerstone of the RP process and relies particularly on the development of trust between participants and the facilitator — especially true for those participants with diverse needs.

REPAIR Framework

To further assist practitioners, we believe it will be useful to work through the REPAIR Framework below before implementing an RP approach when individuals with diverse needs are involved.

R is this the right approach? Establish the outcome needed to determine the approach.

E establish needs for all involved — what’s the one social skill I want to teach as a consequence of this?

P preparation for participation — what and who is needed to give this its best chance of working.

A paying attention to the affect (emotions) for those involved — before, during and after. Also, what are the actions needing to happen as a consequence of the RP?

I integrity — in terms of process, preparation, follow-up and philosophy of RP — is the fidelity around process intact?

R in the end it’s all about the relationships — reflecting, repairing and reconnecting, and ensuring the relationship between participants and the facilitator is one of trust.

Class approaches: additional helpful hints

We will now share some class and school approaches that may prove beneficial if you are working in a setting where there are many individuals with a range of special needs.

  • Use of circle time to teach restorative thinking and behaviours — At a class level much of the work by Jane Langley (2016) around using RP in the early years is really useful in identifying the need to model, model, model. She identifies that acquiring restorative behaviour is a developmental process that needs modelling, practice and rehearsal.
  • Care not to deliberately humiliate — As with young people, and depending on the special needs of the individual, disapproval from staff/adults they feel attached to will often be much more powerful than shaming from their peers. Care must be taken though to make sure that individuals are not deliberately humiliated by adults. This will increase the risk of unhelpful behaviours in those targeted and poor outcomes for everyone.
  • Have a range of pro-social photographs/symbols and other calming pictures in the setting — These can help in using every opportunity to teach individuals the behaviours we want as opposed to responding to those we don’t want. Helping individuals manage their moods is an important part of the process and having positive, calming pictures in the class or other setting can be helpful.
  • Hand held self-regulation ‘tools’ — Another strategy, observed by Bonita Holland (2012) and shared in her Winston Churchill Memorial Trust report, was each student in a class having a small handheld oblong card split into three sections which they keep with them at all times. Each section had a Velcro circle in it and there is a separate button which can be moved by the student from section to section to indicate their internal emotional state all the way from ‘calm’ through to ‘peak distress or anxiety’ as indicated by the colour of the section. If an incident occurs that triggers a student to move their button to the peak position on their Velcro card they can go and stand in front of the ‘I’ spot, (a thinking space) set up in a few positions around the classroom. Here they spend time reflecting about what’s happened, what they think and feel, and they can use the toys and twiddle objects in the box to help themselves move from ‘peak’ to ‘calm’ and then to return to their desk or learning activity (Holland, 2012).
  • Centre of calm concept — Rebecca Jacobson (2015), who has also contributed a case study, is a support teacher at Portland North Primary School in western Victoria, Australia. She is the parent of a child with ASD and has developed and implemented a number of really useful RP strategies. One of which is explicitly talking about RP as a ‘centre of calm.’ Individuals may feel caught in the grips of anger, terror, anxiety and apprehension but these feelings lie outside the ‘calm’ circle and so she talks with the student about what he/she can do to get back into the calm circle.
  • Explicit teaching of facial expressions — She has also found specifically teaching individuals what the faces of people experiencing different emotions look like has proved useful. The importance of using actual photographs as opposed to comic interpretations can be very important for some individuals who find it difficult to transfer visual/cartoon concepts from one situation to real life.
  • Re-enactment — Rebecca has also found that re-enactment of incidents as a really useful tool to unpack what happened with all the students involved re-playing the incident from start to finish, or, as illustrated in her case study, with her taking the role of the person responsible and being ‘directed’ by the student harmed to demonstrate what actually happened step by step and what they were thinking at each point. Both of these cases show how important the preparation is in the process.
  • Developing a small number of visual tools for communication — Another practitioner in Canberra, Australia, who has really pushed the boundaries as to what is possible in relation to RP with individuals with special needs is Sian Ziesling-Clarke (2015). Sian, like Rebecca, has also provided a case study in the book that has more specifics about the approach used in a particular incident and has some thoughts about RP and special needs in general. Sian has taken a number of years to identify the minimum number of symbols that are needed to enable meaningful restorative conversations to take place. From this Sian developed the use of restorative visual cards for use in every situation and this led to a whole school uptake of the RP.

Additional issues to consider

Whilst there is not the space within this article to adequately address these, we do think it is pertinent to raise awareness of the need to consider some of these when establishing an inclusive approach to RP. These are namely:

  • Restorative Practice after Physical Restraint — Whilst the topic of physical restraint is by its very nature a controversial one, on occasions it is used and we would argue that the best approach to restore and improve relationships is to use a restorative practice approach to listening and learning following the incident.
  • Working with Families and Staff — The key elements here are around working with parents as partners in the true-meaning of the word; and also recognising the need for additional supports for those staff who are facing regular incidents of violence in their daily work.

We would like to acknowledge the many practitioners we interacted with who were in many ways the inspiration for the writing of the book and who continue to shine the light on how to establish an inclusive approach to RP.

Nick Burnett is the Managing Director of Team-Teach Asia Pacific Pty Ltd.

Margaret Thorsborne i sthe Managing Director, Margaret Thorsborne and Associates (Australia) and Thorsborne and Associates (UK) Contact:


Burnett, N. and Thorsborne, M. (2015). Restorative practice and special needs: a practical guide to working restoratively with young people. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Cameron, L. and Thorsborne, M. (2001). Restorative justice and school discipline: mutually exclusive? In: H. Strang and J. Braithwaite (eds.) Restorative justice and civil society, pp. 180–194. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Greene, R.W. (2016). Lost and found: helping behaviorally challenging students (and, while you’re at it, all the others). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Holland, B. (2012). Inclusive restorative justice: an investigation and exploration. London: Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

Jacobson, R. (2015). Case study 5. In: N. Burnett and M. Thorsborne (eds.) Restorative practice and special needs: a practical guide to working restoratively with young people, pp. 114–116. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Langley, J. (2016). Early years restorative practices: visual script. Northampton: Small World — Big Imaginations Ltd.

Skiba, R.J. and Rausch, M.K. (2006). Zero tolerance, suspension, and expulsion: questions of equity and effectiveness. In: C.M. Evertson and C.S. Weinstein (eds.) Handbook of classroom management: research, practice, and contemporary issues, pp. 1063–1089. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ziesling-Clarke, S. (2015). Case study 1. In: N. Burnett and M. Thorsborne (eds.) Restorative practice and special needs: a practical guide to working restoratively with young people, pp. 101–104. London: Jessica Kingsley.