The traditional approach to school discipline asks three questions in response to wrongdoing:
Who’s to blame?and
What do they deserve?
This traditional approach, borrowed largely from the criminal justice system, leaves those who have been most affected by the wrongful behaviour without a voice, and without their needs being addressed as part of the ‘solution.’ It also doesn't effectively challenge the wrongdoer to be accountable to those he has harmed.
The Restorative Approach to School Discipline
The Restorative approach, on the other hand, starts from a different set of questions:
Who’s been harmed? and
What needs to happen to repair some of that harm?
In this approach to dealing with wrongdoing, then, the focus is on the harm that has been done and the obligation this brings on the part of those responsible to ‘right the wrong’ as much as possible. It’s an approach that seeks to develop in the wrongdoer an understanding of the breadth and depth of the harm their behaviour has caused to others so that they can best try to make amends to those most affected. In this way, it’s an educative approach.
It also ensures that those who have been most affected by the wrongdoing have the opportunity to be involved in working out what has to happen in order to move forward.
Put simply, Restorative Practices (RP) is a way of viewing relationship-building and behaviour management in schools that works to strengthen community among students and between students, teachers and parents, through educative processes.
In the RP philosophy, conflict or wrongdoing is seen as causing harm to people and relationships, and there is an obligation first to repair this harm in order for the people involved to move forward. It is a way of educating students towards self-regulated right behaviour that is respectful of all concerned. In particular, it puts the onus back on the wrongdoer to be truly accountable for their behaviour and to repair any harm caused to others.
If you are completely new to the RP field - "Restorative Practices 101" would probably be the following article:
Wachtel, T., & McCold, P. (2001).[pdf] Restorative justice in everyday life: Beyond the formal ritual. In H. Strang & J. Braithwaite (Eds.), Restorative justice and civil society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available in pdf version here.
A recently-published book from the IIRP also gives a great introduction to the field:
The Restorative Practices Handbook: for Teachers, Disciplinarians and Administrators, Costello, B., Wachtel, J. & Wachtel, T. International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) Bethlehem Pa. 2009. Available from theIIRP here.