By Sarah Peeden, Middle School Head, and Dr. John Stegeman, Upper School Head

The pandemic impacted all of us, but if you have read the news in the last two years, you’ve likely come across articles about the acute toll remote learning has taken on students’ social-emotional well-being. For many middle and high school students, critical years for developing pro-social skills were spent at home alone instead of in communal spaces like schools. Even in the best situations, humans need time and practice to build awareness, empathy, and compassion. Eastside Preparatory School has long fostered the development of these social skills in students. Now, though, EPS is building on its twenty-year commitment to social-emotional learning by intentionally and systematically implementing restorative practices across campus.


Born out of the restorative justice movement, restorative practices attempt to build trust, engagement, and empathy in educational settings. It is important to note, though, that there are significant differences between restoration work in the justice system and schools. As authors Smith, Fisher, and Frey write in Better Than Carrots or Sticks (2015), “[w]hereas restorative justice is by its nature reactive, restorative practices also include preventive measures designed to build skills and capacity in students as well as adults” (p. 4). Traditional educational systems reward good deeds and punish bad ones. Unfortunately, this compliance comes at a documented cost. With the support of ample academic research, Smith and team argue that “rewards and consequences are two sides of the same coin: both are attempts to control students’ behavior rather than teach them how to engage in productive learning” (p. 7). On the other hand, restorative practices in schools encourage students to take accountability for their role in ensuring the health of their community.

At Eastside Prep, restorative practices ask students to wrestle with our school’s mission pillars—in particular, thinking critically, acting responsibly, and leading compassionately in an authentic way that teaches them how to live with others. For example, at the beginning of each academic year, EPS students and teachers return to campus and dedicate time to tending to our positive and productive culture of learning and respect. We not only strengthen existing relationships, but we also welcome and integrate the new eagles who have just joined the nest.


Restorative practices include proactive steps to build trust, mutual respect, and responsibility for the well-being of the school community, as well as responsive steps when rules or norms are violated. The 5Rs Framework (developed by ReSolutionaries founder Beverly Title) conceives of community as built upon the principles of relationship, respect, responsibility, repair, and reintegration. A healthy community of learning requires some foundational agreement about how to behave and treat one another.

When individuals fall short of expectations and aspirations (as they inevitably will as human beings and as adolescents), teachers, advisors, and school leaders reference the agreed upon principles, asking students to acknowledge the breach, take responsibility for their actions, and understand the harm caused to others. Responsibility is an important precursor to repair, and while an apology is often a step along the way, we ask students to go further in demonstrating their commitment to do better and contribute to individual and communal relationships. We ask them to change and to illustrate that change with concrete actions. Then we ask all parties involved to reconcile and reestablish the relationships that were strained or damaged. In this “reintegration” phase, it is important to hold the acknowledgement of harm with responsibility while avoiding shame. It is a delicate balancing act that requires mutual trust and goodwill from all parties.


In Middle School, restorative practices take root in Advisory. Through consistent and age-appropriate social and emotional lessons created by counselors and the Office of Student Well-Being, advisory groups explore topics such as developing healthy friendships, cultivating a growth mindset, navigating conflicts, engaging in open and respectful communication, and acting with integrity. At the same time, starting with August conferences, advisors develop strong relationships with their advisees and their families. These relationships are essential for addressing challenging moments in the lives of Middle School students because advisors are often the first to help.

When a student hurts another student, both students and their advisors play active roles. Often, especially in social conflicts, there is harm on all sides, and the advisors are there to listen and support the students in repairing their peer relationships. For example, in one-on-one meetings or group discussions with other adults like Mr. Hagen, a counselor, or myself, a student and their advisor might talk through what happened, what role the student played in the event, the natural consequences of the event, and who was impacted.

Depending upon the situation, a student’s parents/guardians may join the conversation, as restorative actions thrive when there is a partnership between home and school. Once the student has articulated these baselines with the help of the adults in the room, she will begin the work of repair. To repair, the student might start by apologizing, cleaning up a mess, or engaging in mediated conversations with peers. Often, though, the long work of repair means navigating the natural consequences of their actions and making visible changes to behavior to restore trusting relationships. Along the way, adults within the community are there for support and encouragement.


While Advisory is an important center of community and relationship building in the Upper School, we have recently expanded the scope of our restorative work to include grade-level and division-wide programming. In the 2022-2023 school year, Counselor Sam Foote, whose educational background includes a master’s degree in Community Centered Integrative Practice, gave a presentation that taught developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory to the entire Upper School. Counselor Foote helped students see that they, as individuals, are nested within networks of relationship that include family, peers, and the school at one level, extending outward to more distant relations with neighbors, mass media, and ultimately the broader attitudes and ideologies that we call culture. Later in the year, Counselor Foote followed up with grade-level presentations that focused on shame as a barrier to restoration and healing that must be overcome.

By laying this groundwork, Ms. Sayles (Assistant Head of Upper School) and I have begun to work with students to mitigate and resolve conflicts that arise during the school year on a deeper and more meaningful level. It has led to reconsidering the importance or superfluity of some rules and norms and revise the way they are discussed with students. For example, conversations about academic integrity go beyond the definition of plagiarism established in the Code of Conduct to the relationship of trust that exists between teacher and student. And interpersonal conflict between students on social media exists not only as a quarrel between classmates, but simultaneously as an engagement with mass media and national culture (what Bronfenbrenner calls the exosystem and macrosystem). Meanwhile, a restorative approach to student misbehavior does not mean that consequences fall away. A student may still receive zero credit for a plagiarized paper and cyberbullying may still result in suspension. But students are better able to recognize those as natural consequences of their actions rather than as a punishment meted out in retribution.

Restorative practices require consistency, shared understanding, and mutual agreement for effective implementation. This is hard work and a long-term project. It often involves shifting an individual’s mindset and reinforcing our school culture from retribution—“I was hurt/this rule was broken—they should be punished”—to one that more deeply considers and understands the nature and value of the rule as something that supports relationship and community. It requires a willingness to see the other person, sometimes while still feeling the hurt they caused, as a partner in the communal experience of life and extending grace and forgiveness. As we ask students to consider how they might make the world a better place, restorative practices make a beginning right here at Eastside Prep.