Indian Trail students in restorative ciricle

Indian Trail using restorative circles to help improve school climate


It’s hard to relate with someone if you don’t know what they are going through. That is an obstacle Indian Trail Intermediate School students and teachers are working to overcome with the implementation of restorative circles.

Restorative circles allow students to gather in a physical circle to share their concerns or gain support. They are held almost weekly at Indian Trial during home base and are a practical forum for the resolution of underlying feelings.

Indian Trail teachers Randa Wilson, Heidi Kane and Robyn Ivester explored restorative practices over the summer at the request of Indian Trail principal Dr. James Jacobs. Their focus was to help combat discipline problems at the school and foster a welcoming event for everyone.

“Our main goal of the circle is to have students build relationships with one another,” Ivester said. “We want them to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of unity, because now-a-days, so many of our students don’t get that feeling from anywhere else.”

About 80 percent of the circles are proactive and work on relationship building to help improve the school climate. The other 20 percent of the circles are reactive circles that are held when someone is wronged.

“Those circles are not a substitution for consequences, but allow students to talk out their problems and solve some of their problems on their own,” Ivester said.

Discipline referrals at Indian Trail have dropped 17 percent over the first twenty-seven weeks since the implementation of the restorative circles. Administrators believe it is because the students feel more comfortable talking about their problems, rather than lashing out.

“When you open up and show that vulnerability too, all of a sudden you become a human in their eyes and you’re not just this kid who sits next to me in math and drives me crazy,” Kane said. “You are somebody who has real feelings and real issues. You become somebody that can be related too and if you don’t understand where someone else has been. It’s very hard to be patient with them or kind to them.”

Dr. Jacobs said the implementation of the restorative circles has greatly helped improve the climate of the school.

“At ITIS we set three main goals for this year based off our school climate survey. Those included academic rigor and challenges, school connectedness and bullying behavior,” Jacobs said. “The implementation of the restorative circles has helped us meet two of those three goals.”

Jacobs noted that all three goals are interdependent, because if a student is dealing with bullying or other students are being disruptive, then they don’t feel connected to the school and are unable to take advantage of the academic rigor.

“Based on survey data we received for this year, there has been a significant improvement. Students now say they have someone that listens to them and they have people to talk to at school,” Jacobs said. “Restorative circles help to empower students in addressing behaviors they see from classmates.”

Things discussed in the circles include character traits, life skills, certain events at school that need to be addressed and teachers are also able to address student concerns.

Wilson said that the circles have also been beneficial to teachers, because it helps teachers and students connect better when they have an open floor to speak about things.

“As teachers, I’ve learned a lot through circles,” Wilson said. “Students are starting to gain more empathy and realize that they can relate to their peers more than they thought they could, because they are learning things about their peers.”

Indian Trail 6th-grader Cadence Campbell said that she has seen friendships blossom from discussions during circles.

“Circles help me get things out,” Campbell said. “In circles, you feel safe and it is someone other than a counselor that you can tell things. It’s something to look forward to every week.”

Indian Trail 6th-grader Nate Powell agreed.

“I’ve enjoyed getting to know my classmates and teachers better,” Powell said “Since I know some of their background, I feel like I can trust them more. Circles are a way to help trust grow.”

A few important norms were defined by the students before the circles were started, which included that the circles be a safe space to share feelings, students sharing in the circle must be completely honest and whatever is said in the circle must stay in the circle.

Ivester, Kane and Wilson, along with the rest of the Indian Trail staff, will spend the summer learning new ideas and building on the foundation the restorative circles have created. Kane said that helping students manage their emotional issues is just as important as making sure they are mastering academics.

“We all know that our job here, on the academic level, is to teach our students content and have them master that to prepare for their next grade,” Kane said. “But, it’s just as important, to me, that they’re developing into a person of good character. If we don’t take the time to understand, learn and empathize, we are expecting a child to come in and focus on math or language arts and that might be the last thing on their mind if they have experienced trauma in the home.”