Time to Think: Using Restorative Questions
When challenging behavior:
- What happened?
- What were you thinking of at the time?
- What have you thought about since?
- Who has been affected by what you have done?
- In what way have they been affected?
- What do you think you need to do to make things right?
To help those affected:
- What did you think when you realized what had happened?
- What impact has this incident had on you and others?
- What has been the hardest thing for you?
- What do you think needs to happen to make things right?
Restorative questions are a tool used to process an incident of wrongdoing or conflict. When a situation has occurred, the person(s) who has created the conflict takes some time and answers questions such as the following: What happened? What were you thinking about at the time of the incident? What are your thoughts now? Who was impacted by your actions, and how? How will you repair the harm? The questions focus on the incident, and allow the person to think about how his/her actions affected others. It encourages empathy, accountability, expression of feelings and thoughts, and problem solving. Restorative questions are also answered by those who were impacted by the incident, to help them process their feelings and determine what they need to make things right.
As a teacher, I have used restorative questions with my students and find them to be a powerful tool. However, I frequently catch myself putting more focus on the person who created the conflict, and having them use the restorative questions to reflect on the situation. With those who have been impacted, I tend to talk with them about the event, rather than give them the restorative questions to answer. While my reasoning was mainly about time management (and a bit of laziness), not allowing my students the time to reflect on those questions robs them of an opportunity to develop self-identification of their emotions and needs. Due to a recent situation, I have experienced firsthand the benefits of reflection using restorative questions, and truly recognize their importance to all parties involved in an act of harm.
About two months ago, I had a situation where a young man was making inappropriate comments in my class. Despite my repeated attempts to work with him, “John” refused to rectify the situation and became too angry to focus on his assignment. I finally asked him to leave my classroom, which enraged him. As I stood by the door to my classroom, John stormed out in a rage. In doing so, he slammed my door as hard as he could. In an instant, I felt intense fear and shock. This confused me, and over the next few hours, I had a difficult time sorting through my emotions. I could not comprehend why I was having such a strong reaction to his aggressive behavior. This was not the first time I have been in a conflict with an angry adolescent, but this seemed different and I could not figure out why that was the case.
Later that afternoon, I attempted to reflect on the day’s events, but struggled to do so, as I still could not sort my feelings. It eventually dawned on me to use the restorative questions as a starting point. For some reason, I used the questions that are typically reserved for the wrongdoer, but the questions still seemed to suit my needs. I started with the question “what happened?” then worked my way through “what was I thinking during the incident” and “what were my thoughts now?” Those few questions fueled a huge response from me, helping me spot that the student’s actions brought up emotions connected to incidents from my past – events that I had never really dealt with before now. Once I discovered the connection, it was much easier for me to recognize my feelings. From there I was able to identify my needs in this situation.
When I finally sat down with John, he had already completed a lot of reflection work and was ready to meet with me. He explained the struggle he had that morning, prior to class, in dealing with a personal situation. John told me that he took his anger out on me, and that he should not have done so. He shared with me his plan to make sure that this never happened again, and apologized for his actions. He then asked me what I was feeling at the time of the incident. It surprised me how comfortable I felt to share with him my emotions – those of fear and shock, and how his actions brought to the surface feelings I experienced from a past incident. I did not share any personal details with him, but the mere acknowledgment of the connections between my past and this event seemed to get his attention. He first looked surprised, then compassionate. I was taken aback at how intently he listened to me, and I felt validated without his even needing to say a word. When I was finished, he related a similar struggle he had in his past, and the connection between us was made. By the end of our meeting, I felt heard, and confident that this situation was behind us.
I realize how valuable restorative questions are, not only those who have committed an act of wrongdoing but also those who were affected by the act. The time spent processing what had happened to me was time well spent. It was a strong reminder for me that shortchanging the process for my students can affect some of what restorative practices attempts to achieve: involvement of all parties; self-awareness; and the potential connections that can occur through recognition and acknowledgment of others’ feelings and needs. Lesson learned.
Samantha White is a technology teacher for CSF Buxmont Academy and a lecturer for International Institute for Restorative Practices. She can be contacted at shwhite (at) iirp.edu.
Restorative questions cards can be purchased here.
To read more about the restorative questions in the context of the definitional framework of restorative practices, read “Defining Restorative” by Ted Wachtel.