Belinda Hopkins on the healing power of Restorative Justice

Belinda Hopkins is the author of Just Care: Restorative Justice Approaches to Working with Children in Public Care, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. She is also a Director and Lead Trainer of Transforming Conflict, a centre for restorative justice in education.

How did you first become interested in Restorative Justice?

In some ways I have always been interested in a restorative approach when working with young people – although in the early days I would not have used the phrase ‘Restorative Justice’ or ‘restorative approaches’.

My first experience of teaching, in the field of English as a foreign language, radicalised me in terms of thinking of my students as autonomous, self-directing partners in their learning. Having subsequently trained as a modern language teacher, I found the authoritarian regime of school difficult to accept. I was inspired by Reimer (1971), Postman and Weingartner (1971), Holt (1966) and Freire (1982), who questioned the role of adults vis-à-vis children and the issue of children’s rights and responsibilities. I also read about non-violence and conflict resolution in schools (Isaacson and Lamont 1982; Judson 1982).

My teaching style was informed by a desire to create a democratic classroom, and I often used a format which is now called classroom conferencing (Thorsborne and Vinegrad 2004) – resolving differences and problems by sitting in a circle, actively listening to each other and finding ways forward together. I based much of my modern languages teaching around the social goal of creating community and trust in the group, using game-like activities to develop self-esteem, communication skills and cooperation, albeit in French and Spanish. Eventually, in 1994, I left the teaching profession to become a freelance trainer and consultant in the field of conflict management and mediation. In 1997 Terry O’Connell, a police officer pioneering Restorative Justice in New South Wales was invited over to the UK by the then Chief Constable of the Thames Valley Police Force, Sir Charles Pollard to talk about his work with young offenders to youth justice professionals and educationalists. Hearing O’Connell speak I saw the relationship between work I had been doing in schools for many years and the potential of restorative justice philosophy to provide an overarching framework for this work. After O’Connell’s visit I was invited to be involved with the Thames Valley Police to develop work in schools, and I began to write about the connections between restorative philosophy, conflict management, mediation and circle time, urging people to consider restorative justice more as a whole-school approach than a discrete intervention (Hopkins 1999a; 1999c; 2002b; 2003a). These ideas all came together when I wrote my first book on the whole school restorative approach – indeed THE first book ever to be written on the subject- Just Schools (JKP 2004). (this section is an extract from an article that can be found here and was adapted for my doctoral thesis)

What do Restorative Approaches have to offer that the more traditional routes of blame and punishment don’t?

Traditionally, in families, schools and in the criminal justice system there has been a response to wrongdoing that could crudely be described as ‘name, blame, shame and punish’. In other words if someone does something wrong then they must be punished for it. If there is no punishment then the miscreant has ‘got away with it’. Certain key questions inform the mindset of those with the power in such settings:

     • What happened?
     • Who is to blame?
     • What is the appropriate response to deter and possibly punish those at fault, so they will not do the same thing again?

The first question – What happened? – is based on the belief that something factual happened, some essential ‘truth’ and that this can be discovered by interviewing or even interrogating whoever was involved or whoever witnessed the event. Words such as ‘interview’, ‘interrogate’ and ‘witness’ give away the origin of this approach – the criminal justice domain requiring people to be detectives! In this approach discrepancies are viewed as suspect, inconsistencies considered proof of dishonesty and written testimonies acquire the status of evidence, often with priority given to those statements given by those with more age, rank or status.

The second question – Who is to blame? –  is informed by the belief that when something bad has happened there must be a culprit or culprits. ‘Dealing with the situation’ comprises first identifying this guilty person or people and laying the blame for what happened at their feet. The third question –what sanction will deter and punish? – is based on the belief that accountability comprises being punished, and that punishment will deter both the miscreant and others from repeating the wrongdoing. This latter belief is held on to despite evidence to the contrary. Sanctions and the threat of sanctions are rarely sufficient to deter further wrongdoing – a fact about which much more will be said.

Restorative practitioners bring a different set of questions to bear on any situation of conflict or wrongdoing.

     • What’s happened?
     • Who has been affected or harmed?
     • How can everyone who has been affected be involved in repairing the harm and finding a way forward?

The first question – What’s happened? – looks deceptively similar to the first, traditional, question. However its intention is very different. When a restorative practitioner asks a person to explain what happened they appreciate that this is only one person’s perspective, and that they will get a different answer from everyone they ask – and that this is inevitable, normal and interesting. They appreciate that there is no ‘one truth’ about an event, but many truths – and it is the discrepancies in perception about an event that may have given rise to the problem in the first place. Thus a key quality of a restorative practitioner is curiosity, and they like to encourage that curiosity amongst everyone they interact with.

The second question – Who has been affected or harmed? – recognises that when something has gone wrong people will have been affected or even harmed (as in – distressed, hurt, upset, angered) and that whatever else happens there will be the need for some kind of repair. Many working and domestic environments remain unpleasant because conflicts have not been resolved and relationships that have been damaged are left in tatters. Curiously people’s needs are very similar whether they have been personally harmed by conflict or wrongdoing or whether they themselves have been responsible for causing harm (either inadvertently or on purpose.)

The third question – How can everyone who has been affected be involved in repairing the harm and finding a way forward? – contains the key to what is different and radical about a restorative approach . It comprises two challenging paradigm shifts for some people – letting go the need for sanctions and letting go the need to be in control and impose solutions.

Many people equate justice having been done with the administering of a punishment, and in schools and residential child care contexts a similar expectation prevails, or is believed to prevail. The logic is that if somebody does a bad thing then a bad thing needs to be done to them. In a sense this is the ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ philosophy, but of course this lesson taught to children by adults can lead to behaviours in youth settings and in the community that mimic this approach, which is based on revenge. A restorative approach, coupled with interpersonal conflict resolution training, can offer an alternative that may influence the way young people deal with conflicts in later life.

A restorative response, with its focus not on blame, punishment and alienation but on repair and re-connection, encourages a wrongdoer to take responsibility for the harm they have caused, and gives them an opportunity to repair the harm. Empathy is developed, accountability is encouraged and the outcome can help both wronged and wrongdoer feel better about themselves and the other person. (this section is adapted from Chapter 2 of Just Care)

Why are Restorative Justice Approaches particularly pertinent to residential child care?

Statistics show that young people in Residential Child Care are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice arena (DfES 2006; NACRO 2003a; NACRO 2003b). This situation has arisen not necessarily because children in care are more likely to offend but because the disruptive behaviours of the children have resulted in a call from staff to the police, often followed by an arrest and a caution or final warning (NACRO 2003a). Probably neither the staff concerned , nor the police involved, would wish for such an outcome. However, without training in alternative strategies staff often turn to the police in desperation, whilst the police themselves, because of crime recording protocols and targets, feel obliged to deal with the incident as a crime. Using a restorative approach instead can divert children in care from the criminal justice system by ensuring that the incident is dealt with by staff in such a way that both wrongdoer and those affected reach a mutually agreed way forward without recourse to the police (Willmott 2007).

However whilst restorative justice in its formal sense can and does make a contribution in care settings, it is in its less formal aspects, described as ‘restorative approaches’, that it can have most impact and address many of the issues and challenges currently facing the residential child care sector. In residential care settings staff who were initially trained in the restorative conferencing model swiftly discovered that the more formal process was less useful than they had first hoped because most of the incidents they needed to address flared up quickly and needed immediate attention. More often than not there was no clear-cut case of ‘offender’ and ‘victim’ but simply two people in conflict, each blaming the other. They therefore began to request training in a range of less formal processes which were nevertheless informed by the philosophy of restorative justice. Their experiences using these processes has gradually led to a realisation that the approach required a cultural shift in the way staff and young people interact on a day to day basis and that the benefits of using such an approach could go far beyond the narrow remit of reducing potentially offending behaviour.

One particular concept that is gaining ground in residential settings is that of ‘social pedagogy’ and it is be argued that day to day restorative practice provides a framework for care staff to operationalise socially pedagogic principles, especially in challenging situations. (This section is adapted from Chapter 1 of Just Care)

Could you tell us a little about your organisation Transforming Conflict?

I founded Transforming Conflict in 1994 for the reasons I explained earlier. In the early days I was the only trainer and consultant, but over time I have built up a superb team with backgrounds in education, social work, youth offending teams, and residential care who share the training with me. Having developed a reputation for being one of the lead training organisations in the UK we are now also known as the National Centre for Restorative Approaches in Youth Settings. We offer training, consultancy and support in a variety of youth settings for people seeking to enhance their skills in building a sense of community, fostering a spirit of inclusion and dealing creatively with challenging situations. Our work is underpinned by the philosophy of Restorative Justice, which stresses the importance of relationships above rules and the value of dialogue in healing the damage done to relationships by inappropriate behavior.

We have experience of running courses for teaching staff, learning support staff, lunchtime controllers, parents and students, educational psychologists, pupil support teams, residential care staff, senior management teams, governors, social workers, police officers, youth justice and other local authority personnel. We work in primary, secondary and EBD and PRU school settings and run both public and bespoke in-house courses.

In recent months there has been increasing interest in developing joined –up approaches across all multi-agency teams in a single local authority and we are at the forefront of these developments working with teams to look at how they can integrate restorative ways of working not only with their client groups but also amongst their own teams.

What are you currently reading?

I am beginning the research for my new book about restorative classrooms – exploring the links between pedagogy and classroom management so I’m afraid my current reading is all work-based.

I am very excited by my friend and colleague Richard Hendry’s new book, Building and Restoring Respectful Relationships in Schools, and also by an amazing book called Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen et al. which really turns the whole notion of manipulating children’s behaviour using rewards and punishments on its head. However I do plan to take a break at the end of August and looking forward to reading something totally escapist like The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

Books related to this blog post

Just Care

Just Care

Restorative Justice Approaches to Working with Children in Public Care

Belinda Hopkins

Just Schools

Just Schools

A Whole School Approach to Restorative Justice

Belinda Hopkins


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