Restorative Classroom Management

By Phillip Taylor, SEL in Action Community

This conversation is part of a series led by SEL in Action awardees from across the country. SEL in Action community gatherings invite educators to exchange promising social and emotional learning (SEL) practices, co-create solutions to challenges, and tap into a network of peers for support. This summary reflects key themes and takeaways from our conversation on March 3, 2020.


Educators have told us, “I am interested in classroom management options that are not punitive,” and “I have more students than ever before and I feel so stretched that I’m snapping more.” These are just a couple of the lenses educators bring to restorative practices (RP) as a topic of interest.

Phillip Taylor

Through his own classroom practice and the process of coaching other teachers, SEL in Action awardee Phillip Taylor, a teacher and dean at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, has gleaned a few tips for creating a restorative classroom without compromising control. We are grateful to Phillip for sharing his expertise and facilitating this conversation on restorative classroom management.

Using Affect As an Intervention

Phillip began by encouraging participants to consider the affect, tonality, and energy they bring to their interactions with students, especially challenging and tense interactions. When engaging a student about problematic behavior, consider the different effects of the following:

  • Voice: Is your tone of voice sweet or intense?
  • Pacing: As you engage, does your speech slow down or speed up?
  • Volume: Do you lower or raise your voice? Is your volume soft or loud?
  • Phrasing: What is the language you use? Is it compassionate, neutral, or critical?
  • Body Language: Do you lean in or over a student, or does your body language suggest openness?
  • Facial Expressions: Is there tension and frustration in your face or an openness?

“We want to be aware of our affect as an intervention tool. Even if a kid is coming at us in a pretty intense way, we have the ability to intervene on that intense energy with a tonality that is responsive and that deescalates versus escalates the situation,” shared Phillip. Daniel Jerome, an educator in New York, spoke to this as a responsibility to control the temperature (think barometer), and not just take the temperature (think thermometer).

We’re all human and no-one is perfect at keeping their cool. This takes a lot of practice. The important point is to be mindful of our affect. Research suggests that teacher tone and emotional reaction to a student can have a greater effect on students’ perception of “getting in trouble” than the actual discipline outcome. In summary, “playing with tonality is an important tool to stay in the ‘restorative’ zone,” says Phillip.

Breaking Down A Few Strategies

Make a Routine of Checking-In

This one is a proactive strategy. The importance (and utility) of building relationships with students cannot be overstated. Simply put, teachers get more engagement and compliance from students when a caring relationship is in place. 

Make a routine of checking in with students. Get to know the kids. Notice the details and make connections. What sports teams do they like? Did they get a new haircut or new shoes? Building those positive connections is especially important for students whose interactions with adults are frequently negative. Create a classroom environment where every student, especially those who are used to being corrected, feel they are known and valued. 

Time is always a challenge and it can be hard to connect with every student when you work with 100+ students each day. Find a routine that works for you, and embed it into the everyday. (Check out this idea from high school teacher Kristin Van Brunt.)

One participant noted that he’s finding it harder to connect with students as he gets older. It simply takes more energy now to learn about the newest apps, fashions, and entertainers. As he said though, this knowledge of students’ interests “is a kind of literacy” that is essential for anyone working with kids.

Check-in and Redirect

This builds on the former strategy and goes like this:

  1. Approach, being mindful of tone.
  2. Check-in.
  3. Build rapport.
  4. Re-direct (short & sweet).
  5. Walk away (quickly, no time for rebuttal).

Phillip shared this scenario. Say a couple students are chatting and not doing what they should be doing; they’re not listening and not on task. “I approach. Rather than do a redirection, I start with a check-in. If I’ve made a habit of check-ins, it’s not weird at all. It’s normal.” This allows one to ease into redirection with a calm approach, and builds on the foundation of the relationships already established in the classroom.

It sounds easy to do, but for many this practice does not come naturally. There’s a flow to this that can be challenging, in particular for new teachers. Deconstructing this strategy into steps counters the notion that some teachers have the innate ability to redirect without confrontation, and others “just don’t have it.” Rather, any educator can learn this with practice.

Remove with Respect

The idea that discipline has to be tough in order to be impactful is a misconception. Phillip’s own research indicates that students are more likely to accept discipline and consider it to be reasonable when it is framed with calmness and positivity. He suggests:

  1. Stay calm, stay positive.
  2. Be firm about your rules/boundaries. 
    1. Explain what you are doing and why. Don’t debate.
    2. Clarify and speak in matter-of-fact terms. Don’t equivocate. 
  3. Apologize that things aren’t “working out.” 
  4. Walk away (let them have the last word).

Carmen Zeisler, an education consultant working in Kansas, noted this: “As adults, we have to take a minute, even if it’s just to take a breath. It’s been said that a dysregulated adult can’t help a dysregulated kid,… and a power struggle doesn’t do anyone any good.” Another participant, Mafor Mambo Tse, shared that, when she has to remove a student, she always circles back and meets with them in the principal’s office to discuss the occurrence in a calm and caring way.

To the extent possible (and remember, we’re all human), the outcomes will be better if one can stay calm, be kind and matter-of-fact about the situation, express regret that things aren’t “working out,” and close with positivity about starting again the next day.

Follow Up

Follow-up is an opportunity to reset the affect. It may also be an opportunity to reiterate one’s expectations and rules, but only after first resetting the dynamic. Bring a positive affect. Give space and wait until things are “reset” to revisit the issue. Check-in first and build rapport, then follow up.

Approach the returning student with a positive affect and tone, leaving behind any tension and anger from a previous day. Daniel shared, “When we remove a kid from class, we’ve created a wall… and this might be a child who already feels there are a lot of walls in his way. So now we have to create a bridge to help the student come back him. In that moment, helping him get back in, knowing that he’s loved and invited, is more important than making sure he’s internalized any rules or expectations.

Give some space as the student re-enters. Don’t talk about yesterday. Talk about something else first and check-in. What’s new with their favorite video-game or sports team? Reset the dynamic, and clear the path to begin again.

Where To Go From Here?

It’s our hope that these conversation highlights are helpful to those of you trying to apply restorative practices in the classroom. As educator Latosha Moore commented, “This has been affirming… When it comes to restoring the classroom, it’s important for students to know that school is a safe haven even if they’re having a hard day; the teacher is on their team to help them get through the day.” It is possible to create a caring and supportive learning environment without compromising control.

Biggest thanks to Phillip Taylor for sharing these strategies and his invaluable experience with us all. Thanks to all who joined the conversation.