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The Philosophy

At its core, restorative justice defines justice as honouring the inherent worth of all human beings regardless of who they are or what they do. It accepts that people are relational beings whose well-being is nurtured or diminished through our interconnectedness (Pranis, 2007; Vaandering, 2011).  Community is a vital part of our individual lives. To that end, restorative justice serves to not only promote healing of harm or brokenness within relationships, but believes we need to work proactively in nurturing the inherent self worth of the individual within that relational sphere – no one can be authentically human while preventing others from being so (Friere, 2000).

These are the seeds that we all need to grow in a healthy and balanced way within society, whether that be within families, within communities, within the justice system or within the education system.  This requires that we become aware of the lenses we wear as we live/look at life. We are encouraged to be individualistic, seeking what is best for us. Restorative justice asks that we wear lenses that see our worth and interconnectedness. A practical way to examine if we are truly accepting and supportive of each other is to filter our actions through a set of 3 questions:

          Am I honouring? 

          Am I measuring?

          What message am I sending?

After engaging with people in any situation, I can ask myself if I honoured (supported, encouraged, challenged respectfully, listened, etc.)  them as I interacted, if I measured (judged, ignored, used, assumed, dominated, etc.) them, and putting myself in their shoes, what message from me did they leave with after our time together. Restorative justice requires that we focus on relationships before rules and behavior, on people before policies, on honouring before measuring, on well-being before success.  A stance where we turn from judgement  to a sense of wonder allows education to be proactive, rather than reactive  with  pedagogy  rooted in respect, concern, and dignity in relationships.

Harm will occur.  When it does, it is important to remember that the well-being of the people has been affected. Thus, a space needs to be provided where dialogue can occur in a safe place that respects the dignity of the individuals and the relationships affected. This is done by supporting all involved as they recognize, and then work to repair and rebuild relationships in a non-blaming atmosphere to the point where each can once again become fully contributing members of their communities. In so doing we  ask different questions:

  • Not, “what rules were broken?” but “who has been hurt?”

  • Not, “who did it?” but “what are the needs?”

  • Not, “what do they deserve?” but “what needs to be done for the harm to be repaired?” (Zehr, 1997)

The History

Restorative justice originates from spiritual and indigenous traditions that identify justice holistically as promoting the worth, well-being, and interconnectedness of all people. This Relationships First perspective is primarily about living justly, proactively creating and nurturing healthy relational communities where people commit to interacting in a manner that upholds the dignity of all (Vaandering, 2011).

In traditional indigenous cultures around the world – from Africa to New Zealand to North America – restorative justice was and continues to be  a customary approach for addressing community issues. The contemporary Western expression of restorative justice began in judicial contexts in the 1970s in Elmira, Ontario as well as in Akron, Pennsylvania, communities with large Mennonite populations. These efforts were attempts to apply faith and peace perspectives to criminal justice. However, this modern incarnation of Restorative Justice owes, as Zehr (2015) says, “a special debt to the Native people of North America and New Zealand” (p. 11)

In the late 1990’s restorative justice was introduced to schools where its relational foundation became evident. In these contexts, restorative justice expanded from primarily being a means for addressing harm to explicitly nurturing, maintaining and repairing relationships. As such, a shift from being rule-based to relationship-based is encouraged.

The Theory

Restorative justice has been practiced across many disciplines of criminology, social work, education, counseling and more. This proliferation of practices continues to grow at a much faster rate than theoretical concepts can be developed (Baithwaite, 2006; Vaandering, 2011).

With that in mind, restorative justice had its roots in the justice system where theorists such as Zehr (2005) and McCold & Wachtel (2003) believed in the theoretical perspective that a system of individualistic punishment produced a short-sighted justice system that only served to propagate violence and retribution.


On the other hand, restorative justice is grounded in relational theory rather than individualistic theory, which encourages transformative peacebuilding with engagement and connection that upholds respect concern, dignity and well being for all (Llewellyn, 2012). In the practice of restorative justice, this requires a movement from a traditional to a living systems model, where teaching and learning emphasizes the relational aspects of the world so that a space is prepared for  times when harm occurs so that those involved can work to bring about restoration and healing(Mitchell & Sackney, 2009). Further, justice in this context is understood holistically to include more than fairness. It encompasses the need to determine what it means to be human so that when harm occurs, people are not objectified or measured by their actions but accepted as worthy and honoured in the process of addressing the concerns (Vaandering, 2011).

To that end, restorative justice was adopted in many forms within the education system in efforts to eliminate a punitive regulatory framework of exclusionary practices and zero tolerance policies and replace these with a relational and transformative framework within the pedagogy, curriculum and classroom experience of educational systems (IIRP, 2003; Morrison, 2007; Riestenberg, 2011; White, 2014).

Fig. 1 (Vaandering 2014)

There are many theoretical concepts that are moving forward in efforts to broaden the collective and social-structural circumstances in which restorative justice is implemented. This will include nurturing people’s knowledge of themselves and their practices; nurturing schools’ commitments to collaborative cultures and shared understanding; and nurturing schools in how they network, share knowledge and encourage leadership, all within their administrative framework (Mitchell & Sackney, 2013). This growth also encompasses a broad continuum of practices, from reactive to proactive, that address the interconnectedness of people within schools (Morrison, 2007; Morrison and Vaandering, 2012). 

Fig. 2: Relationship Triangle (Vaandering, 2014) adapted from Morrison [2007] and Hopkins [2011].

The RJ Relationship Triangle also shows a progression of restorative justice implementation within a “whole school” paradigm that starts with treating people as humans and outlines steps in making, maintaining and restoring relationships (Morrison, 2007; Hopkins, 2011; Vaandering, 2011). 

Fig. 3: Relationship Window (Vaandering, 2014)

While implementing restorative justice within the school system, the social relationship window (adopted from the social discipline Window of McCold & Wachtel, 2003) exerts that treating people with respect and dignity (as human beings) requires high and balanced levels of support and expectations and the less this occurs, the more people are treated like objects where they are measured in a punitive regulatory system (Vaandering, 2013). 

Fig. 4: Relationship Ripples in Education (Vaandering, 2014)

Building on circles as a central part of restorative justice, from the Relationships First project’s look at core values a picture of concentric circles developed illustrating the implementation of restorative justice within the education system. The centre of these circles starts with accepting all people as worthy and interconnected first within the self, then between the self and adults, then between self and students, then among students, then with curriculum and pedagogy, and finally within institutions (Vaandering, 2014). 

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