Restorative Practice and Special Needs: A Practical Guide to Working Restoratively with Young People is a book that brings much needed attention on the topic of restoring harm and repairing relationships in educational and residential settings. I was immediately drawn to the title of this practical and insightful text. I feel strongly that it is a valuable resource for anyone who may have the privilege of working with children and young adults with special needs. Burnett and Thorsborne hit the nail on the head when they state that zero tolerance policies do not work. This guide allows us to understand what can be accomplished when we work restoratively with each other.
In Part one of Restorative Practice and Special Needs, Burnett and Thorsborne provide readers with important background knowledge about Restorative Practice, and an overview of the RP process, letting readers know that this is how RP may look with the general population of children and young adults. This allows readers perspective once they arrive at Part two, which outlines the challenges that can be expected when implementing RP with children and young adults with SN. It then goes on to summarize the implications of each SN discussed, as well as possible adaptations to the RP process, which may increase participation in participants with SN.
Next, the authors introduce eight case studies, which gives the reader specific, well documented examples of how the previously outlined adaptations were used with participants with SN, and the results of these adaptations. I appreciated the honesty within these case studies, as there did not appear to be any attempt to illustrate a perfectly executed RP session. Instead, it leaves the reader with an idea of what challenges they may encounter and how they might expect to address these in their own RP processes.
To complete this valuable guide, Burnett and Thorsborne address the elephant in the room, by acknowledging the vulnerability of teachers and facilitators who work with children with challenging behavioral needs. They discuss the controversial issues of using physical restraint, the complexity associated with working restoratively with the families of children and young adults in need of RP, as well as how to follow through in transforming a community of people with RP and sustain this practice so that it becomes simply the way things are done.
After reading this book, the answer to the pressing question “will it work with children who have special needs?” from my perspective as a special needs educator, is positively confirmed. This, however, was not clear to me until I reached chapter five and beyond. This book certainly gives us some valuable guidelines to follow prior to chapter five. However, the information prior to this was repetitive and vague. Many of the suggested adaptations were unclear and difficult to imagine how it would look in a restorative setting. Many of them were similarly used to adapt restorative practice with a range of widely differing special needs. The generalization and vagueness of the adaptations made it difficult for me to imagine how I would use them in my own teaching and restorative practices. However, as a special needs educator, I also recognize that the characteristics, behaviors and relationships among individuals with a similar diagnosis can be, and often are, very different. This surely creates a very challenging task when recommending adaptations for restorative practice for young people with special needs. In fact, Burnett and Thorsborne explain in chapter four that “this chapter is not meant to be a detailed breakdown of the special needs” and they also disclose that they “fully understand that no one individual presents all of the identified challenges even though they may have a particular diagnosis” (p.63). It is necessary for readers to understand that an educated interpretation of the practices and adaptations outlined in these chapters is necessary. In this regard, I would say that Burnett and Thorsborne have made a commendable attempt to outline the possible challenges and adaptations that may be molded by an experienced educator with a high level of knowledge in restorative practice, and a specific knowledge of the young people with whom they are using RP.
The practicality of this book was much more pronounced after reading the case studies in chapter five. They enlightened me and brought a much greater context to the previous chapters. These case studies were detailed, well documented examples of how restorative practice was used to repair relationship among children and young adults with various and complex special needs; some comorbid with multiple diagnoses. They put many of the previously suggested adaptations into context, discussing specifically how they were used by facilitators to help participants overcome the challenges and limitations of their special needs, and experience success in their ability to receive and express communication for the purpose of restoring harm and repairing relationships. I highly recommend that the authors insert their case studies directly following the discussion and suggested strategies for each specific SN outlined in chapter four, rather than compiling and isolating them in their own designated chapter, distant from the very information that validates them. This will allow the reader much greater clarity as to how the suggested adaptations could look in an actual RP setting.
I was extremely grateful for Part three of this book, which highlights a significant concern for me in my role as a special educator working with children with behavioral challenges. They acknowledge the concern around using physical restraint. It discusses in detail how a well thought out and planned restorative justice practice can eliminate the need for this level of intervention, and how, when it is necessary to use restraint, restorative justice can restore the harm caused and repair the relationship.
The authors of Restorative Practice and Special Needs have highlighted throughout this book that the dedication of time and planning is invaluable when implementing RP and restorative circles. This book also leads me to realize and conclude that, in addition to time and planning, the connections we build with children and young adults, and the level of in depth knowledge around the strengths and needs of these individuals, with or without special needs, is the biggest predictor of the success of restorative practice.
This book is a valuable resource that successfully illustrates how the theory behind restorative practice can be applied in very practical ways, how to protect you as an educator or supporter working with challenging needs, as well as how to work with and support the families of these very complex young people. It is a phenomenal text that I would certainly recommend to special educators and others working with children and young adults with special needs. Restorative Practice and Special Needs will most definitely inform my practice going forward.
Book Cover image: Amazon
Brown, M. A. (2018). Creating restorative schools. St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press
Burnett, Nick & Thorsborne, Margaret. (2015). Restorative Practice and Special Needs: A Practical Guide to Working Restoratively with Young People. London, UK and Philadelphia, USA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.