Restorative Practices in Schools Promote Health Protective Factors for Girls of Color
By Thalia González & Rebecca Epstein | June 2, 2021
Thalia González is a senior scholar and Rebecca Epstein is the executive director at the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.
Remote learning and social distancing protocols during the pandemic have weakened students’ connections to their peers and teachers, depleted school climates, and strained their mental health. These factors put students at greater risk for poor academic and health outcomes. This risk is particularly acute for girls of color who, as research has shown, are at higher risk for disconnection, disengagement, and pushout from school as well as entry into the juvenile justice system.
As schools continue to reopen and educators reimagine what safe, healthy, and supportive learning environments look like, there is a critical need to increase access to practices that build school and peer connectedness, promote positive school climates, and center students’ health and wellbeing, especially for girls of color.
Empowering girls of color and supporting their educational success is not simply an issue of educational equity. It is a matter of health justice.
Empowering girls of color and supporting their educational success is not simply an issue of educational equity. It is a matter of health justice. Countless studies have shown the significance of education as a key social determinant of health. It serves as a strong predictor of chronic disease, social and economic instability, incarceration, and even life expectancy. For example, by age 25, individuals with a high school degree can expect to live 11 to 15 years longer than those without one. Despite such evidence, school-based restorative practices are not understood as public health priorities.
New Evidence on Restorative Practices
Our newest research, published by the Initiative on Gender Justice & Opportunity at Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, aims to change this view. We conducted a two-year study with girls of color in middle and high schools across the United States to examine the outcomes of their participation in non-disciplinary restorative circles – that is, interventions focused on proactively building a supportive school community, rather than responding to incidents and behaviors that have caused harm. Our analysis found associations between non-disciplinary restorative practices and protective health factors that increased girls’ capacities for engagement in school, academic success, and overall emotional wellbeing.
Specifically, data showed that engagement in proactive restorative practices resulted in positive outcomes for girls of color in the following categories:
- School connectedness
- Peer relationships
- Connections to family
- Sense of safety and positive school climate
- Social and emotional literacy skills
- Mental health, resilience, and empowerment
Across different geographic locations, girls discussed the effect of restorative practices in similar ways. For example, restorative practices humanized their teachers, shifting perceptions of them as unrelatable authority figures into approachable individuals. As one girl explained, “[I]f I know that [my teacher] is going through that . . . I know that I’m able to ask for advice.” The relationships girls built with their teachers not only reinforced their connection to school, but decreased their own sense of isolation: “Seeing [my teacher] cry, like, it, it, like, it touched my heart ’cause it’s, like, ‘She’s scared, too. We’re all scared.’ So, everybody in that room . . . the look on their faces . . . they were all scared. So, I felt like I wasn’t the only one there.”
In addition to strengthened relationships with teachers, we found that restorative practices were key to developing social cohesion and feelings of safety among peers: “You walk in a room full of strangers. And you leave out that room with … your best friend.”
Direct Improvements to Mental Health
Not only did participation in restorative practices promote protective health factors, such as school and peer connectedness —which can have lifelong positive effects for girls—but it also directly improved girls’ mental health.
Girls were clear that restorative practices provided a critical space to engage in a process of learning, developing, and practicing key tools of health, including connectedness, support, respect, trust, safety, empowerment, self-awareness, and the ability to manage emotions. For example, they characterized restorative practices as creating a supportive environment that improved self-awareness and self-expression: “[You] realize that you’re not perfect, and everybody has problems, and it’s okay to have problems. And most importantly, speak about those problems and . . . not keep them inside.”
They also described developing keener introspection skills. “I was that hard-headed kid that didn’t want to listen; that didn’t respect people. I thought I knew everything, like I had been here before. You know, it just opened up my eyes; like, just sitting down, you know, talking.” And as their self-awareness increased, girls reported feeling more confident, empowered, and better able to recognize and celebrate their own identity, agency, and resilience.
The Power of Gender-Specific Interventions
Though our study was not structured to directly examine the relationship between gender-based violence and restorative practices, girls in multiple focus groups independently identified restorative practices as creating a safe space that facilitated discussion of incidents of sexual violence. Sharing the experience of sexual abuse in the context of single-gender restorative practices connected girls to one another and made them feel stronger, helping them begin to address some of the harmful effects of these incidents, including depression, low self-esteem, and suicidal ideation.
These findings affirm research that has demonstrated the benefits of gender-specific interventions, as well as studies that have shown that boys’ dominating behavior in the classroom can subdue girls and normalize harmful socialized gender differences and connections formed in girl-only spaces protect against disengagement.
When girls learn and develop in healthy and inclusive educational environments, they are at less risk for experiencing practices, behaviors, and conditions that ultimately push them out of school and into the school-to-prison pipeline.
Schools can play a significant role in ending health inequities for girls of color by creating conditions that set all students up for educational success. When girls learn and develop in healthy and inclusive educational environments, they are at less risk for experiencing practices, behaviors, and conditions that ultimately push them out of school and into the school-to-prison pipeline. Primary educational experiences set the foundation for individual and community wellbeing.
Setting Up All Students for Educational Success
Our study intentionally centered girls of color to address their continued underrepresentation in research and mainstream policy discussions. Yet our findings are relevant to all students: strengthened protective health factors and social and emotional literacy skills support health and wellbeing, promote academic achievement, and reduce emotional distress across the board. When school climates are positive, all students are better equipped to form healthy relationships and engage more fully with their learning community, and they are at less risk of health-harming behaviors and school disconnection.
The future of education remains uncharted in the wake of COVID-19, with far-reaching impacts on student engagement and achievement. As we move forward, there must be greater attention to the unique needs and experiences of girls in schools—especially girls of color, who face the highest risk of poorer educational and health outcomes. Without such focus, it is unlikely that policies and practices aimed at health and educational equity will be successful.