Mindfulness and Restorative Practices (RP) have a strong mutualistic relationship—strengthening and informing each other at many different levels. While the most common and obvious use of mindfulness in RP is to begin circles with a short mindfulness activity to settle in, it’s greatest power is in creating the conditions within us and our students to speak and act in alignment with Restorative principles. As Nancy Riestenberg wrote in the foreword of CIrcle Forward: “Implementing restorative practices calls for a paradigm shift—a change in the head and the heart.” Mindfulness is an essential tool in making this shift.
The first step is to practice the mindful pause. Mindfulness asks us to pause, take a breath and begin again with nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. When we our are faced with a challenging behavior, when we are caught up in assumptions and find ourselves judging, blaming or trying to fix others, we pause, take a breath, and begin again with new awareness. As this practice becomes habitual, educators notice that curiosity arises naturally within the pause. Having taken a break, they can relax and think clearly. Having dropped assumptions, they begin to ask questions—restorative questions. One educator, who took my course was asked to report what had changed for her since she began the practice the mindful pause. She wrote: “What I notice most is my slowing down with student behavior. The result is that curiosity and noticing has time to lean into the situation. ... I’m moving more consciously toward a sense of fundamental adequacy rather than lack, and an open non-judgmental curiosity…” This is the restorative approach rising naturally out of mindful awareness.
The second step is to use Restorative Circles as a place to intentionally practice and strengthen Mindful awareness skills and to notice how our ability to be present in the here and now affects the feel and outcome of the circle. What we find as we practice Mindfulness outside of the circle is that we are able to be more fully present in the circle and visa versa. As our capacity for presence increases so does our nonjudgmental awareness, compassion, wise discernment and equanimity (the ability to remain grounded through challenges). This is why I tell the educators I work with that becoming a Restorative teacher is more about rediscovering who we are rather than learning a new way of being. Within the space and stillness mindful awareness creates, these qualities naturally arise; they are part of our true nature. And as these qualities arise in us they affect the whole circle. As Kay Pranis says, “The world is profoundly interconnected.” Students co-regulate and build their ability to be present through our own calmness and presence. In addition, we are able to respond fluidly to the circle’s needs because we are deeply attuned to the circle and detached from set expectations and agendas. Most powerfully, when a circle keeper is completely present in her body, in the moment, students share more openly and authentically. (One important note: Presence does not mean being an active listener—smiling and head nodding. Presence means being open, grounded, undefended and aware.)
In turn, Restorative Practice strengthens our mindful awareness. Circles give us many opportunities for mindfulness practice—to become stronger in our ability to maintain relaxed, non judgmental focus. Practicing being present in the face of challenging topics, time constraints and circle “scripts” is a skill like any other; we build capacity over time. As people talk in the circle we have the opportunity to notice our breath and our bodies in our chairs. We get to watch judgement, boredom, envy, comparison and more come and go. We get to practice friendliness towards our own critical thought habits and hold others’ words with heartful focus. This “practice” cultivates in us a deepening compassion for ourselves and others, transforming the way we interact and hold Restorative conversations outside of circles..
The third step is to explicitly teach students how to be present in a circle. In Tier 1 circles I ask them to drop their notions of “active listening” and instead practice being fully present with respectful and mindful bodies. I explain what that means and we practice what it feels like to be present through mindfulness activities. I also explain that when we lean in, nod our heads and make encouraging noises we are influencing what is being said. We are “crowding the space” in which the person is trying to speak authentically. I don’t tell them not to do these things, but give them permission to use circle time just to be present. The result can be remarkable. Students share more authentically when their classmates aren’t actively listening but are sitting grounded and relaxed. I also front load our circle time with the instruction to develop the habit of focusing on their breath and keeping their feet on the floor when they feel agitated or challenged. And when I sense growing frustration I will gently stamp my two feet on the floor as a reminder for them to do the same— to stay grounded and present. For students with trauma history I might also invite them to take a short mental “vacation” from the circle when they need to, by developing their own refuge—a memory of their favorite place in nature. I use mindful awareness activities outside of circle to develop their ability to identify the physical clues of dysregulation and then I teach the tools to become self-regulated. All of this explicit mindfulness work with students up front translates into more authentic sharing and fewer disruptions while in circle.
At the heart of Restorative Practices is the importance of building relationship. Countless educational theorists and social neuroscientists point to the critical role relationships play in the ability to learn. Mindful awareness allows us to be in relationship with students in healthy life-giving ways, not codependent, exhausting or unhealthy ways. Nel Noddings wrote “I do not need to establish a deep, lasting, time-consuming personal relationship with every student. What I must do is to be totally and non-selectively present to the student—to each student—as he or she addresses me. The time interval may be brief but the encounter is total. “ Circles give us this opportunity that Noddings speaks of. If we approach relationship building without mindful awareness we risk getting caught up in our own or our students projections. We might build our identity as a teacher around how much our students love us. We might control students’ behaviors by being their friend, making them feel beholden to our kindness. We might unconsciously get pulled into old scripts around authority and power. All these things are detrimental to a Restorative community. Restorative Practices—a practice based on all of us being equal members in a community—cannot thrive in an environment where teachers are unaware of how they operate in relationship to their students. At the same time, circles give us a way to build relationship and connection with students in a conscious, mindful way.
Every time we sit in circle and share alongside students with mindful presence we are strengthening that students ability to respond to shame constructively. Mindful awareness allows us a fine-tuned sensitivity to the students’ experiences with shame. As we ask them to take the risks required for learning, our awareness guides our supportive words and actions to their sometimes dysregulated responses. As we embody mindful awareness and explicitly teach students to develop the same, we are able to create the conditions for students to build resilience in the face of shame. And this may be the most important strength we can give them.
There is no doubt Restorative Practices without mindful awareness is still a transformative set of practices that is of great benefit. But without mindfulness is can also become just a script and set of questions. What Kay Pranis and others in the movement repeat to new practitioners again and again is the fact that the Restorative approach requires a paradigm shift. This shift requires mindful awareness and reflection.