Restorative practices is a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision making.

The use of restorative practices helps to:

  • reduce crime, violence and bullying
  • improve human behavior
  • strengthen civil society
  • provide effective leadership
  • restore relationships
  • repair harm

The IIRP distinguishes between the terms restorative practices and restorative justice. We view restorative justice as a subset of restorative practices. Restorative justice is reactive, consisting of formal or informal responses to crime and other wrongdoing after it occurs. The IIRP’s definition of restorative practices also includes the use of informal and formal processes that precede wrongdoing, those that proactively build relationships and a sense of community to prevent conflict and wrongdoing.

Where social capital—a network of relationships—is already well established, it is easier to respond effectively to wrongdoing and restore social order—as well as to create a healthy and positive organizational environment. Social capital is defined as the connections among individuals (Putnam, 2001), and the trust, mutual understanding, shared values and behaviors that bind us together and make cooperative action possible (Cohen & Prusak, 2001).

In public health terms, restorative justice practices provide tertiary prevention, introduced after the problem has occurred, with the intention of avoiding reoccurrence. Restorative practices expands that effort with primary prevention, introduced before the problem has occurred.

The social science of restorative practices offers a common thread to tie together theory, research and practice in diverse fields such as education, counseling, criminal justice, social work and organizational management. Individuals and organizations in many fields are developing models and methodology and performing empirical research that share the same implicit premise, but are often unaware of the commonality of each other’s efforts.

For example, in criminal justice, restorative circles and restorative conferences allow victims, offenders and their respective family members and friends to come together to explore how everyone has been affected by an offense and, when possible, to decide how to repair the harm and meet their own needs (McCold, 2003). In social work, family group decision-making (FGDM) or family group conferencing (FGC) processes empower extended families to meet privately, without professionals in the room, to make a plan to protect children in their own families from further violence and neglect or to avoid residential placement outside their own homes (American Humane Association, 2003). In education, circles and groups provide opportunities for students to share their feelings, build relationships and solve problems, and when there is wrongdoing, to play an active role in addressing the wrong and making things right (Riestenberg, 2002).

These various fields employ different terms, all of which fall under the rubric of restorative practices: In the criminal justice field, the phrase used is “restorative justice” (Zehr, 1990); in social work, the term employed is “empowerment” (Simon, 1994); in education, talk is of “positive discipline” (Nelsen, 1996) or “the responsive classroom” (Charney, 1992); and in organizational leadership, “horizontal management” (Denton, 1998) is referenced. The social science of restorative practices recognizes all of these perspectives and incorporates them into its scope.

Section citation: Wachtel, T. (2016). Overview. Defining restorative. International Institute for Restorative Practices.