Sometimes the best tools in education come from unexpected sources. Such was the case with restorative justice. Seeking mutual understanding and healing over punishment or exclusion, this form of conflict resolution was quickly adapted by school systems as a way to address differences between youth. Using accountability and healthy dialogue to teach self-regulation and promote empathy teaches invaluable life skills that can be applied in many situations across years. What initially rehabilitated children and youth connected to the justice system has worked in schools and community youth programs and can be a helpful gift for addressing discord in faith formation and youth group settings.
According to the Department of Justice, "the guiding principles of restorative justice are: 1) [physically or emotionally harming another] is an offense against human relationships; 2) victims and the community are central to justice processes; 3) the first priority of justice processes is to assist victims; 4) the second priority is to restore the community, to the degree possible; 5) the offender has personal responsibility to victims and to the community for crimes committed; 6) stakeholders share responsibilities for restorative justice through partnerships for action; and 7) the offender will develop improved competency and understanding as a result of the restorative justice experience."
How do we translate this to a youth ministry context? When one child or youth reports a hurtful incident, we get each youth to a safe-feeling space and encourage calming or self-soothing practices until their adrenaline recedes—usually 15-20 minutes. We offer any care the harmed child needs, encouraging them to name what is helpful and feels supportive. If it's a call to a parent, a hug, a stuffed animal, or a friend, we do our best not to question or shame their needs in this time. We then bring the youth together, allowing them physical space and remaining with them as a mediator. We remind youth of our baptismal call to relationship with God and each other, uplifting that the community of the church is here to help and support those relationships.
Give the hurt or harmed youth a chance to name why they are hurt or harmed. Encourage the offender to listen without rebuttal. If they deny responsibility, encourage them to understand why their actions affected the other child no matter what they intended. The point here is to understand impact over intent. Ask the harmed child what they need to reenter community and feel able to participate confidently. Negotiate that with the offending child and specify an accountability buddy (responsible adult) who will check in after a specific interval to make sure that happens. When a plan is in place, an apology can happen, but the action plan of addressing the hurt or harm done is actually more important here. It is appropriate to offer a prayer or blessing at the end of your dialogue.
This process may take practice and multiple attempts to be successful. If accountability actions are not followed, further discipline may be necessary. Still, we have modeled justice and empowered our youth, planting seeds to bear fruit in many seasons.