Brain Aligned Restorative Circles: Addressing the Core of Discipline Challenges

Today’s guest author is Lori Desautels PhD. Lori is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Butler University College of Education, a former special education teacher and school counselor and currently teaching applied educational neuroscience / brain and trauma to undergraduates and graduate candidates in the certification program. For the past six years, Lori has returned to the classroom co-teaching in multiple grade levels bringing these strategies and practices into the classroom preparing the brain to learn while dampening down our stress responses systems and attuning to the developing brain states of our children and youth. Author of several publications and writer for Edutopia. Recently Lori published her fourth book, Connections Over Compliance, Rewiring Our Perceptions of Discipline.

Dr. Lori Desautels

Restorative Circles and Practices have been implemented for a significant amount of time inside schools. There are hundreds of articles and resources sharing this framework and its purposes for building community and for responding to challenging behavior through authentic dialogue. As we navigate our way through this pandemic with chronic unpredictable toxic stress, we are already seeing many students struggling with anxiety, depression, and distress seen through their behaviors.  

We are in chronic unpredictable times with different schedules, moving from hybrid to virtual and back to hybrid with changing routines that are taxing, and the wearing of masks.  

Traditionally, Restorative Circles and Practices attempt to shift the conversation between teachers and students to be less punitive, offering an opportunity for all persons affected by an altercation to have meaningful dialogue about how to make things right and restore the classroom community. They are also powerful for building community in neutral times. 

In this time of unprecedented trauma, adversity, racial and social inequities, staff and students are carrying in an exorbitant amount of fragmented and unprocessed sensations and emotions that are highly contagious and these emotions are often activated below the water line of consciousness. These sensory and fragmented body and brain sensations are held as implicit memories and can fire off in emotional outbursts, impulsive actions, shutting down, and possibly look aggressive. We are not excusing behaviors, but we need to understand that all implicit body memories when they are active, take the form of present moment reality- happening right now- likened to visitors from our eternally present past. 

One of the challenges with traditional restorative practice and circles is that these are “talking” circles and are attending to the cognitive parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that are often turned off when we are experiencing growing frustration, irritation, anger, anxiety, and worry. When we are feeling and sensing unsafe environments inside our perceived isolation, we are unable to problem solve, emotionally regulate, listen deeply, and attune to others.

There are neurobiological reasons why traditional restorative practices may work in the moment or for brief amounts of time, but they are not producing sustainable changes in behaviors and collaboration within school cultures! 

Our brains and bodies change dramatically when we are chronically stressed. For example, we have an inner ear muscle (stapedius muscle) that expands when we are experiencing negative emotion and pays attention to all sounds in our environments, prohibiting us to attend to a direct conversation or directive. This inner ear activation is for our survival and is the body’s protective mechanism. It will constrict when we feel safe. This is true for adults as well.  Many students and adults are walking into these restorative circles with activated emotions in the form of deep grievances that call for control, respect and are defensive and protective through our postures, gestures, tones of voice and facial expressions. 

When we review our district’s or school’s discipline data, we will generally see the same groups of students being restrained, secluded, suspended, or punished in ways that can unintentionally reactivate their developing stress response systems and can retraumatize children and youth who carry in significant pain, adversity and trauma.   

In a Brain Aligned Restorative Circle, we prepare our brains and bodies for regulation by priming our brains before the circles begin discussions. There are many regulatory practices we could include, such as providing a bottle of water, a pen, blank canvas or board, or small notebook. We explain that when you draw or journal to name or reappraise your emotions and sensations, they lessen. Our goal is to create a sensory repairing environment before words are spoken. As we prime our brains for learning, we might listen to music for the first two minutes, take a focused attention practice with our breath while drawing our sensations on a graffiti board as we prepare for our reparative and restorative discussion where we are ready to listen, problem solves and create community.  Below is a sensory word wall where staff and students can choose a sensation giving it a shape, lines, color, or an image. This is always a choice. The facilitator explains and reminds everyone that for our brains to solve problems, listen deeply, and attend to one another, we must activate the cortex of our brains where our most creative and innovative thoughts arise.  

When we are functioning from our cortex, we feel calm and clear.

The facilitator shares that our brains process survival and safety and that our feelings are as contagious as a virus. When we are in a survival state, our hearts speed up and our blood pressure increases prohibiting us from thinking clearly, reasoning, pausing, and paying attention in the moment so we are able to reflect our thoughts and feelings back into the circle.  

Example of a graffiti board

1. Educators Only – What if schools begin creating Brain Aligned Restorative Practices and Circles with staff modeling these discussions and resolutions within an inner circle, while students in the outer circle listen, critique, give feedback, and reflect on the staff dialogue. This fish tank circle could be recorded and shared at various times with a variety of grade levels, so all students are exposed to these conversations.   When we model our conflicts, sensations, feelings, with a variety of possible resolutions, we are empowering our students with the ability to share freely, without judgment, and to experience how a crisis can lead to connection. Below are possible suggestions for questions.    

Questions for Adult Circles

  1. When we speak about how trauma and adversity affect us each uniquely, what sensations do you experience in your body or brain?  (tight jaw, pressure, shaking, shortness of breath, tiredness, rapid heart, etc.) 
  2.  How has the wearing of a face mask affected your teaching or leading?  
  3. When you have difficult conversations met with resistance, how do you typically handle your sensations and emotions and what would you like to improve? How do you get to the cortex so you can find calm? 
  4. What does racialized trauma look like in this school? How does white advantage or privilege show up in our classrooms and schools? How are racial and social inequities connected to our discipline practices?  Where do we begin when addressing these inequities in education?   
  5. When you think of an experience where you felt fear, felt threatened, or anger, was it difficult to think clearly and remember? How did you respond? What was the outcome?
  6. What are your greatest challenges at school in this time? How are you handling these? Do you have a plan? How are you caring for your brain and body? 
  7. What are your greatest strengths? Do your strengths show up when you begin to feel regulated? If not, what can you do?

2. Talking Piece and Circle Agreements – Talking pieces and agreements need to be created by the students and adults. These agreements are created ahead of time and are subject to change based on the needs of the circles. Talking pieces can be created and chosen by everyone alternating a variety of these pieces for the specific conflict or challenge and grade levels and classes can begin constructing talking pieces at the beginning of the academic year with ongoing creations.  Do these pieces reflect student and educator interests, passions, and purposes?  

3. Embodied Lived Experiences – We might ask educators and students to bring and share a childhood photo to the circle. As we pass the photos around, we are reminded by our facilitator that we all share infancy, childhood, and a beginning of life where we each have experienced environments and relationships that might have been filled with some pain and hurt that is often misunderstood and not known to others. This is an important time to remind our circle that brains and bodies develop from experiences and those experiences become our values, beliefs, histories, perceptions based on patterned repetitive experiences.  If we do not have connections with people who can help us integrate, make sense, and reframe our developing perceptions from those experiences, our brains and bodies continue to hold and spin these fragmented stories without understanding, healing and closure. We remind one another that our brains are historical, social and experience dependent organs that act like muscles, always predicting experiences based on past experiences. 

 4. How Are We Similar? How Are We Different?  In secondary schools, we could begin our restorative gathering by sharing our childhood photos as we notice similarities and not differences from our shared images.  As we move through the circle, we share other similarities that we notice in the present moment circle. 

  • What are three ways we are alike one another in this circle?
  • What are three ways we are different from one another in this circle? Do these difference cause challenges for us? How? 
  • How can our differences bring us together? 
  • Am I important to someone here in this class or school?
  • Can I share my strengths and gifts in this school or class?   

5. Brain Aligned Questions for Resolving Conflict in a Brain Aligned Restorative Circles 

  • What is our challenge?
  • What led up to this challenge?
  • How did we handle this together and /or apart?
  • Could we have prevented this challenge?
  • What are two adjustments we will make the next time? 
  • How? Let’s make a plan! 

To understand the suffering of others, we must first touch our own suffering and listen to it.

Thich Nhat Hanh


  • Guest Blogger

    This post was written by a guest blogger for the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. Views and opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not represent the views and opinions of AASR.

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