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The Positive Psychology of Making Amends

The power of restorative justice

A recent New York Times article, Opening Up, Students Transform a Vicious Cycle, supports restorative justice programs that are now taking root in some schools as an alternative to the zero tolerance policies dominating schools over the past few decades. The article describes the process of using “talking circles” that facilitates open dialogue that confronts wrong-doing, prompts empathy for those adversely affected by negative actions, and identifies a path to meaningful restitution.

The revolving door from classrooms to principal’s office to detention to “alternative” schools to juvenile detention focuses on imposing “discipline” for actions that could be deemed non-compliant or insolent. This authoritarian and punitive approach does not teach improved emotional regulation, does not teach students how to deploy their signature strengths to cope in more adaptive ways, and does not insist on any contribution from the offender. This approach does not leverage the power of positive psychology to transform feelings, thoughts, and actions by finding the common good.

Positive psychology principles and practices embrace restorative justice. The Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking describes it as the “development of community-based responses…that strengthen social harmony and individual healing through dialogue, repair of harm, and peace-building…” At the core of restorative justice is empathy building. To make peace with self and others requires an understanding of how others feel when they are hurt or harmed. A facilitator scaffolds that empathetic feeling to caring that motivates honest amends and reconciliation.

In the classroom, restorative justice programs emphasize healing of hurt feelings, reparation after transgression, and restoration of damage done. Restorative justice programs emphasize emotional repair that brings a deeper understanding of relationships changing negative self-defeating learning experiences to positive, self-enhancing learning experiences. Research proves that when students are given a second chance, they are more likely to change their feelings and actions for the better. If students promise to be more honest the next time, they are eight times more likely to actually be honest the next time. Youth who commit to meaningful, compensatory actions also relieve their own shame, guilt, and regret that often perpetuate bad decisions.

Restorative justice teaches students to choose: what to do in particular situation to make the wronged person whole again. The practice of restorative justice amplifies practical wisdom: the empathy needed to change. The practice of restorative justice also amplifies practical skill: the emotional strength needed to execute the change.  

There are a growing number of restorative justice programs and curriculum that schools and classrooms can adopt and infuse. The programs teach justice in lieu of punishment.

Restorative justice restores the giver and the receiver in a mutually reciprocal exchange of meaningful contrition and forgiveness. Restorative justice is the positive psychology of emotional accountability, strengths-driven second chances, and meaningful recompense that transcends self.



Smith, J.A. (March 6, 2012). Can restorative justice keep schools safe? Greater Good Science Center, Berkley, California.


Hendry, R. (2009). Building and restoring respectful and relationships in schools: A guide to restorative practice. New York: Routledge.

Web Resources

Center for Social and Emotional Learning Classroom Management & Restorative Justice

Society for Safe and Caring Schools & Communities Restorative Justice for the Classroom

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth 

Society for Safe and Caring Schools & Communities Restorative Justice & Conferencing


Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom is intended to help teachers use affective neurosceince to build positive psychology classrooms.