Restorative Storytelling

02 October 2018

Nicola PrestonNicola Preston

In 1998 I sat in a police station facilitating a restorative conference for a 14-year-old boy accused of assaulting a 14-year-old girl with a garden rake.

At the time I was serving as a Thames Valley Police Officer, having recently trained in restorative justice. These young people were both in the same year group at school and as this was his first ‘offence’ he was to receive a ‘caution’.

I was part of the Thames Valley Police Restorative Justice Consultancy and we were offering restorative justice as an opportunity to bring together all those affected by a crime as part of an evaluated trial for all first time offences.

The young man sat with his mum, step-dad and five-year-old step-brother. The girl sat with her parents and next to the friend who had been with her on the day that this had happened. The tension was palpable, broken only by the five-year-old racing his toy car across the floor. They all looked to me to get things started, so beginning with the first of the restorative questions I had been trained to use, I asked the young man to start at the beginning and ‘tell me what happened’ he told his story and it was not what was written on my case papers.

Hannah Arendt, the political theorist and philosopher suggests that ‘storytelling reveals meaning without the error of defining it’. I have now been involved in restorative practices for over 20 years as a parent, facilitator, trainer, primary school teacher and Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCo) - and currently a senior lecturer and PhD researcher in special educational needs and inclusion at the University of Northampton.

Over that time, I have used the restorative questions introduced to me by Terry O’ Connell and the philosophy that underpins them as an approach to everything I do.

The key concepts and theory that underpins each of the restorative questions has been developed into an explicit framework and training programme by the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) to help people tell their stories in a safe environment. The process allows them to develop a shared understanding of the harm or conflict that might have occurred and build or rebuild positive relationships. 

Jonathan Gottschall illustrates this in his book The Storytelling Animal. He draws on research in neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology to argue that stories make us human, they shape us and help us to ‘navigate life’s complex social problems’. The restorative questions and framework are a relationally transformational way of helping people to re-interpret and re-narrate lived experiences through the telling of their stories. Some would argue that storytelling creates, rather than reflects, reality and that people learn from their lives through the stories they tell about them.

Restorative practices often provide that opportunity during those times of crisis or transition that interrupt the normal patterns of life, but the processes can be just as useful at times of significant trauma or harm as at times when we just need to make better sense of life events or re-frame those events. Affect Theory, the psychological theory that underpins the IIRP explicit framework and the restorative questions, provides the framework to help us regulate positive and negative ‘affect’ and provide opportunities to express the negative affect and return to positive affective states that are healthier and contribute to our sense of wellbeing.

Returning to 1998, as I sat listening to the young man tell his story, I began to understand. He shared how the two girls had almost every day for the past year called him names, laughed at him and insulted his family. I saw how the heads of both girls dropped as he spoke, I began to understand why he might have been pushed to breaking point that day and how, whilst raking up the grass for his mum, he had turned in anger at more taunts and caught the girl on the arm with the rake. He took responsibility for his actions and accepted he was wrong to lash out but also felt safe enough to share the reasons and seek support and help from those around him.

This wasn’t my story though and as the other participants told their stories, they developed a shared understanding. What really made the difference was when the mums acknowledged that their gossip and arguments had probably contributed to this situation and that they needed to change. The tension in the room lifted and the group began chatting about how they could all contribute to that change. They spent the next hour talking and the atmosphere was very different when they all eventually left, together. The young man still had his caution, but I would suggest that the learning that went on was far greater than if the traditional criminal justice processes had been followed.

The evaluation of the Thames Valley Police restorative cautioning initiative highlighted that in many of the restorative conferences where participant satisfaction was high, they often couldn’t remember the facilitator. Restorative practice is not about the professional. The preparation, by a facilitator who understands the explicit restorative framework, had given them the opportunity to regain control of their own stories, communicate how they had been affected and through this shared understanding of what happened, re-story a way forward that was positive and re-integrative rather than retributive and negative.

As adults we are often so deeply influenced by our culture, upbringing and experiences, that the ‘scripts’ we develop to deal with ‘negative affect’ can become entrenched. I have seen this throughout my years of practice with the ‘labelling’ that can begin early, sometimes before birth – child of a drug addict, looked after child, child with ADHD, teenage mother, victim, offender – are mostly perceived as deficits.

The stories we develop and tell about (and to) ourselves, are heavily influenced by these ‘labels’ and experiences, which become hard to break free from and are linked to poor life outcomes. Pupils with identified special educational needs account for almost half of all permanent and fixed period exclusions from schools, and are seven times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion than pupils with no Special Educational Needs (Department for Education, 2017). Boys are over three times more likely to receive an exclusion to girls and more than 60% of young offenders have speech language and communication needs.

Restorative practices are not just ‘interventions’ to repair harm. They provide an explicit communication framework that can be used reactively to guide and support people when relationships have broken down, and proactively to teach others the skills that will help them build and maintain healthy relationships. Dr Brené Brown, University of Houston research professor says ‘When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.’ Sometimes we just need a bit of help to take back ownership.

About the author

Nicola Preston is a senior lecturer in Special Educational Needs and Inclusion and PhD candidate at the University of Northampton, UK and adjunct faculty for the International Institute for Restorative Practices Graduate School, USA.



Related resources

Introduction to restorative practice - Tailored Support workshop

In this one-day workshop, participants will:

  • Increase understanding of restorative practice (what is it?);
  • Explore what working WITH means and how it applies to practice;
  • Develop understanding of the importance of relationships;
  • Be introduced to research evidence on restorative practice;
  • Explore examples of the application of restorative approaches, for example, in supervision, with multi-disciplinary colleagues, with families;
  • Develop understanding of whole system change.

Aimed at: staff working across children's services who would like to learn more about restorative practice; strategic staff implementing restorative practice. 


Department for Education (2017) Permanent and Fixed Period Exclusions in England: 2015 to 2016, London: Department for Education. Available online: https://bit.ly/2QnbTPa

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