Relational Accountability in Schools: Fostering a Culture of Trust and Respect

Holding students and adults accountable for their actions is something we can all agree on. What’s challenging is, how do we do that without turning it into something we do “TO” students and adults rather than “WITH” them?

Throughout our visits to schools across the state and nation, we’re hearing about and seeing a significant uptick in unwanted behavior, often from a small handful of students. Much of it is due to trauma and the ongoing and pent-up challenges from the pandemic. It’s all coming to the surface—and educators are struggling to handle it.

In a restorative school, holding students accountable for their actions is important. But equally important is: 

  • engaging and supporting them through the process,
  • reflecting on the root cause of the behavior,
  • seeing if the adults or the system have any part to play in it, and 
  • ensuring that the process focuses on healing as much as accountability. 

In essence, we need to make sure it is a “relational accountability” not a “retributive accountability.” It shouldn’t be something that we do “TO” someone. 

Relational accountability in schools emphasizes the importance of co-creating accountability so that the responsible party is involved in the process of making things right. It emphasizes the role of the affected party or parties and allows the responsible party to understand the impact of their actions. It is not having the “person in charge” dictate a solution. It is based on the belief that when everyone in the process of repairing harm feels valued, respected, and heard, meaningful solutions are created. When they are heard, they are more likely to be engaged and successful in coming up with and following through with the solution.

Relational accountability should be a process that creates personal reflection and responsibility-taking as well as leaving with the relationship stronger than when you started. It is about dignity and mutual concern.

Why is relational accountability important in schools?

Relational accountability helps to create a safe and supportive environment for all members of the school community. When people feel safe in taking responsibility and seeing another person’s perspective, they are more likely to feel OK about being held accountable—because it is done WITH them, not TO them.

How can schools foster relational accountability?

Fostering relational accountability in schools requires a deliberate effort to avoid imposing consequences just for the sake of justice and safety. Here are some strategies that schools can use to promote relational accountability:

  1. Build a culture of trust: Schools can foster a culture of trust by creating opportunities for people to get to know each other, and by emphasizing the importance of honesty and transparency.
  2. Encourage communication: Schools can encourage communication by providing opportunities for people to share their real thoughts and feelings—not just what they think those in power want to hear—and by creating an open and non-judgmental environment.
  3. Foster a sense of belonging: Schools can foster a sense of belonging by creating opportunities for people to connect with each other, and by promoting a culture of inclusivity and acceptance.
  4. Address conflicts fairly: When conflicts arise and harm happens, it is important to address them collaboratively and respectfully. Schools can provide training and support to help people learn how to engage in relational accountability not retributive accountability where consequences are imposed from above.
  5. Focus on solutions not consequences: Finally, schools can foster relational accountability by watching the language we use. When someone asks “what was the consequence for their behavior?”, it can too often mean “how were they punished?”. So we suggest that schools use the term solutions instead of consequences—solutions that are created and agreed to by all participants involved.

At the heart of relational accountability is a commitment to equity and inclusivity. This means recognizing and valuing the diversity of experiences and identities that exist within a school community, and actively working to create a culture of respect and understanding. This can involve everything from incorporating diverse perspectives into conversations, problem solving, and harm repair, to providing targeted support for marginalized students, to creating opportunities for small group exchange and dialogue.

Building relationships makes all the difference in creating a restorative school culture and ensuring that accountability is done WITH each other rather than TO another—relational accountability—is what makes a restorative school culture truly authentic to the process.

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