First Accept Responsibility, Then We Begin
The relationship between mediation and restorative practices is surprisingly nuanced.
To understand it, you must appreciate the distinction between resolving conflict (mediation's strength) and repairing harm (the focus of many restorative practices). And it's complicated by the fact that even practitioners disagree on how to define restorative practices.
The aspect of this relationship that most fascinates me, however, is their differing requirements for participation, particularly as regards personal accountability.
Simply put: Restorative practitioners set a much higher bar--they ask much more of people--before enabling them to participate in their processes.
In mediation, the requirements for participation are minimal: If you are willing to try it, and if you agree to follow a few ground rules, then you are in.
Significantly, parties to a mediation usually accept little or no responsibility for their contribution to the conflict prior to the mediation session. Quite the contrary: They typically blame the other party or parties!
During the course of the mediation, parties may come to understand that the situation is more complex then they had previously thought. And in the end many parties do take responsibility for the ways they have hurt each other. But they start out pointing fingers.
By contrast, many restorative practices can't even begin unless the offending party (or parties) has taken responsibility for the harm they have caused.
For before restorative practices are even contemplated, an "authority" (in schools that means teachers or administrators) has typically intervened and made it clear to the offending party that their actions were unacceptable. Extensive preparatory work is also done with both targets/victims and aggressors/offenders to determine whether a restorative process is viable.
And the bar is still higher! Not only do offending parties have to take responsibility for their actions, they have to demonstrate that they are genuinely interested in repairing the harm that they have caused. If they are not, then restorative practices aren't appropriate.
In one sense, restorative practices begin where mediation often ends. A mediation session can be a long and sometimes arduous process of discussion and discovery through which parties often (not always) accept responsibility for their part in a conflict.
But this "place," the place where individuals who have harmed others accept responsibility for their actions--this is where restorative practices begin!
The differing standards for participation arise from each processes' focus:
Mediators help people resolve conflict; their process enables disputants to see whether, by working together, they can get more of what they want than by fighting, avoiding, intimidating, etc. Often they can.
Restorative practitioners, on the other hand, help people repair harm; their processes enable those who were harmed to meet their needs, "offenders" to appreciate the impact of their behavior and repair the harm they have caused, and communities to be restored.
This explains why mediation is usually not an appropriate process to address incidences of bullying, and why some restorative practices certainly are.
Both are powerful. Both can be profoundly beneficial to participants. But they have different goals. Knowing when to use each is key to using them successfully.
Those who want to learn more should check out Derek Brookes and Ian McDonough's excellent article: The Differences Between Mediation and Restorative Justice/Practice.