Practising Restorative Justice at International School Saigon Pearl

Education - Saigon/HCMC: Dec. 25, 2018

Restorative Justice is an approach that was first created with criminal justice reform in mind. Distinguished professor and criminologist John Braithwaite called restorative justice “... a process where all stakeholders affected by an injustice have an opportunity to discuss how they have been affected by the injustice and to decide what should be done to repair the harm”.

The approach was developed with the knowledge that more often than not, the punitive criminal justice system does more to shame and isolate criminal offenders than it does to rehabilitate them. Restorative justice is a means of helping offenders understand the consequences of their wrongdoings and make true amends in order to become functional members of society.

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The “Restorative Approach” to Child-Rearing at ISSP

International School Saigon Pearl (ISSP) approaches childhood education with this same paradigm, aiming to alter the focus of discipline from punishment to learning. A restorative approach to learning also echoes the school’s key message, which is: “Beyond academic excellence, we develop character”.

What better way to build character than through conversation and accountability? At International School Saigon Pearl, offenders and victims discuss their actions and emotions to land on a mutual agreement of how to make fair reconciliations.

Lester Stephens, Head of School of International School Saigon Pearl has been applying the concept of restorative justice to his role as an educational administrator as well as to his parenting. He understands the struggle that parents have in dealing with conflicts concerning their children as well as the desire to have happier households. He promotes conscious parenting with the awareness that the ways in which parents and educators engage with a child will ultimately determine that child’s sense of self.

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Stephens first encountered the principles of restorative justice 15 years ago. He takes the old African proverb stating that “It takes a village to raise a child” quite seriously, and promotes this spirit among the educators at his school. “You will very rarely hear an angry, loud or yelling voice at our school. What you will hear are children being coached on their behaviour as we employ the restorative approach at our school. I believe it’s our responsibility as adults to coach children and teach them how to behave in a way that has a long-term and sustainable change towards developing good character.”

Community Education and Open Conversation at ISSP

One of the key components of ISSP is to share knowledge between both parents and educators at the school. Lester Stephens recently presented a seminar about restorative justice on the ISSP campus in Binh Thanh with the goal of better communicating the principals of restorative justice to the school’s community. Parents and educators alike were given methods to help teach children how to deal with disputes amicably.

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Hiền and Quy, a young couple who had come seeking ideas and tools to improve their child-rearing, spoke about their interest in discovering new paradigms in parenting. Hiền explained, “Both of our parents were more...traditional.” The words seeped out gently and slowly with almost a wink that contained some sort of implicit meaning. (Americans are used to this kind of coded language when it comes to talking about parenting, saying things like “My parents were ‘old school’” to connote that they were brought up with corporal punishment as a method of discipline.)

“We’re interested in finding other ways to help our son to behave, some more modern methods”, Hiền said. She sighed with the kind of resignation present in many concerned parents, as if to say, “I’m willing to give anything a try.”

Looking Beyond the “Old School” Approach to Teaching

These ideas resonated with audience members at the event even though they may have contrasted with the ways in which they themselves were raised. Hiền, 37, shared her parents’ approach to raising her: “Back then, life was hard so my parents just paid attention to how much food they could give us. They just tried to earn money to buy food. Sending us to school also took effort. They didn’t spend time talking to us and didn’t have time to play with us. They didn’t say things nicely. I understand the need and the power of positive language, but for their time, they didn’t learn those terms.”

Older models of parenting focus on the establishment of rules and punitive measures when the rules are broken. Punishment is often some kind of administration of pain inflicted by someone with authority or power over the recipient. In Vietnam, it is not uncommon to hear about past generations of parents who had endured extreme poverty ruling over their children with iron hands.

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Hien, an American woman of Vietnamese descent shared a story about her mother’s upbringing. “Every time my mom tells me this story, she cries. She told me that my grandmother would beat her over the head with a broomstick when she was angry. She says she’s lucky to have not gotten some kind of brain damage from that!” When asked whether her mother had any understanding of why her grandmother was so angry with her Hien said, “She had no idea, she was just constantly afraid.”

Although disciplinary measures such as these can result in compliance by the child, they usually lead to feelings of guilt and shame, and ultimately isolation. This feeling of isolation can create a space in which children are more likely to repeat wrongdoings but do so in secret, with the hope that they won’t be caught. The reasons for correct behaviour become wrapped up in the fear of the punishment rather than the development of good character. For example, the use of school suspensions as a form of punishment might make an immediate improvement in the learning environment but in the long run, it can lead to poor academic achievement and increased juvenile delinquency.

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The Obligation to Make Things Right

Conversely, the restorative approach seeks to create a sense of obligation rather than shame. Instead of going straight to punitive measures, teachers seek to reintegrate the students who had misbehaved by discussing the underlying issues of the conflict with all parties involved. The next step is to work together to address the cause of the behaviour. “The obligation is that they take ownership of the behaviour”, Lester explained. “If they're being naughty at home, if they made some mistakes, the idea is not that they can carry on and get away with these mistakes. Rather than guilting, shaming and blaming our children, which shuts them down, we work with them to help them feel the obligation to fix the problem by apologising or showing better behaviour”.

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The children develop a stronger sense of self as a result as well as better relationships. They become more functional members of the family and society. In the long term, they will be better people because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re afraid of being punished. (Being “good for goodness’ sake”!)

#iAMHCMC caught up with Hiền a couple of weeks after the seminar and asked her if anything had changed in the way she was interacting with her children, and if she had found the information shared at the seminar useful. Hiền said, “I’ve learned a new approach on how to educate my children. I understand that by applying this kind of approach we can improve our relationship with our children by giving them the chance to take responsibility for what they have done. If they create problems we give them a chance to develop the way to fix the problem and make things right. By doing that, they understand what is right and what is wrong. It’s a softer way but I think it’s more useful. The power of words and emotions is strong. Language is very powerful”.

Image source: ISSP