The economic and social costs of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic are particularly high on the most vulnerable learners. In Ecuador, VVOB is part of the national Education Cluster that supports the country’s Ministry of Education to (re)build school communities. “Restorative practices provide us with powerful tools to help communities cope with the emotional crisis and to accompany them in this period of confinement”, says student counsellor Jenny López.
COVID-19 and vulnerable youth in Ecuador
Governments around the world have closed schools and called on their citizens to stay home in an effort to stop the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus. The negative educational and socio-emotional impact of home confinement on already vulnerable youth has been immediate and will have a long-lasting effect: a rise in dropout rates, increased exposure to violence and exploitation, social isolation… (UNESCO).
In Ecuador, VVOB and the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) have been working together for years to put student wellbeing at the heart of secondary technical schools’ pedagogical project, which cater to an above average number of vulnerable students. Our first point of contact in this endeavour are the local DECE, local government staff from the Department of Student Counselling (DECE: Departamento de Consejería Estudiantil).
Restorative practices for “safe, inclusive and tolerant schools”
Ecuador is no stranger to educational disruption. In 2016, the country was hit heavily by a devastating earthquake. Led by UNICEF, the Education Cluster brought together international organisations such as Save the Children, Plan International, UNESCO and VVOB to support MINEDUC with the provision of socio-emotional support, temporary non-formal education and eventually the reopening of schools.
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has reactivated the Education Cluster. MINEDUC developed a ‘Plan Educativo COVID-19’ and one pillar revolves around the socio-emotional wellbeing of school communities. That’s where VVOB is offering its expertise on teacher and student wellbeing and restorative practices, a concept we have been working on since our collaboration with the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) began in 2015.
‘Restorative practices’ are a set of processes to repair and strengthen relationships between individuals and within communities. These can be applied preventively but also reactively, e.g. after an instance of conflict, violence, trauma, or crisis. In school settings, restorative practices help prevent and handle conflicts of any nature, and to re-engage students after a conflict occurred. The approach has been studied to show positive effects on issues such as suspension rates, student attendance, school climate and teacher-student relationships (Armour, 2016; González, 2012; Gregory et al., 2015). The UN Secretary General identified restorative practices as “promising avenues to promote safe, inclusive and tolerant schools” in this report.
Student and teacher wellbeing at the heart of our response
As DECE coordinator, Jenny López works very closely with learners. She firmly believes in restorative practices as an approach and in what it can do for students, their teachers and other education staff during this challenging time of confinement:
“Restorative practices allow us to create, reinforce and maintain healthy, safe, and lasting relationships among communities. The different restorative strategies that us DECE have acquired through multiple trainings by VVOB have enabled us to use these powerful tools to help the members of our educational community cope with the emotional crisis and to accompany them in this period of confinement.”
“Today we rely mostly on virtual restorative practices: restorative circles for emotional support, especially for teachers; and restorative dialogues to understand the different needs and to validate the different feelings that this situation triggers. Our colleagues and students feel heard, without judgement. Other powerful tools are active and empathetic listening, to generate greater connection and resilience within families.”
Virtual and connected
Adequate communication and restorative practices have a significant preventative role in detecting and managing the negative socio-emotional effects resulting from confinement. It also (re-)fosters a sense of solidarity and union by reinforcing healthy, safe, and strong relationships at home, within neighbourhoods, and in work and school communities. And when the situation allows it and schools reopen, a comprehensive community approach of restorative practices will be necessary to get all learners – especially vulnerable ones – back to school.
Looking forward to that moment, VVOB is expanding its training and coaching on restorative practices for Ecuador's DECE. A core group of trained DECE, VVOB and MINEDUC staff has been established to roll out an online training and coaching/mentoring trajectory with the following objectives:
- DECE teams’ knowledge and skills are reinforced to apply restorative practices in this new context.
- Spaces are available to prevent, detect and manage conflicts and violence both during social distancing and when classes restart.
- Good practices on the restorative approach are shared between different school communities.
- A new communitarian culture is promoted as a positive consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Other positive consequences in terms of knowledge and practices that result from this challenging time are also shared.
Moving forward... from an expert's POV
Jenny López works closely with students and wider school communities, but gladly welcomes support herself too:
“I think the most valued support would be put towards further strengthening DECE teams and reinforcing the different tools and approaches that have already positively impacted our work within educational communities. They are so versatile! Also, we appreciate VVOB’s continuous work with MINEDUC’s central level teams, always providing innovative educational materials. In addition, it is important to monitor the actions of DECE teams, ensure restorative practices are implemented well in different locations and secure their institutionalisation in the national education system. Finally, it would be wonderful to have a virtual space on the MINEDUC platform for the methodologies that VVOB supports.”