Learning to smile: child-centred teaching in Vietnam

Only a tiny percentage of Vietnamese children with disabilities receive an education, and the long-suffering teachers at the Morning Star Centre for Disabled Children in Hanoi once struggled to cope with pupils’ challenging behaviour. That was before VSO volunteer Peter Thomas introduced them to the power of child-centred teaching.

A story of transformation

It’s early on a Tuesday morning and pupils in a class at the Morning Star Centre are singing a welcome song with their teacher. Each child is sitting calmly, their smiles matching those in the photographs that decorate the classroom walls.

It’s hard to believe that just two years ago, the atmosphere in this classroom was completely different. That was before the arrival of VSO volunteer Peter Thomas, a Special Needs Teacher Trainer. “We couldn’t control the difficult behaviour of the children,” explains Anh Nguyen ThiTu, the Head of Learning at the centre. “Peter has helped us make wonderful progress.”

Morning Star is one of the few centres for children with disabilities in Vietnam. Shockingly, only 1.2 per cent of Vietnamese children with disabilities receive an education. It has 200 pupils, many of whom are autistic. Before Peter arrived, teachers were frustrated because they did not have the skills to cope with pupils’ challenging behaviour. This created a tense and unpleasant atmosphere in which it was almost impossible for children to learn.

Dealing with frustration

“There used to be a lot of stress because they saw the behaviour of children with autism as naughty, so they punished them physically and maybe shouted at them,” says Peter. “So through workshops, advice and some classroom intervention, I’ve helped them to see that they need to be child-centred; that they need to follow the child. When they don’t push the child, the stress is reduced and children behave better.”

Indeed, Peter is credited with completely changing the method of teaching at Morning Star. “Peter comes to observe my class and if I have problems, he makes suggestions,” says Le TrunThi Hong, one of the centre’s teachers. “For example, a child in my class always used to cry. Peter suggested I stop forcing him to learn and to let him play with toys that are soft and tactile. The child is now more relaxed, which means he’s ready to learn. He’s shown us it’s about following the child, not forcing them.”

Spreading the word

And it’s not just the teachers who are learning about the children, as Peter has also been running workshops for parents, passing on skills that they can use at home. It’s clear from the children’s calm and happy demeanour as they sing their welcome song that Peter’s techniques are having a positive effect on their lives.

“I wish every school could have a Peter working with them,” says Le Thi Kim Guyen, a psychologist at the centre. “I’ve seen very good changes. It’s different to other centres in Vietnam – here they care about the children’s difficulties and want to understand them.” Guyen’s wish may be about to come true, as the Morning Star teachers plan to pass on their new skills to the other centres around the country. So thanks to Peter, hundreds more children will soon be smiling, too.



Only a tiny percentage of Vietnamese children with disabilities receive an education, and those that do pose unfamiliar challenges to teachers.


VSO volunteer Peter Thomas brings new techniques and a patient approach to teaching at the Morning Star Centre in Hanoi.


A harmonious atmosphere and teaching methods that can be passed on to other centres.
Vietnam Disability

How to apply

Interested in volunteering with VSO? Find out what you need to apply and begin your application process now.