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Study Shows Change Is Needed To Help Pacific Children Succeed

New Zealand schools can do more to bridge cultural and language barriers and improve academic outcomes for Pacific children, a University of Canterbury (UC) researcher says.

UC Child Well-being Research Institute and School of Health Sciences Post Doctoral Fellow Alice Hyun Min Kim says Pacific people made up 8 per cent of the total New Zealand population in 2018, and they are one of the country’s fastest growing ethnic minorities. But, they are also the most at risk of not realising the literacy and educational milestones needed to help them achieve healthy and fulfilled lives.

She and collaborators from UC and Auckland University of Technology (AUT) have used data from the Pacific Islands Families (PIF) study, which collects ongoing information from 1400 Pacific children born in Auckland in the year 2000, to investigate this inequity.

Dr Hyun Min Kim says as an immigrant herself (from South Korea at age 13) she knows how difficult it can be for children to navigate the mainstream school environment.

“New Zealand’s record on educational equity is quite poor compared to other countries and it hasn’t improved over the past few years.

“I feel motivated to change this because there are some really strong Pacific students who don’t continue with their studies or they get lost in the system and don’t reach their full potential.

“They often get pulled into supporting their families early and they don’t necessarily finish their degrees. They might go into the job market instead and work to earn money for their family.”

In her PhD research, funded by A Better Start: E Tipu e Rea, National Science Challenge, Dr Hyun Min Kim has found mothers and teachers of Pacific children had very different perceptions about how they are achieving at school with reading, writing and maths at the age of six.

Pacific children and their mothers were likely to rate their academic performance higher than their teachers did. However, there was likely to be more agreement in their rating if mothers had a post-secondary education, proficiency in English, and stronger alignment with New Zealand culture.

There was more shared understanding evident for higher-performing children and when teachers were themselves of Pacific ethnicity.

The research has recently been published in the international journal PLOS; Perceptions of Pacific children’s academic performance at age 6 years: a multi-informant agreement study.

Dr Hyun Min Kim says the findings shows improvements are needed to make sure Pacific parents and teachers have a shared understanding of the academic progress of Pacific children.

Pacific Island culture traditionally values respect for authority but this can mean that children who are struggling don’t ask for help, and their parents are less likely to ask difficult questions about their child’s performance.

“We need to remove some of the language, cultural and socio-economic barriers that are standing in the way of parents understanding exactly how their children are doing at school. Timely, honest feedback is what parents need and appreciate, but language is currently a barrier to that.

“Creating an environment that facilitates communication and empowers Pacific families is important.

“If we can put some measures in place that bring better understanding of cultural considerations and improve home-school partnerships, then I think we’ll be able to achieve the best possible academic outcomes for Pacific children. We need to provide a system that allows them to succeed in both the Pacific Island and Pakeha worlds.”

Strategies to promote this cultural connectedness could include having school newsletters in Pacific language as well as English, employing Pacific liaison staff in schools, including Pacific perspectives and values in teacher training, and expanding Pasifika language immersion schools.

“Having teachers who believe in them and encourage them and accept their Pacific Island values is very helpful in terms of Pasifika children’s long-term success in education,” Dr Hyun Kim says.

“Language and literacy skills are the foundations for later educational achievement. If we can give Pacific children a better start then they are more likely to go on to tertiary study and become successful role models for other students.”

Dr Hyun Min Kim’s research was supervised by UC Health and Human Development Professor Philip Schluter, former co-Director of the PIF study. He says it is important to look at background and historic factors that perpetuate inequity, such as colonisation.

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