Author: Koleta Savaii
Today I spent my day out on the field. Yay! I wanted to meet our young people, hang out with them, and see our mentor in action.
Today's sessions were with our school groups. This is an in-school program we deliver for 8 weeks, teaching young people 7 values that contribute to healthy and respectful relationships with family, peers, and the wider community. These values are: Kindness, Attitude, Respect, Integrity, Teamwork, Communication, and Courage.
We got to the first school early to set up and settle down before the young people arrived. I had the opportunity to speak with the School’s Social Worker, who spoke very highly of the program, how well the young people were doing in school since their involvement, and his hope to see the program continue into the next semester, and every year following.
About 5 minutes to the hour, and the young people started arriving. One by one they walked in.
“Good morning miss. Good morning sir”, and gave their mentor the biggest high five.
The session then kicked off with a quick check in – what was your highlight, lowlight, and if you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Going around the room…
“My highlight was sleeping in on the weekend. My lowlight was having to get up to do the chores. My superpower would be telekinesis, I want to be able to move things with my thoughts”.
“My highlight was playing Fortnight with my cousin. My lowlight was my mum waking me up early this morning to come to school. My superpower would be invincibility, I want to be super powerful”.
“My highlight was finishing my book that was 260 pages long. My lowlight was beating up this other kid in school. My superpower would be stealth, I want to be super quiet so I can sneak up on people and give them a fright”.
“Wow that’s a long book, what was it about?”, the mentor asked.
“It was about a kid who got given a homework to do, but then he went through all these things before he finally got around to doing his homework”.
“That’s awesome. And tell me, why was beating up that kid your lowlight?”
“I felt bad after I did it. I tried to apologise to him afterwards but he just told me to get lost. And now he won’t even talk to me. So, when I see him I just give him a thumbs up. It’s kinda stink”.
We then moved on to the main activity for the session. Everyone had to share a bit of their past, present or future, which was a continuation from last week’s session where the young people were asked to write their stories on a piece of paper, either as a poem, an essay, or a song – whatever medium they felt comfortable with.
This was the fifth session of this 8-week program, so prior to them sharing their stories, the young people were reminded that the safe space for them to tell their stories has already been created. Importantly, they must show respect. For example, when another person is sharing their story, if they laugh at a funny point, we laugh with them. Never laugh at them.
Again, we went around the room…
“I want to share my future… When I grow up, I want to be the Prime Minister of New Zealand and take over Jacinda Adern’s job. I also want to be a father to two boys”.
Looks like Prime Minister Adern will be around for a very very long time until our young man here is old enough to take over.
“My future… I want to be a builder because you can make a lot of money. My present… My favourite game is Fortnight because I like to play with my cousin. And my past… my nickname that my family used to call me was ‘Fat Boy’ because when I was little, at the age of 3, I was fat and chubby”.
When I was born, I was born into this world to get a good future.
And when I was growing and getting older, there has been lots of changes, like getting new clothes or getting taller.
When I first started school, I felt like crying because I had no idea where I was.
And as I moved to class each year, I got used to it.
And I got to see new faces, also getting smart to some of the teachers.
When I grow up, I’d like to be an accountant or a doctor.
Because I like Maths and I like working with my hands”.
“My future, I’d like to get a good job and make a lot of money. And the only way to get a good job is to get a good education”.
Then, my colleagues shared their own stories…
After everyone had shared, I sat there with tears in my eyes. I looked around the room. Heads lowered, some tears, and sniffles all around. Ah, boys being boys…
It was a beautiful moment. I felt privileged hearing their stories, sad to hear of their struggles, and inspired to do more to make the world a better place for our young people to grow up in.
Our mentor went around the room again, this time asking everyone for one word that described how they felt…
Emotional… Inspired… Motivated…
As an evaluator, these are the moments that are truly worth capturing, but how can we achieve this with our traditional 2-dimensional reporting system? How do we convince Funders of impact, when this impact is often regarded and accepted as some "major life-changing outcome", demonstrated as a statistic?
I wouldn’t know how to quantify such a moment, but it was a moment that no doubt would’ve been the catalyst for change in those young boys lives, if not today, then in some later stage in their lives.
When the young people left for their next class, my colleagues stayed back to reflect on the session they had just delivered.
“How did that make you feel?”
“What did you find challenging?”
“I didn’t think I would be able to share my story given my anxiety, but I overcame it. And I feel relieved”.
“Thank you for sharing your story, I feel privileged to be able to hear it. I tell myself this all the time, if you can change one life with your story, then you have done your job. Some people might be going through the same thing you went through, and your story gives them something and someone to relate to, and empower them to share their own when they’re ready. You also shared with the boys your technique for expressing your emotions, who knows, maybe one of them will start a wordpress account and start blogging, or maybe they’ll start poetry, or art, we don’t know, but it would’ve given them ideas”.
Ah, another beautiful moment! In Evaluation we call this Reflective Practice. This is the stuff that makes an organisation a Learning Organisation. Reflective Practice contributes to an organisation’s growth, agility and sustainability.
On our way back to our car, my colleague showed us a video clip. In the clip, he was showing our other colleague a magic trick using a pack of cards. They each got a pack of cards. They then shuffled the pack and chose one card. They weren’t to reveal the selected card but to write what they chose on a piece of paper. They then swapped packs, and each person reshuffled the cards. When they were ready, they picked out the card they thought the other person chose. After they had decided, they again recorded the card on their piece of paper. Finally, it was time to reveal their hand.
Our other colleague was taken by surprise when he saw that they both correctly guessed the card that the other person chose. But what shocked him more was the fact that he was able to correctly guess the magician’s card!
At that moment, my was brain was sifting through all possible explanations for what I had just witnessed. Like Disciple Thomas said to Jesus, 'Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it' (John 20: 25). I had to try it myself!
My colleague looked at me and said, ‘do you know the best thing anyone has ever told me? After that trick I did last night, R looked at me and said, “do you know what bro, I’m not going to ask you how or why. I’m just going to sit here and appreciate this moment”'.
I also must admit, I have never heard a statement so simple, yet so deep and meaningful.
I wonder how many other life-changing moments that have happened during mentoring sessions that are not captured by weekly and monthly reports but are deeply felt and appreciated by the mentor and their young person. No doubt, plenty.
My highlight? Being a part of today’s little moments, sharing in the experience… even if I cried bucket loads and the boys just did the sniffles.
My lowlight? Knowing that the current medium in which we aim to capture and report on these moments is not adequate. But it is the ‘accepted system’, don’t fight it. Why? Because this is the only way to report outcomes that are accepted as ‘valid’. Oh.
My superpower? I’d like to be able to time travel with each of our stakeholders to all those life-changing moments during mentoring sessions, so that they too can participate in and appreciate their rawness and beauty.
To all our wonderful and generous Funders and supporters: individuals, businesses, organisations, and government ministries –
We may never be able to fully capture and report on each life-changing moment that happens during a mentoring session. But know this, every dollar you’ve donated has touched a young life. And these young people will be our future parents, builders, writers, accountants, poets, and doctors. Isn’t that a future worth investing in?
Author: Koleta Savaii
In the media last week, MOE released its review of the Alternative Education sector. In a nutshell, the review concluded that the alternative education has been “largely ineffective”, with suggestions for “a stronger move to help schools keep the most at-risk teens in mainstream classes”.
‘Keeping at-risk young people in school' is exactly what TYMS have been doing since its inception, and we have seen tremendous successes. The results of our 2016 Evaluations Outcomes Harvest revealed that of our total 183 clients, 73% remained in school, 9% returned to school after being excluded, and 2% transitioned into Alternative Education.
While we are pleased with these results, our insights and key learnings over the many years of working with our young people and their whānau have taught us that the suggestion to ‘keep at risk youth in mainstream classes’ is not as simple as it sounds for all involved.
I had the privilege of catching up with two of my close friends from my undergrad and postgrad tutoring years last Saturday for brunch. Since our tutoring years, one friend is now an Academic and Careers advisor at a South Auckland high school, and the other is a lecturer in one of the University's Certificate Programmes. We reminisced about our tutoring days and the challenges we faced, especially with students who were ill-prepared for university.
My lecturer friend told us that not much has changed, "but do you know what, my students are trying. I've listened to their stories… The challenges they face to get to class are overwhelming". My Careers Advisor friend nodded in agreement, telling us similar stories from her own students and the role she plays in ensuring this gap between High School and University is bridged. It was then my turn to share my work stories, and when I did, it surprised us all that while we are at different stages of the Education system, we all shared the same challenges.
If the issue is not properly addressed in the early years, it continues into high school and eventually into university. Alternatively, young people are excluded from school which is detrimental to their chances at a good life, however this is defined.
So, what exactly is happening at my end of the spectrum?
Young Sione was referred to TYMS last year by his school because he was at high risk of exclusion. The reasons noted in his referral included: a lack of focus, impulsivity, causing class disruption, easily angered, absconding, and poor academic achievement.
Sione is a 15-year-old male of Samoan, Maori, and European descent. Sione lives with his single mother Jane and younger brother Tui. Sione’s grandfather passed away when he was 3 years old, and his loss deeply affected Sione as his papa was his only friend and father-figure. Jane also struggled with her father’s loss, especially as he was her ‘rock’ - her main source of stability both financially and emotionally. With her father gone, Jane was forced to restart on her own. For 10 years they moved from home to home, whatever was affordable with the income she received from her benefit. Sione’s father was not in the picture, so there was no source of parental support from him financially and emotionally to assist with Sione's care.
When I spoke with Jane, she acknowledged with sadness the impact their constant moving had on Sione - his education was disrupted, he was unable to make long-term friends, and the neighbourhoods they lived in were no place to raise a young child.
“But what else can you do when rent is expensive, and when all the bills are paid you are left with an average of $40 per week to allocate to food and other expenses?”, Jane said. “I always prayed that my son didn't get sick because if he did, I wouldn't know how to give him the healthcare he would need”.
Jane also admitted to the many times she would change the name on her power bill just to get by. She also humorously referred to herself as a ‘regular’ at WINZ and Housing NZ.
For Jane, the main priority at the time was to get a Housing NZ home for her and Sione so that Sione could go to one school and make friends.
But Sione was also growing up quickly, and while she was fighting to survive, her son was slowly falling through the cracks. He was disengaged from school and from her. His teachers identified him as a ‘problem student’. And the police often dropped him home after midnight.
When Jane finally found a Housing NZ home, she said “it was already too late, my son was too far gone into the deep end hanging with the wrong crowds and getting into trouble”.
Jane was tearful as she recounted the day she got the call from Housing NZ that they had a home for her. She was sitting at the WINZ reception waiting for another appointment. While she waited, she contemplated the possibility of giving her sons to CYFS care (Tui was 1 year old at the time). In her mind, she had done everything she could but despite all her efforts, her sons were suffering. She did not want that life for them. Perhaps the system could provide her sons with the good life she was unable to provide.
Fortunately for Jane, the call and solution to some of her problems had arrived on time, and she moved with into their new home with her sons within a week.
For Sione on the other hand, his performance at school had deteriorated, which resulted in his involvement with TYMS.
With the help of his TYMS Mentor and TYMS Family Advocate, Sione remained in school and is still there to this day.
Our TYMS team worked with Sione and his mother, building Sione's executive function skills, addressing the risk factors in his environment, and adding the protective factors necessary to strengthen his resilience.
In my conversation with Jane, she expressed immense gratitude for TYMS help with her son, especially his Sai Bhai mentor who, “never gave up" on Sione. Seeing her son’s positive progress every time he returned home from his day with his mentor also empowered Jane to do better for herself and her sons. Jane is now in her last semester of her university degree.
We have all encountered Sione’s in our lives, except the only things we are often told about these Sione’s are the statistics and stereotypes associated with the language he is labelled by: 'problem student’ or ‘at-risk teen’. We are rarely told Sione’s story. We are also not told that young people like Sione who experience four or more risk factors in their lives are highly vulnerable and at high risk of experiencing toxic stress. Toxic stress, amongst its other negative impacts, robs young people of their executive function skills, the very skills that are crucial to young people's academic and social success.
We continue to work with many young Sione’s on an individual basis and in groups. We have an in-school healthy relationships group mentoring programme that directly addresses MOE’s goal of 'keeping at-risk youth in mainstream classes'. This 8-week program is currently running in various primary schools across West Auckland, with schools out South Auckland on the waiting list for next term. We also run an education and pastoral care program in a Youth Justice Residential Home for young on remand. Both programs are gaining nation-wide attention for the positive outcomes experienced by our young people, their whānau, and schools.
What have we learned? Combining the insights from my two friends work experiences with our TYMS learnings from over 5 years of working with young people who are at-risk of being excluded, or are already excluded from schools, we understand the following:
When our young people and their whānau come to TYMS, we first exchange stories to foster the trust and empathy that is needed to establish the relationships that enable us to do the work we do successfully. When we listen to young people's stories, they cease to become ‘just another number’ or ‘another statistic’; instead, they become our child, our young person, our whānau, our neighbour, our people.
Regardless of our job descriptions and where we are in our careers, as adults, we each have a role in the wellbeing and future success of our young people. 'A manuia fanau, e manuia aiga, nuu, Ekalesia, ma le atunuu - When our children are successful, our families, villages, churches, and nation all prosper'.
It takes a village to raise a child.
* Jane and Sione have kindly given their permission for us to tell their story.
“Love has the power to inspire students to seek after knowledge, love can unite the teacher and student in the quest for knowledge, and the love of learning can even empower students to challenge knowledge thereby pushing its limits” Daniel Cho, 2005.
In his book titled “Love as Pedagogy”, Tim Loreman argued that love is a product of, and a necessary element to successful and meaningful teaching and learning.
But what is love?
In the fa’aSamoa, alofa (love) extends to notions of compassion, caring, generosity, and consideration, which is closely related to fa’aaloalo (respect). Fa’aaloalo encompasses the values of courtesy, politeness, and pleasantness, as well as reciprocity and gift giving. Here at TYMS, we simply call it ‘going above and beyond'.
Kindness and empathy are elements of love. Aristotle in his Rhetoric, described kindness as helping another in the absence of tangible rewards for doing so. The Dalai Lama asked his followers to pursue a ‘policy of kindness’, which he connects with notions of warm-heartedness and helping others.
Empathy on the other hand, is described by Professor Roslyn Arnold as “an ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of self and others. It is a sophisticated ability involving attunement, decentering, and introspection: an act of thoughtful, heartfelt imagination”.
Kindness and empathy are at the heart of this notion of love as a pedagogy. Acts of kindness bring us close to one another, and it is in this closeness that we are able to develop a mutual understanding, leading to empathy. As Daniel Batson and his colleagues have shown in their studies on altruism and empathy, when we understand and identify with another, we are more likely to help them.
Meaningful learning occurs when teachers and students understand and identify with one another. Empathic teachers are more likely to understand their students to a greater degree, and are perhaps more sensitive and able to respond to their strengths and needs in areas ranging from academic, cultural, and emotional, to behavioural.
Similarly, empathic students might be more adept at responding to a teacher, and in drawing out learning through more perceptive responses to learning situations. Fostering and cultivating kindness, empathy, and love in the school environment, is thus a worthwhile investment in the educational success of our children.
One TYMS mentor has spent the past 4 weeks in three West Auckland schools, cultivating kindness, a positive attitude, respect, integrity, courage, teamwork, communication, and honesty, in 3 groups of 8 young boys who have been flagged by their teachers and school social workers as ‘at risk’. This strengths-based approach has resulted in positive engagement from all involved - the students, staff, and families.
One task required the young boys to carry out one random act of kindness a day, and to record this in their notebooks. These young boys did not stop at one act. Instead, they carried out multiple acts of kindness, which extended beyond the school environment to their homes and community.
One boy helped an elderly lady at the bus stop carry her groceries, and another said hello to his neighbour in the morning. When one young boy told the mentor that he couldn’t think of an act of kindness to complete the previous day, another member of the group jumped in and said ‘but you gave that boy in class 50c to buy lunch’.
To the mentor’s surprise, the young boys also took their notebooks to their teachers, and asked them to write in their notebooks something good about them, or a behaviour that they wanted to see an improvement in. The teachers participated in the activity, and some even bought their own notebooks.
Linda Albert suggests that the teacher-student connection is fundamental to a healthy and productive relationship. This connection can be fostered with her Five A's approach: accept, attention, appreciation, affirmation, and affection. Teachers must put aside their biases and fully accept the student, regardless of their background and perceived flaws. Students must also be given attention in order to feel valued and important. Teachers must also show an appreciation for the good deeds and actions that the students do, no matter how small. Teachers must provide affirmation, by showing an enthusiasm for their students and encouraging them to believe in their own self-value. And affection - can we ever truly feel for and care about someone we feel no affection for?
Our mentor has cultivated kindness and empathy in the young boys from these schools, and they have in turn spread this love to their teachers, other students, their families, and the people in their communities. These young boys continue to remain in school, and they have bright futures ahead of them.
When we seek the good in young people, we will find good. When we highlight their strengths and build on these, we create kind, empathic, and loving future adults and productive members of society.
Author: Koleta Savaii
Physical well-being is central to the fulfillment of our everyday tasks and long-term goals. We need to be in good physical health to be able to go to school or work and to participate in activities with our families and friends. In turn, we feel good about ourselves, we find enjoyment in what we do, and this has spill-over effects to other areas of our lives. It benefits society.
Improving the physical well-being of the young people who come to TYMS is a major goal of our service. We accomplish this through our focus on these two areas: the executive function and social cognition.
The executive function and social cognition are associated with the prefrontal cortex which is situated in the frontal lobe part of the brain. The executive function is used to describe the capacity that allows us to control and coordinate our thoughts and behaviours. These skills include selective attention, decision-making, voluntary response inhibition, and working memory.
Social cognition focuses on how people process, store, and apply information about other people and social situations. The way we think about others plays a major role in how we think, feel, and interact with the world around us.
Puberty, which is associated with adolescence, represents a period of synaptic reorganisation in the brain (think of electrical wires in your computer reorganising themselves). Consequently, the brain might be more sensitive to experiential input at this period of time in the realm of executive function and social cognition. What this means is that, the adolescent brain is at a pruning stage which makes it an excellent time to foster executive function and social cognitive skills, which can last into adulthood.
So, where does physical wellbeing come in?
Physical activity requires volition, planning, purposive action, performance monitoring, and inhibition – skills associated with the executive function.
To successfully adopt or change physical activity behaviour, an individual must form a conscious intention about what activity they wish to adopt (volition), identify the sequence of actions required to achieve the intended activity (planning), initiate and maintain focus on the chosen activity over time (purposive action), compare actual progress with planned progress over time, identify and correct mistakes (performance monitoring), and overcome the temptation to remain inactive or eat an unhealthy diet (inhibition).
These are the stages our young people go through when we work with them on improving their physical well-being. The great thing about these skills is that they are transferable to other areas of life where planning, decision making, etc. are needed… like Maths.
Research shows that kids who engage in physical activity significantly improve in Maths compared to kids who don’t.
To improve social cognition, the literature suggests that accumulating social experiences is crucial for social cognitive processes. While we have a gym on site where young people carry out their exercise regimes, our mentors also spice things up by taking the young people out to parks, swimming pools, and local sports clubs.
Given that majority of the young people who come to TYMS face social exclusion in one form or another, taking them out to the community aids in re-establishing their social connections, minimising their experiences of exclusion.
When we are surrounded by lots of people, it is a learning ground for our social cognitive processes. We know anger, happiness, fear and joy because we see these emotions expressed on other’s faces or in their behaviour. And we know the boundaries to our own expressions of these emotions because others act as guides, expressing approval or disapproval when we behave or act in certain ways.
Social connection fosters emotional intelligence and empathy, which are essential characteristics to being a good member of society.
Here at TYMS, our approach to improving our young people’s physical well-being is holistic. It is about good physical health on top of fostering executive function and social cognition skills. These skills combined will enable our young people to reach their full potentials and secure positive futures.
Author: Koleta Savaii
I purposefully left this blog until near the end of this wellbeing series because I didn’t understand it well enough to write about it. If I don’t know why or what role ‘spirituality’ plays in attaining wellbeing, how can I suggest it to others?
Just before the Christmas holidays, my partner and I split. Nobody warned me that I would spend my holiday alone, in bed, crying myself to sleep. But it happened. And I lived through it.
I mention this personal experience because it was only at my darkest hour that I realised why God mattered, and why spirituality is important to many Pacific peoples conceptions of well-being.
If you think prayer only happens on Sundays, wait until you live in Samoa!
Growing up in Samoa, God and church was a normal part of life. I never realised that it didn’t have to be that way until I lived on my own in busy Auckland city. My alarm clock every morning of the week was my grandfather’s radio. It was constantly tuned into Radio 2AP, the ‘voice of the Nation’. At 6am daily, Radio 2AP would start off its broadcast with a morning service conducted by a fa’afeagaiga (pastor) from one of the many churches in Samoa. I could pretend to sleep in if I wanted, in fact, that’s what happened most mornings. But, like a normal alarm clock, there’s only so many times you can hit the snooze button.
As soon as the morning service ends, the radio turns off, and my grandfather starts singing ‘Fa’afetai i le Atua…’ (EFKS church hymn). A minute later, my grandmother joins him. And then all the lights come on, the aunts and uncles and cousins and sometimes the neighbours sing along, and you have no choice but to wake up. Also, sitting up for prayer was a lot easier than the lecture that came after if you had decided to sleep in.
Then after morning prayer you go about your day knowing that “you are guided and protected by God’s grace”, my grandfather used to say. And in the evenings, no matter where you are, you always make sure you make it home for evening faigalotu (prayer). I guess it helped that every village had an evening curfew that reinforced this. The only exception to the rule was when you were at the pastor’s house for song practice or one of the many church activities you were expected to be a part of.
I never realised how much my life revolved around the church. Was I spiritual? No. I was born into that life. It was all I knew.
I was a member of the aufaipese (church choir), Sunday school, and church youth. I attended a Mormon school during the day, and aoga faifeau(pastor’s school) in the evenings. One can never have too many church associations.
Looking back, I never realised how much my life revolved around the church. Was I spiritual? No. I was born into that life. It was all I knew.
Fast forward to my early adulthood years where I lived on my own in New Zealand. Sundays were like any other day of the week. I had to work if I was rostered, or my rent wouldn’t get paid. My grandparents weren’t around to give me the ‘lecture’ for not attending church.
In university I was taught “other” ways of seeing life. Religion, like science, was just another perspective into life. No longer did I feel guilty about my new lifestyle. After all, everything was a choice, including believing in God; or so I thought.
My story isn’t unique to me. My research and everyday conversations with other Pacific youth in New Zealand, tell similar experiences. For me, my “ways of being”, the way I was raised and the life I lived in Samoa as a teenager, conflicts with the lifestyle that is available in my new environment. For many New Zealand-born and raised Pacific youth, it is their parents “ways of being”, or their island cultures, that conflicts with the cultures that many of our young people are exposed to (and have embraced) here in New Zealand.
Cross-cultural psychologists Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama suggest viewing “wellbeing” as a combination of what “being” is, and what “being well” means. Thus, to realise what wellbeing means to a group of people, we need to first understand their “ways of being”.
The place of the spiritual in Pacific life is paramount; it is present in daily activities such as fishing, cooking, and weaving, to travel, dancing, perceptions of what is good health, and what is required to attain a good life.
In many Pacific communities, wellbeing is understood to be a consequence of harmony and balance between the three interrelated and interdependent elements of Pacific life: the spiritual, the social, and the physical. Pacific peoples see their place in the world as connected to God their creator (spiritual), and with their natural environment and resources. In Samoa for instance, it is believed that God appointed matai’s(chiefs) to govern Samoa, and he also allocated land to each family, and the sea resources for people’s security and nurturance.
The place of the spiritual in Pacific life is paramount; it is present in daily activities such as fishing, cooking, and weaving, to travel, dancing, perceptions of what is good health, and what is required to attain a good life.
I am not a rugby fan, but my favourite moment of the 2011 Rugby World cup was that time after the Samoa and Fiji match where the boys formed a circle in the middle of the field and prayed.
It is common practice to start and end every activity with a prayer.
This also reminds of an incident back in 2014 when I was working for the Ministry of Police in Samoa. I missed our daily devotion one morning because I wanted to get an early start on my case load for the day, and when I walked into the office later in the day, excited to tell my superior about some new evidence I had discovered, I was greeted with a “you start the day with God and you end the day with God” lecture.
When a child is successful in school, or gets a promotion at work, or when a family wedding or funeral ends on a high note (i.e. where everybody goes home with a full stomach and extra food plates for the road), you will often hear people say ‘mo le viiga o le Atua’ (for the glory of God) or ‘viia le Atua’ (praise the Lord).
These are a few snapshots of your everyday Pacific “ways of being”. Spirituality isn’t only about believing in God and attending church every Sunday. It is part of people’s everyday tasks and routines. It is a way of life that is guided by the worldview that to be well is to maintain harmony in your relationship with God, your family and community, and your environment. And this is relatively easy to uphold in the homelands, where cultural norms, rituals, and practices are underpinned by this philosophy.
In New Zealand’s multi-cultural society, the task is a bit tricky. But the place of the spiritual is still evident among our Pacific communities here. You go to Avondale race course on a Saturday night and you’ll find people playing housie, hosted by a Pacific church, to raise funds for a church building or activity. You drive around South Auckland (home to the largest Pacific population) on a Sunday afternoon and you see Pacific churches filled with attendees.
The ongoing New Zealand Youth2000 study also reveals the high number of Pacific youth rating spirituality as important in their lives, in comparison to other ethnic youth groups in New Zealand.
Evidently, for many Pacific peoples, the place of the spiritual in attaining wellbeing is still paramount, despite being far removed from their homelands.
I am writing this from underneath Grafton bridge on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. I didn’t go to church today. But I’m okay with that. I’m still Samoan. I believe in God and I know that He loves me, because at my darkest hour, I called out to Him and I was comforted. My best friend visited me in Samoa in 2014 and on the same Sunday afternoon, in different locations, both our mothers gave us the ‘toe alu tasi i le Alii’ (go back to God) lecture. I have a feeling they meant ‘go back to church, and youth, and church choir’ … but I think praying and surrendering control to God through prayer, is good enough for them too.
Author: Koleta Savaii
Every parent wants their child to do well in school. We all know that a good education is the key to a wide range of opportunities that ultimately lead to a “good life”. Now, people have their own ideas about what this good life entails. But we can all agree that it is one which is free from hunger, poverty, homelessness, fear of crime, and ill-health.
Academic wellbeing encompasses young people’s attainment of knowledge, skills, concepts, and strategies that enables them to succeed in school, and eventually to deal with the increasingly complex worlds of family life, work, and citizenship.
There is considerable research that has been carried out globally to identify pathways to achieving academic well-being. These include improvements in school curriculum, young people’s diets, their home environment, teacher behaviour, community participation, and the removal of toxic stress. While valuable, this data is by no means the full story, especially if we want to understand the ways in which we can improve young Pacific people’s academic well-being.
Pacific students are not doing so well in New Zealand schools. The data also shows that Pacific females are doing much better in secondary through to tertiary education than their male counterparts.
To make sense of these findings, Professor Tagaloatele Fairbairn-Dunlop argued that we need to review educational outcomes through a Pacific gender lens, so that we can identify how cultural expectations might influence the school experience today.
So, what is this “Pacific gender lens”? To explain, I’ll reflect on my own journey.
I am a Samoan female. I was born in New Zealand, but I spent majority of my childhood and teenage years in Samoa. I was raised by grandparents, uncles, aunts, church family, and village – yes it does take a village to raise a child.
My grandfather was my idol. He taught me how to read using the Samoan Bible. He said reading the newspaper was a waste of time, all the knowledge I seek is in the Bible. He taught me how to write my name... I have never come across anyone so patient. He taught me basic maths: ‘I am giving you a dollar, go to the shop and buy me a .50cent razor blade, how much change should you come back with?’ But my favourite memories of him were the nights where he would tell me a fagogo (a Samoan form of storytelling). Through his fagogo I learned about my family genealogy, the markers of our family lands, the origin of our matai (chief) title and its meaning, and my responsibilities as a Samoan female.
I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to speak the language of the matai. I wanted to be a skilled orator. I used to follow him to village meetings and listen to the matai debate village issues. The majority of the matai in these village meetings were men. Even the boys my age had business in the meeting house. I hated that I wasn’t a boy. Girls don’t do matai stuff, or so I thought.
‘Focus on your education, my child. If you succeed in school, you can have anything you want in this life’, my grandfather said. And that’s how I ended up in a New Zealand University; although I still envy my male cousins who seem to know how to do everything.
This is the gendered division of roles and responsibilities in thefa’aSamoa that Professor Fairbairn-Dunlop and many Samoan scholars write about. Unlike the Western division of labour where women are subordinate to men, Samoan men and women have complementary roles. In traditional times, men were responsible for political authority, defence and warfare and the production of food and women were responsible for moral authority, ceremony and hospitality, and the production of exchange valuables such as the ie toga (fine mats).
For the maintenance of society’s well-being, everyone was expected to behave according to their ascribed place. While these ideological divisions were held, actual roles might be modified according to need, opportunity, and the desire to maintain the family good.
In applying this Samoan gender lens to the New Zealand educational data, Professor Fairbairn-Dunlop found that the Samoan male norm which discourages failure hindered boys’ full participation in academia. his was one reason why the majority of Samoan males were drawn to non-academic avenues such as sports, to retain their prestige. While females were using the opportunities education offered to learn new skills and knowledge, their participation in the public domain still remained minimal.
Like Samoa, many Pacific cultural systems are influenced by gender and a consideration for factors such as age, family status and place. These inform Pacific peoples roles, responsibilities, behaviours and expectations. The academic wellbeing of Pacific youth is contingent on our understanding and recognition of the influences of these cultural systems, in addition to improvements in other areas affecting young people’s education including school curriculums, nutrition, the home environment, and communities.
Author: Koleta Savaii
Adolescents are at a transitional stage – from their high dependence on parents and family to a need for autonomy and independence as they progress to adulthood.
While at this stage the role of the family in the adolescent’s life is secondary to that of the peer group, a close best friend, or a romantic partner, this does not mean family support is no longer needed.
Adolescent researchers have established that different types of relationships fulfill specific interpersonal needs. For example, in romantic relationships, adolescents learn the social aspects of this type of relationship from their relationships with their parents and close friends (i.e., intimacy, conflict resolution, trust, empathy, and compassion), while the sexual aspects are learned from a dating partner. For healthy youth and consequently healthy adults, we need to ensure that every one of their relationships are healthy, and that they provide positive learning experiences.
The adolescent years are also critical to the formation of one’s identity. At any point in history we will find that the opportunities available to youth for identity formation differ. For instance, for the grandparents of today’s youth, cultural exploration was restricted by geographical boundaries and the only cultures available was that of their families, church and communities. With increasing globalisation and the popularity of social media, today’s youth literally have access to thousands of cultures and opportunities for identification at their fingertips.
A multitude of options to choose from can be distressing for any individual. But this can be especially stressful for adolescents whose brain areas that are responsible for executive function tasks (i.e. self-control, decision making) are not yet fully mature. This region of the brain is also responsible for a variety of other functions, its a common reservoir. Therefore, when we exercise self-control, we tax this common reservoir. For example, trying to maintain a healthy weight by exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet, while at the same time controlling the urge to eat unhealthy foods and stay in bed all day is physically taxing on this common reservoir. If it is not replenished (i.e. through positive self-affirmations, glucose consumption), then we are unable to exercise self-control in other areas of our lives (e.g. we procrastinate in our school work, or we over-spend beyond our available finances).
Executive function is like a fuel tank that needs to stay filled. Positive self affirmation is one way of filling up our executive function tank.
Adolescents are therefore at a stage in their lives where they need all the support they can get to keep them on track. Unfortunately, the availability of adults or other individuals willing to provide help and/or show interest in their problems is very limited. And this seems unfortunate, when an overview of the literature in this area shows clear links between the quality of adolescents’ supportive relationships with such features as self-esteem, suicidal and delinquent behaviours, emotional illness, and negative emotional states.
The availability of positive social support is important, but this has to be accessible and of value to the individual. For example, in many Pacific families, gaining an education is highly valued. Generations of Pacific families have left their homelands for this very reason.
For many Pacific parents, their motto is “Education is the key to a good life”. They wish for their children a life that they couldn’t experience themselves while growing up, so they push for their children to gain an education so that they can get good jobs to have a chance at the good life. Hence, adults in the community that provide mentoring and academic support is valuable to both Pacific youth and their families.
Social support provided by parents and peers is crucial to the health and wellbeing of young people. This resource will not be utilised, however, if the barriers around access are not addressed. Barriers can include individual personality factors (e.g. low self-esteem), culture (e.g. cultural norms/attitudes around help-seeking), and financial (e.g. transportation costs). The availability of a valued resource coupled with the removal of barriers to accessing such resource, is key to ensuring young people are making use of the programs available to them within schools and in their communities.
Social support whether it be provided by peers, parents, and members of the community is crucial to the health and wellbeing of young people. Positive adults who show an interest in youth and their problems is sometimes all it takes to keep a young person outside of prison, off the streets, and in school.
Author: Koleta Savaii
Humans are biologically designed to develop in interaction with their environment. In other words, a person’s positive growth and development is dependent on both their biology (nature) and the environment in which they are raised. For example, childhood obesity and environmental toxins in the water, among other factors (such as gender, genetics), have been linked to the early onset of puberty. This has been associated with early growth spurts and bone maturation, which means that kids will generally look older than their peers of the same age. In such cases, problems may arise if society's expectations of a child are based on their physical appearance and do not match the child's level of maturity. This can lead to inappropriate assumptions about other aspects of their maturity and behaviour.
Given the role of an individual’s surroundings in shaping growth and development, it is crucial that children are nurtured in good environments.
Examples of a good physical environment include good community design and the built environment (i.e. parks and green open spaces, street connectivity, transportation systems), access to health-related resources (i.e. nutritionally healthy food, recreational facilities, medical care), zero or low exposure to harmful substances (i.e. contaminants in the air and water supply, proximity to toxic sites), good housing conditions (i.e. no overcrowding or neglected properties), and adequate educational facilities and employment opportunities.
A good social environment, on the other hand, consists of neighbours and locals who look out for young people and/or provide after school recreational, educational and/or employment opportunities. A good neighbourhood also is one in which there is little or no local criminal involvement, it is free from violence, and there are opportunities for members to participate in the community and find or feel a sense of connectedness. A child who grows up in such an environment is highly likely to have good physical and mental health, is less likely to suffer from health-related complications (e.g. obesity, alcohol-related health illnesses, etc.), and will be empowered by experiencing a greater sense of purpose and perceived control.
Compared to other age groups, adolescents are perhaps the most vulnerable to the effects of their environment. In addition to the physical and psychological effects of puberty (e.g. acne, hair growth, periods, emotional ups and downs), the adolescent brain also undergoes tremendous changes which have significant consequences on their experiences. Many neuroimaging studies that mapped changes in specific regions of the brain showed that those regions associated with higher levels of executive function (including task initiation and management, self-image, impulse control, judgement, strategising pathways, and managing strong emotion) only fully mature well into the 20’s.
In comparison to adults and children, adolescents also have different responses within their brain pathways to reward-initiating stimuli; this is thought to relate to the earlier maturation of striatal reward areas of the brain than the fronto-cortical self-regulatory control regions (which is responsible for impulse control, etc.). These data highlight the distinct features of the adolescent brain, and also explains why adolescents are more vulnerable to poor decision making and risk taking behaviour, and are more sensitive to reward-inducing stimuli such as peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, which are ongoing challenges for many families, communities, and nations.
While there are multiple ways of addressing the aforementioned youth challenges, the most obvious option is a change in the environment. We need to provide them with more opportunities for positive engagement. These can include access to local sports clubs, homework centres, etc. It also means restructuring physical environments that have easy access to drugs and alcohol.
Good environments produce healthy and empowered members of society; building good environments is a worthwhile investment for any society and nation.
TYMS is a local community provider of academic, cultural, spiritual, and recreational resources for young people who are excluded or at risk of exclusion from school and their communities. As a local provider, our work aims to provide the young person with the skills to be resilient and also to become more productive members of society, whether it be through reconnecting them with mainstream or alternative education, or employment providers. This is our contribution to the good environment that every child deserves to grow up in.
Author: Koleta Savaii
“Who am I?” is a question that we have no doubt asked of ourselves at some point during the course of our lives. But perhaps the stage at which this question becomes a preoccupation is during our adolescent years. Our teenage years are a complex time; we undergo tremendous transformations physiologically (e.g. puberty), psychologically (e.g. advent of formal operational thinking), and socially (e.g. acceptance of adult responsibilities), all embedded within larger social, cultural, and historical contexts and forces.
For many Pacific peoples, the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ is reflected in this quote by the Head of States of Samoa, Susuga Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi:
"I am not an individual; I am an integral part of the cosmos. I share divinity with my ancestors, the land, the seas and the skies. I am not an individual, because I share a tofi (inheritance) with my family, my village and my nation. I belong to my family and my family belongs to me. I belong to my village and my village belongs to me. I belong to my nation and my nation belongs to me. This is the essence of my sense of belonging."
As captured in this quote, Pacific peoples view the self as comprised of their social relationships, their land and physical resources, and the spiritual. This view of the self and the relationship between the self and others features the person not as separate from the social and environmental context, but as more connected and less differentiated from them. The emphasis is on attending to them, fitting in, and harmonious interdependence with them.
Hence, the Pacific self cannot be viewed independent of Pacific culture. As envisioned by the Fonofale model, the Pacific self as a Samoan fale envisages Pacific culture as the roof. Culture represents ethnic-specific Pacific values and beliefs as the overarching or holistic philosophy of life. The roof is traditionally thatched with sugarcane leaves and when properly prepared and attached the first time, it will last approximately 10-15 years. The cone shaped roof allows rain to easily fall to the ground without moisture permeating the leaves and causing leaks inside. Of course, during sunny days the high dome allows the heat to rise and seep through the thatching, cooling the house. Today, however, most roofs are made of imported materials (i.e. timber, nails, and corrugated roofing iron) but the fundamentals remain the same.
Samoa has a well-known saying ‘e sui faiga ae tumau fa’avae’ – ‘practices may change but the foundations remain’. Likewise, our ethnic-specific Pacific cultures are constantly evolving and adapting to the changing times, but the fundamentals remain. These include: reciprocity, respect, genealogy, tapu relationships, language of respect, and belonging:
For our Pacific youth in New Zealand, their cultures may consist of these Pacific concepts, plus elements from other cultures they are exposed to at school, in their communities, and on the Internet. Establishing and securing an identity is no doubt a challenging task, but our youth are faring well regardless. There is also a general interest among our young people to learn more about their ethnic-specific Pacific customs and traditions, as evident in the needs of the young people who come to TYMS.
It is well established that when young people develop a strong sense of who they are and where they are headed, they are more likely to engage in successful adult roles and mature interpersonal relationships. Consequently, when they are unclear about who they are, they are highly likely to engage in destructive behaviour, experience distress, and have difficulties maintaining healthy relationships with others.
“In the social jungle of human existence there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity” (Erik Erikson)
At TYMS we believe in the value of knowing and having a firm sense of one’s identity and cultural heritage to achieving overall wellbeing. But we also recognise the changing times and contexts in which our young people live today. Cultural identity is central to our program, which we address in our academic mentoring programs and incorporate in our everyday practices.
Author: Koleta Savaii
The family is the most important institution in children’s lives.
For many of our Pacific children, the family is where language, values, and cultural and religious beliefs are taught and nurtured. A strong family is one where members can depend on each other, where people are treated well, where values are shared and respected and where there is financial security. Just like a well-built fale, a strong family can weather even the greatest storm.
Sadly, not all our Pacific families are weathering the storm. A shift in New Zealand’s socio-economic environment has contributed to Pacific communities suffering from cultural erosion, social fragmentation and an increasing loss of identity. This has instigated changes in Pacific family structures and dynamics, including increases in de facto relationships, shifts towards single parenting, and changes in traditional attitudes towards care for the elderly and the young.
These changes have undermined our family units and the ways in which family members relate to each other. Many Pacific families are underpinned by cultural values of fa’aaloalo (respect), va fealoao’i (relational boundaries), tautua (service), and alofa (love). When these values are lost, the family can become a place of suffering and dysfunction, rather than sites that nurture strong and vibrant families.
When children and young people have strong and healthy relationships with their families, their health and wellbeing increases and they are less likely to be involved in delinquent behaviours.
Children are believed to be a tofi (inheritance) from God. The Christian bible teaches us to ‘Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it’ -Proverbs 22:6. Samoa also has a well-known saying “O le tama a le tagata e fafaga i upu ma tala, a o le tama a le manu e fafaga i fuga o laau” – The offspring of men are fed with words but the offspring of birds are fed with seeds.
In the EFKS (Congregational Christian Church of Samoa) tradition, when a child is baptised, all who witness this sacred ceremony (the family and the church community) are endowed with the responsibility of raising the baptised child in the ways of the church and fa’aSamoa (Samoan way of life).
Hence the saying: ‘It takes a village to raise a child’.
Pacific peoples have a holistic view of the world. This worldview is comprised of the social (people), the physical (land and resources), and thespiritual (God the creator), where individual and collective wellbeing is a consequence of a balance and harmony between these interrelated domains.
This holistic worldview is encapsulated in the well-known Fonofale model of Pacific health and wellbeing. According to the Fonofale model, the Pacific self is envisioned as a fale (a Samoan house;right). The fa’avae (foundation) is central to the Samoan fale; a solid foundation ensures the fale will withstand any changes in the weather. Likewise, Pacific wellbeing as envisioned by the Fonofale model, requires a strong, healthy and vibrant family.
It is well-established that when children and young people have strong and healthy relationships with their families, their health and wellbeing increases, and they are also less likely to be involved in delinquent behaviours. Good family relationships have spillover effects to other areas of the child’s life, including their education.
Significant research in the education sector spanning the past 25 years has demonstrated that family involvement is critical to the educational success of children .
Involvement in their children’s educational journey gives parents confidence, as they are able to see themselves as more capable of assisting educators or youth service providers who are working with their children. Inclusion makes parents and families feel valued and appreciated. Inclusion also sees parents as equal partners in their children’s education, and this gives them the confidence to assist with their children’s work and school projects that are to be completed outside of school. Family inclusion in education also sends a message to young people that their school values their parents’ contribution and involvement.
All children want to feel pride in their families, and that pride will probably influence how the child feels about him/herself.
When a Pacific individual is successful, whether it be in education, sports, or employment, families and communities celebrate together. Success for one individual is linked to family and community wellbeing; accordingly, most activities are carried out with the goal of “contributing to the family good, and not for personal gain”. As such, it is crucial that educators and service providers working with Pacific peoples ascertain the aspirations and expectations of Pacific families, so that their goals are aligned with those of Pacific families, ensuring maximum positive outcomes for the young person. This means a working together in partnership with families, sharing the responsibilities and decisions on the young person’s educational journey from start to finish.
At TYMS, we always make a solemn promise to families that we will look after their children as if they were our own.
As a provider of programmes aimed at addressing the underlying needs of young people through academic mentoring addressing education needs, values, life skills, physical fitness and cultural identity, TYMS works together with young people’s family and whanau, with the child at the centre.
In the Samoan culture, when a precious gift such as an ‘ie toga (a precious, finely woven mat that is a most important item of cultural value in Samoa) is handed over, it is important that the receiver honour the gift. When families hand us their child, they are handing us their most precious gift. It is up to us to look after that gift, and we always make a solemn promise that we will look after their children as if they were our own.