The little things: Teen Parents in the Mainstream

Issue: Volume 94, Number 3

Posted: 23 February 2015
Reference #: 1H9cqU

A recent initiative that gives schools the funding to support teenage parents is being closely observed, as each school tries to find the best solutions.

Becoming a parent at any age is one of the biggest challenges life can throw at us, but for teenagers, calling parenting ‘challenging’ risks wildly underplaying the issue – that’s why teen pregnancy is almost never a ‘choice’. In so many cases, becoming a parent so young has demonstrably negative and lasting effects on the socio-economic wellbeing of those involved, both parents and children. Taking on the responsibility of parenthood introduces all manner of complications into the lives of young people who haven’t yet finished their own developmental journey; most teachers would likely agree that the odds are stacked against teen parents completing their secondary education, far less continuing into tertiary study.

It’s also an unavoidable fact that New Zealand experiences one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the developed world. The New Zealand Herald* reported in 2013 that nearly one in ten Kiwi babies are born to mothers under 20 years of age – that puts us third behind the United States and Chile . This rate has come down in recent years following an uptick during the early 2000’s, but this still represents a ‘work-on’ for New Zealand.

According to published articles from Statistics New Zealand and the Families Commission*, pregnancy rates in this country also correlate strongly with deprived socio-economic circumstance, and Maori and Pacific Island communities experience rates significantly higher than the national average.

Internationally, it’s been demonstrated time and again in developing nations battling over-population issues - like Bangladesh for example - that education is as close to a ‘silver bullet’ as we have in equipping young women particularly to make informed life choices.

Life choices

Encouraging young people to make wise life choices is one side of the coin. It’s fair to assume that education can never be 100 per cent successful in preventing teen pregnancy, meaning whānau, communities, and schools need to consider how they can remove obstacles blocking young parents from getting the education they need to reinforce their family’s future.

A 2011 Families Commission report found that teenage parents overwhelmingly tend not to complete their secondary school education. The same report attributed this to factors including inflexible school procedures, as well as difficulty with childcare and other practical considerations such as transport.

It’s unquantifiable to what degree perceived stigmatisation or feelings of isolation from peer groups contributes to this worrying trend, but this can certainly be viewed as a potential factor.

There are, of course, options available to young people who are determined to continue their education when pregnant, or after the birth of their child. These include mainstream schooling, alternative education, Te Kura, (Correspondence School), or induction into one of 23 Teen Parenting Units (TPU) throughout the country.

Unfortunately, TPU’s are not an available option in all centres, and there are limited places on the scheme even in those communities that have them. This has been the driving factor behind the creation of the Teen Parents in the Mainstream pilot, which began at the beginning of term 1, 2014.

Investigating options for assistance to those schools and young parents in need is hampered by the lack of available statistics: mainstream schools aren’t required to identify teenage parents on roll returns. With this in mind, the Ministry has made funding available – up to $4000 per teen parent per year - to schools within the Teen Parents in the Mainstream pilot to develop assistance programmes as they see fit. School staff are clearly best positioned to identify the needs of individual students, and are the best source of innovative ideas that can get teen parents back to school and achieving.

The pilot is intended to run for three years, and funding is available for up to 100 places per year. Evaluation is ongoing and comprehensive, by the Research Division of the Ministry of Education.

After two terms, 34 students across nine schools were participating in the Teen Parents in the Mainstream pilot. While almost all of these were young women, two fathers have also enrolled. The majority of students were parenting by the end of term 2 2014. Three students gave birth to their babies between April and July of last year, and three students were due to give birth later in 2014.

Participation in the pilot is voluntary and a student can withdraw at any stage. Fourteen students who were originally involved in the pilot had left their respective schools by the end of term 2. Information collected provides insight into the challenges these students faced. Despite being positive about returning to school and being part of the pilot, many of them were dealing with a range of issues that not only impacted on their ability to attend school and make progress but also impacted on their wellbeing.

At the coal-face

None of which is anything like news to Betty Diprose, Guidance Counsellor at Waikato’s Huntly College. Betty has been a counsellor for three years, and a teacher prior to that. She now leads the Teen Parents in the Mainstream pilot at her school. During her time at the education ‘coal face’, she’s noticed a number of trends that repeat themselves like a tired script whenever she’s introduced to young prospective parents.

“In my experience, I have to say that education in terms of mainstream schooling typically just stops. Well, it does and it doesn’t, I should say. In some cases, some of the young parents I’ve worked with – particularly the ones with strong whānau support, the ones who have good family relationships, and are in a position where they can talk about it – they can continue as mainstream students, until closer to the time of birth.

“For the mums who don’t have that strong parental support, I’m sorry to say that in my experience, their schooling just evaporates, it’s finished.”

Betty emphasises over and over during discussion on the topic that whānau is the biggest influencing factor as to whether young parents stand any chance at continuing their education. Strong familial support provides stability, she says, and it’s stability that is the difference between a young life that is irrevocably disrupted and one that takes a detour.

“What we’ve found – and I guess it’s a bit of a generalisation - is that the lifestyle and the decisions that the young person has lived and made before they become pregnant affects what happens after they become pregnant. So if they’re not making any major changes in their lifestyle, the problems these kids might have had before pregnancy – whether we’re talking about drugs, alcohol, truancy, associations, and transience of lifestyle – tend to continue. In fact pregnancy can seem to exacerbate some of these problems.”

So it follows then that schools would consider connecting with whānau to be something they could do that could help engender positive education outcomes for teenage parents; this is something that Valerie Rooderkerk, Assistant Principal at Wanganui City College says her school engages in as a matter of course, and that these existing connections made it that much easier to let whānau know that the school was taking an active interest in the welfare – educationally and pastorally – of their daughters.

“In many cases, the girls had great whānau support. A couple of the girls were in fifth year to start with, and they had a number of challenges, that were pre-existing unfortunately. I think that at the end of the day when these young people go back to chaos at home, it’s really hard to keep their eye on the goal.

“I think though that the parents of every one of these girls had come to the decision that their child’s continuing education was the best thing for them. We have small whānau classes where we meet with parents once a term, which really helps.”

Business as usual

At Huntly College, Betty and her colleagues identified immediately that the priority was initial emotional support, particularly in the case of recently pregnant young mothers-to-be.

“There’s a major ‘coming to terms’ with how they’re going to respond to pregnancy, whether they’re a young mum or a young dad. There’s a huge transition period: there’s a lot of initial shock; there’s denial, there’s a feeling of ‘who can I tell?’, so it’s definitely a period of reassessment of life for those kids affected.

“The big thing that we asked ourselves straight away was ‘how can we help these young people manage the awkwardness, the feeling of not fitting in anymore?’ I think many teen parents feel immediately as though they have entered into a different group, that they no longer fit into the peer groups that they had previously associated with. They can feel quite awkward coming back into a mainstream class.

Valerie at Wanganui City College says that the right response to this potential for young parents to start seeing themselves as ‘other’ is to normalise school life – both for the young parent, and for those in their peer group. To what extent this is possible might be influenced by whether the school has experience integrating young parents. Valerie is clearly proud of her colleagues, students and the school as a whole in refusing to buy into the idea that life circumstance should have any bearing on inclusion.

“That was really interesting actually. In a lot of ways, for us as a school it was really just business as usual. We’ve had a number of girls here before who’ve had babies, or who were pregnant. For us, it’s just about ‘hey, this isn’t a big mistake, these young people haven’t done anything wrong, it’s just a hiccup in their lives, and we want you to be at school.’ So the other students have been incredible, and so were the teachers. The girls on the programme brought their babies into school sometimes, and teachers were quite happy for them to be part of classes. The only complaint I got was, ‘so-and-so brought baby into class today, and it was great, the only thing is I’d love a wee bit of warning next time so I can move desks to accommodate a pram!’ I’m very proud of our staff and our school for being so welcoming and supportive of these girls, it was just business as usual as I say.”

The little things

Normalisation is all about the little things, says Valerie – or at least those things that might seem little, but which can amount to a significant obstacle.

At Wanganui City College, one of those ‘little things’ was school uniform. Only one of the young prospective or current mothers enrolled on the pilot programme was a current student at the school; the rest came from other schools.

“We were really clear that we didn’t want them to stand out – of course they were special in that they were mums, or were about to become mums, but we didn’t want them to feel like they were wearing a big label saying ‘I’m pregnant’ or anything. So we wanted them to be in school uniform like anyone else, and we made that happen.”

All schools will have different experiences in this respect, and often the problem isn’t those around young parents, it’s the parents themselves, says Betty Diprose.

“There was certainly a hell of a lot of support from all of our staff for what we were trying to do. They were very open to exploring for example how we might – after one of the girls gave birth – how we could accommodate the baby and the mum in a classroom, because we don’t have any provision for day care.

“From our perspective, we thought it should be fine, especially given the level of support. Only one of our girls was really keen to give it a go, and unfortunately she just felt awkward. She felt very conscious of the baby in the classroom, she was worried that it was going to cry, and disturb the class. We set up a dedicated little family room, as a place where the mums could go with their babies, to feed or to have time out or whatever. This same mum tried that as well, but really unfortunately it just didn’t work for her, so we knew we needed to try something else.”

As an interim response, Betty and her team enrolled the student concerned at Te Kura, so that papers could be undertaken from home. Regular supervision from the school coordinator as well as scheduled meetings helped things run as smoothly as possible.

Anachronisms at home

Unfortunately, says Valerie, stigma attached to teenage parents often goes well beyond the school gates. It’s a frustration to her that traditional – one might say anachronistic – responses among well-intentioned whānau can so comprehensively shoot down her best efforts to keep young mums in education.

“The really interesting thing is that for a lot of the fathers of our babies - and we had a few that were still at school - it somehow became ‘the boy’s education is really important’, in the eyes of the boy’s parents. And so in a number of cases, we found that there was this expectation that the girls would sacrifice their education. I know that some of the girls found that very frustrating. I think it’s a very old-fashioned approach.

“I see it as one of our responsibilities to encourage the idea that both parents need education. With that in mind, we encouraged some of the boys to attend the parenting courses we facilitated [as part of the pilot].”

Hauora – holistic wellbeing

Betty says that her role within the pilot is a constantly evolving endeavour. As she has progressed, Betty sees the school’s role as that of a pivot, around which all those in need of support can move, and join up with other spokes of the school community, as well as outside assistance. It’s all about whānau, Betty reiterates.

“In a number of cases, we became key support people really, in many of these aspects of their lives, as well as their school lives, because we realised that the two are inseparable in the lives of young parents. It turned into a real hauora – meaning holistic wellbeing kind of role that we ended up playing.

“We very quickly worked out that it was useless and self-defeating to just rigidly focus on academic performance, assessment and that kind of thing, and compiling statistics. To make any kind of difference, we knew our involvement had to be far wider than that.”

Leveraging networks

Coming back to the point that pre-existing issues – like drugs for example – can often be brought to a head when young teens become pregnant, Betty says that making connections with agencies that had something to offer her young parents was a crucial step.

One of the roles Betty quickly realised she must help to fulfil was to “walk alongside [young parents on the pilot] to support them in dealing with their obstacles.” This has meant getting involved with community agencies like addiction support services for example, or enlisting assistance to deal with domestic violence. The journey presented unexpected opportunities, says Betty.

“It was just a case of doing as much networking as humanly possible, and seeing where that took us. For example, I found out that an organisation called Whai Marama Youth Services had youth coaches that had worked in the school before with students at risk of falling out of the school system.

“So really it was a matter of joining the dots between these agencies and our programme, it was a big effort to get out there and find out who in the community was able to come alongside and help the girls with things that were outside of school and education. Because we quickly realised that because these issues were at the heart of the reasons why school and learning become so difficult for young parents.”

Supporting schools to support young parents

The principle of inclusiveness through which modern schools view every interaction, every policy, and every programme within their control dictates that there is no such thing as the student for which there is no hope, for which funds might be better directed elsewhere. Teenage parents surely fall into this category. The idea that young women who become pregnant have irredeemably consigned themselves to a life that doesn’t include education belongs to another age, and schools by their supportive response to the circumstances that any young person finds themselves in are in a prime position to do good work in dispelling such anachronisms. Betty says that the Teen Parents in the Mainstream pilot can do much to support schools to support young parents.

“I think we’ve had some success; to the extent that some of the ‘parents of the parents’ have enrolled as adult students at Huntly College to continue their schooling. I’m very proud of that. In every sense we’re blazing a trail here, that I hope will be useful to other schools down the line. It’s been amazing, you just don’t know where this thing’s going to go next!

“We’re here. We have this opportunity. This is what we can do.”

Valerie Rooderkerk at Wanganui City College does it in a sentence.

“We want these girls to be the best mums the can possibly be, and the best mum possible is an educated mum, who is able to make choices for herself and her baby.”

*References are available on request.

Teen parents in the mainstream at Taupo-nui-a-tia-college, Taupo

Guidance counsellor Hillary Graham explains why the Teen Parents in the Mainstream initiative contributed to keeping young parents at school. Two young mothers participated in the programme last year at her school.

“Both of our young mums are valuable members of the school community, contributing and participating in every area of school life, for example in sports teams; kapa haka, and the school ball committee. Their school attendance in 2014 was over seventy six per cent - with both children aged under one at the beginning of the school year. These students (our young mums) are the main caregivers for their children, but also have wonderful support from family and whānau.

“The Teen Parents in the Mainstream Schools Pilot at Taupo-nui-a-Tia College was instrumental in the success these young women achieved academically, socially, culturally and in sport in 2014. Continuing with their education in the mainstream at their College of choice, with key support from staff, has been invaluable. The flexibility of the pilot ensured the families supporting these young Mums could make the decisions best suited for the families, young mums and children involved – for example, financial support assisted in costs – whether school fees, course related costs or childcare.”

Early feedback to researchers:

Young people involved in the pilot are positive at being back at school.

Some schools are using the funding to pay for a dedicated person to work with and support their teen parents.

Other schools are using the funding to remove barriers that make it difficult for students to fully participate in school (e.g. payment of school donations, school trips, childcare and transport).

In other cases, funding was used to address students learning goals such as extra tuition in a particular subject.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Teen Parents in the Mainstream pilot, and how your school can join, email

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:52 pm, 23 February 2015

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