Small changes in practice driving big improvements in engagement

Issue: Volume 101, Number 8

Posted: 30 June 2022
Reference #: 1HAUuD

Two schools in Ōtautahi Christchurch are seeing a positive shift in attendance and engagement after a concerted effort to strengthen relationships both within school, and with whānau and the wider community.

The longest morning tea in the world

The longest morning tea in the world

Kindness sits at the heart of school values, says Addington Te Kura Taumatua principal Donna Buchanan.

“It is a brilliant behaviour that when practised can have huge impact on awesome achievement and in becoming a connected citizen.”

Donna believes focusing on kindness has had an impact on student and community engagement which has had a flow-on effect on attendance.

“Ākonga and whānau who feel the kindness connection (aroha and ofa) want to belong, know they belong and want to come to school – they don’t want to miss out on the fun and the feeling.”

Whānau connections

The school has established several initiatives to strengthen connections with whānau and keep them engaged within the community of learning, such as having a whānau room and weekly online assemblies with whānau challenges.

“Our whānau room is open for all parents to meet and gather over a café-brewed coffee to talk in a warm, safe space with other parents,” says Donna.

“Once (Alert Level) Orange protocols were lifted, we had a Mother’s Day assembly with parents invited for coffee beforehand. There wasn't a seat left in the whānau room! It was the first time all year we had been able to have an assembly without vaccine passes so for many of our new parents it was the first time they had met. Conversation flowed and there was a real hubbub of happiness and belonging. When the mums came to assembly, they were all given roses and chocolates and went in the draw for pampering products. It felt like we had really made a difference.”

Online assemblies provide a fun way for whānau to engage with students and kaiako, with challenges including My Whānau’s Got Talent, hut-building, and lots of singing and quizzes.

Donna says whānau sent in video clips for the talent quest and that the sense of fun and risk-taking was palpable.

“There were lots of 'savage love' TikToks with all the moves and big smiles from everyone, including our staff and their families. One family made a music video with Dad drumming, Mum on keyboard, one sister on bass and the other on lead vocals. Lockdown gave opportunities for more families to engage with their child's learning and school life because more time was available.”

The school also established a walking bus for mothers who were afraid to wear hijab after the mosque attacks in Christchurch on 15 March 2019.

“Those students would have stayed at home in fear if other mums in our school community hadn’t walked alongside them in kindness, some wearing headscarves themselves to show solidarity.”

the school hosted a kindness week which included The Longest Morning Tea in the World

The school hosted a kindness week which included The Longest Morning Tea in the World

Continuing to support its Muslim community, the school hosted a kindness week which included The Longest Morning Tea in the World.

“The students look forward to this each year. We gather on the basketball courts with two rows of trestle tables laden with food that the children have brought in. The rows stretch down each side of the court to create a long table and a long(er) morning tea. Parents and caregivers are welcome, and everyone pitches in to get food out and to clean up afterwards.

“We start by talking about how being kind can heal sadness and make people feel safe, and we sing Michal's K I N D Kindness Is Free. This is on the anniversary of the mosque shootings and, in talking to parents who have come along, we get the sense that this is a safe and special way to meet and
remember a nation's tragedy that happened on our street and what it meant to all of us.

“Engaging in kindness engages us in learning. No one wants to miss out on that.”

This strengthened sense of community and belonging can be seen in the increased number of Muslim girls wearing their hijabs with pride and confidence each day, says Donna.

One mother offered to teach Arabic classes to any student wanting to learn, which Donna says was a fantastic learning opportunity especially for their Muslim students who, at the time, considered this a safer option then  attending the mosque. That parent is now a teacher aide in the school’s Conductive Education Unit.

Kindness in a hybrid environment

The school drew on a variety of ways to keep acts of kindness happening both during Covid-19 lockdown and hybrid learning, such as:

  • Holding outdoor hui, staggered and small, so parents could still celebrate student achievements
  • A weekly pānui sharing the learning taking place, including lots of photos
  • Co-writing a school ‘Lockdown Superheroes’ song and recording and creating a music video once back on site
  • Staff driving in procession in decorated cars, tooting and calling greetings, and dropping off supplies and food that would normally be available at school.

“During the first lockdown it became apparent that many of our whanāu were sticking so closely to rules that many of our ākonga had not left their houses for weeks. Some new migrant families were unaware they could go for a walk in their local area, parents were not taking their children for rides in the car or to the supermarket so the only faces they had seen were each other’s. While we had essential worker staff at school, we asked staff working in bubbles to join us in a car ride around the community. Families emailed in to let us know they would love to see us; we planned our route and ETA and on the Friday afternoon off we went. What we saw warmed our hearts – pom poms, banners, jumping kids. When we shared the video, the families fed back that it had been so good to see other faces and they had been waiting all day to do something different.”

Fun, for fun’s sake

Donna says having fun together brings out kindness and camaraderie, so staff purposely look for opportunities to have fun for fun’s sake.

This includes keeping fit together with colour runs and obstacle courses, spending time in the new inclusive playground, which also has a dance mat and stage, and doing things as a school like dressup days, cultural days and sharing kai.Sharing kai

There is also a culture of kindness amongst staff. “Being kind to each other and to ourselves has also meant teachers have been able to keep their tanks full to inspire and engage their ākonga in learning.”

Ways of doing this included establishing a wellbeing team resourced through strategic planning, Covid care packs delivered to teachers in isolation, doing the Clifton Strength Finder coaching as a staff, and a series of off-site half days allowing the leadership team to check in with teachers.

They also alternate each year between a leadership team retreat and a whole staff retreat before starting the school year.

“We had our first full staff retreat, 32 of us, last year in Hanmer Springs. It was a stinking hot couple of days without air conditioning and in shared accommodation but that didn't stop us enjoying ourselves. On the last evening, we held a Western-themed murder mystery night, each of us playing a character such as sheriff, barman, and cowboy. Who knew we had so many 'dramatic' staff? We had two new staff members who bravely got right into it, and it gave them an opportunity to connect with all the staff. The fun and role-playing went on late into the night and apparently some staff were still up into the wee hours talking about it. So, with 2023 rapidly approaching we have plans to have our second one... but with aircon this time.”

Waltham School

Across the city at Waltham School, attendance and engagement is also on the up after the introduction of carefully considered adaptations and support systems.

Principal Gordon Caddie says that following the initial Covid-19 lockdowns the school identified many families who were nervous about re-engaging, and that attendance and punctuality was poor.

Setting up groups to walk together to school with a ‘lead parent’ worked very well, he says.

“These groups started quite formally with a bit of work organising them from our end, but they quickly started running themselves. It helped parents who were stranded at home with preschoolers and whose children were anxious. They children looked forward to being picked up outside their house daily.” Gordon says that once good routines and confidence were established, the need for walking buses reduced.

Positive social behaviours

At Waltham School, problems with student engagement and behaviour are addressed in the same way as problems with academic learning.

This includes whole school planning and explicit teaching of positive social skills and desired behaviours.

“As a whole school we designed our School Vision for Behaviour as a 'matrix'. At staff planning meetings we prioritise areas for explicit teaching and teachers can share innovative and creative ways to support children to develop the skills and attitudes that result in positive behaviour.”

The school also supports students facing engagement or behavioural challenges with time in smaller groups, and even 1:1 rather than a whole class.

They then build slowly to whole class teaching for longer periods as a child's skills grow. Extra staffing for this approach is extremely challenging, and Gordon says regular funding channels are supplemented by management team time, support from the Waltham Youth Trust, Social Workers in Schools (SWIS) and other agencies.

The school also provides targeted support via a programme called Step it Up. At the start of the year, teachers and management identify students who are performing below expectation.

As a team, they design a plan with specific actions that target attendance and the home and school partnership.

Actions might include a weekly phone call to check in with whānau, a buddy family who can collect a child if their parent cannot get them to school, and provision of an incentive scheme for anxious children.

“Children who are identified as having problems connecting at school have support put in place. For example, checking in with a trusted and caring adult when they arrive at school can make a real difference. For some children, a smile from the school secretary is all that's needed each morning, while for another child it might be 10 minutes and breakfast with a teacher aide each day to give them that incentive to get to school on time. We also enjoy the support of many wonderful families who like to help each other. With high numbers in transitional or emergency housing, having a family friend or neighbour with a vehicle sorted to pick them up is the only way to achieve regular attendance.”

Pastoral support

The school has a pastoral team comprising the principal, a SENCO, the lead RTLB, SWIS, an Oranga Tamariki liaison, a police community constable, a Mana Ake liaison, and guests. Team meetings are held fortnightly to review supports that are, or can be, put in place for students and families with known pastoral care challenges.

Gordon says this community group collaboration leads to better role clarification and wider thinking around problem solving.

“Our team pastoral approach helps with planning and implementing supports for students and families with a huge range of challenges. One recent example is the successful transition of a child who had attended eight schools with almost no history of positive engagement in a classroom. For another family, having regular food parcels organised by a local aide agency through our social worker and then delivered to the home by our SENCO.”

Do you have an example of good practice promoting positive shifts in attendance and engagement? Education Gazette would love to hear about it. Contact

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:47 am, 30 June 2022

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