The balancing act of student engagement and support

Issue: Volume 102, Number 5

Posted: 20 April 2023
Reference #: 1HA_Tf

By tracking attendance and following up with students in a non-judgemental, nonpunitive and understanding manner, teachers and senior leadership at a Paeroa school have been able to implement methods to help students in need.

Student leaders attending a GRIP Leadership Conference in Manukau.

Student leaders attending a GRIP Leadership Conference in Manukau.

New approaches to attendance at Miller Avenue School in Paeroa have opened up channels of communication and allowed students to see staff as trustworthy people who can and will support them. 

“It starts with the children and ends with the children,” says principal Deborah Eastham.

Deborah (Whaea Debs) is a first-time principal, but a natural leader with the compassion and foresight that Miller Avenue needed. 

Whaea Debs hopes her first role as a principal is also her last – simply because she couldn’t imagine leaving her current school, its students, and the Paeroa community she has come to regard as whānau. 

Since June 2022, the policies and changes prompted and rolled out by Debs at Miller Avenue have brought noticeable and positive change to the school’s culture and reputation. 

From Papatoetoe to Paeroa

As the 2022 winter settled in, Whaea Debs enthusiastically packed up her belongings and left what she knew to make a new home and career in the rural Waikato town, with her husband and two teenage daughters following in the bloom of spring and new beginnings. 

At Papatoetoe West School, Debs had worked from being a classroom teacher up into the senior leadership team over many years. Within this time, she attended the National Aspiring Principals’ Programme (NAPP) which prompted her to enrol in a Master of Educational Leadership following recommendations from the programme facilitator. 

Upon completion she realised her passion and ambition wasn’t entirely locked to the big city life, or a school with an ever-growing roll. So, halfway through term 2 in 2022, she started her journey at Miller Avenue. 

Nelly and Oscar working on cake recipes and baking.

Nelly and Oscar working on cake recipes and baking.

“I really wanted to be part of a small community. Papatoetoe West at its biggest was 840 students – it was a really big school. I just thought I really want to be in a smaller area, a community, because I’m a real people person, and I love chatting to people and meeting people and sharing things with others.”

Like many schools around Aotearoa, Miller Avenue experienced a tumultuous time during the pandemic. The school hadn’t had a principal for an extended period, leaving the school community and its vision in a state of flux.

Despite the small student body of 135, the school had difficulties maintaining and encouraging regular attendance and so the roll continued to drop at an unprecedented rate. 

Nelly and Oscar working on cake recipes and baking.

Nelly and Oscar working on cake recipes and baking.

These circumstances didn’t discourage Debs, as she has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Growing up in a low socioeconomic environment, with many challenges in a family of five, she could relate to the experiences of many of the school’s students.

Debs is big on social justice, and her lived experiences and rise from hardship are tools she keeps on her belt to assist in facilitating change. 

“I’ve been in that position where school was such an important place for me. I think that’s where my passion comes from. I really adored my teachers and believed they wanted the best for me. 

“I want students to come here, and know that they are safe, they’re loved and cared for, and that people really want the best for them. I want them to feel that when their foundation is strong, they are well set up to feel success in their learning. That’s a very strong desire that I have for all students.”

He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata

Prior to even setting foot on Miller Avenue grounds, Debs undertook background research to garner an understanding of what was and wasn’t working for both ākonga and kaiako. 

“I work on a strengths-based model and when I came in, I had no agenda. I said, ‘tell me about how you do this or that at Miller Ave School’.

“I sat and met with every single person who works at the school and had a 45-minute hui with them. I asked what they loved about the school, what things they would like to implement if they could. They’ve been through a lot of changes with leadership. They’d had teachers coming and going. I think they were quite unsettled. So I made health and wellbeing one of my first things to look at.”

Debs asked teachers to provide students’ attendance and background information in a collaborative Google Doc she had created for each classroom. Despite the small school roll, the circumstances and backgrounds of students were diverse, and so a standard one-size-fits-all approach would be unsuitable.

After analysing the data collected, she sought to implement the most appropriate and individualised initiatives that would assist each student and their whānau, and thereby teachers.  

“It’s about building those relationships so that they know, ‘you’re a part of this’.

“It’s a three-legged stool; all of us need to be supporting each other, otherwise the child won’t be able to balance… so it’s about every teacher doing that.” 

Debs felt it was important for the school to work more closely alongside whānau and community. Her meetings with parents were productive in understanding possible deficits in how the school went about facilitating student engagement, and even the out-of-school circumstances that posed barriers to regular attendance. 

Debs says this was achieved through an open door policy, and taking the time to have those conversations.

“A lot of processes and systems have been developed together; I prefer to work collaboratively. 

“Along those lines is getting them to school. There’s a school van that will collect children. At the moment the parents are paying, it’s not a huge amount, but I would like to get funding for that. That would be amazing.

“We’ve got a new caretaker who’s doing three rounds a day, so that’s helping get our kids to school. That really is a win for us. It’s about ‘what are the barriers?’ and how can we support the parents to make it happen for them.”

Lachlan, Taylor and Bronson choosing to read during break time.

Lachlan, Taylor and Bronson choosing to read during break time.

Engagement through wellbeing

Attendance tracking continued throughout the rest of the 2022 school year to pre-empt decreased attendance and address it at the earliest convenience. It also served as positive reinforcement for students whose attendance and engagement had noticeably increased.

“Around 23 percent of students were attending school 70 percent or less (chronic absences) in terms 1 and 2. By term 4, that had reduced to seven percent. I could share that back and say, ‘Actually, you are making some progress here, that’s great, keep going!’. 

“If you just share all the negative stuff, then they end up getting downhearted and thinking, ‘I’m not making a difference, so why even bother’.” 

As daily attendance rose, Debs began to consider how the school could keep students engaged, happy and comfortable while on site. In accordance with that goal, this year they launched a Life Skills for Mental Health and Wellbeing programme run by an external facilitator.

An objective of the schoolwide programme is to teach and support ākonga in recognising and expressing their emotions, with Debs saying self-regulation is an important skill for students to learn.

Some of the mechanisms implemented have been deep breathing exercises, a class hīkoi in the morning, and emotional intensity ratings. 

“We were getting students coming into school upset and then things would kick off from there. We’re teaching them a ‘one to five’, where they can use their fingers to rate their feelings. It’s basically about supporting them to be aware of how they’re feeling, and if they’re feeling that way, what sorts of things they can do.”

Participation is not limited to students. Staff are actively encouraged to use these tools themselves, which then promotes regular use around the school. 

“What’s great about it is that we can do it with the teachers as well. The other day a staff member came in, and was all worked up. I asked, ‘Are you a five? Are you a four?’ and they kind of laughed but then tried a strategy.” 

Prior to the official start of term 1, teaching and support staff met to go over the programme. 

“We drew pictures and coloured in on a gingerbread person how we think a rating of ‘one’ would look. Then we did ‘three’, then ‘five’.”

Positive reinforcement

Principles of restorative justice are valued by Debs, and she sees them as integral to keeping children afloat and out of conflict. After delivering a high number of stand-downs last year she sought to move away from punitive responses to behaviour. She hopes that initiative and affirmative action at early stages will curb any major incidents. 

“It’s about setting them up for success from that foundation. If they’re feeling supported, if they’re happy, then that learning can take place and they can love coming to school,” says Debs. 

Alongside the health and wellbeing programme, the school has used initiatives from Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) to promote belonging.  Systems like the Choices Board involve rewarding good mahi and behaviour. Students receive tokens and at each token milestone their achievements are acknowledged. 

“They get arm bands, they get Milo with a friend if they get 30 points, all that kind of stuff. 

Pania receiving the first of many 'Principal Awards' acknowledging students showing school values.

Pania receiving the first of many 'Principal Awards' acknowledging students showing school values.

“The first child has nearly got to 100 on their tokens. That’s where they get a Principal’s Award, an acknowledgement letter sent home, and a special mention in the newsletter. They also go on the roll of honour for the term where their name is displayed out front and they can decorate their own name card. We want to push the positives.” 

No school is perfect, and unsurprisingly there are still some incidents – albeit less frequent – that need to be dealt with quickly and seriously. 

“We’ve had to draw a line in the sand and stand students down for vaping and things like that. We’re kind of just trying to say, ‘We have high expectations here and that’s not OK’.

“This is what I tell everyone I meet – it starts with the students and ends with the students. We always need to be focusing on that.”

Agency in leadership

Behind the scenes Debs has frequent meetings with staff, both in large groups and individually. After an extended period of inconsistent leadership and uncertain values, Debs wants to ensure staff are not only on board with new processes but to check how they are keeping up with the changes. 

“They’ve actually done really well, the staff. There’s a lot of new things to take on board and I can already see such a big benefit with the students.”

All senior students are seen as essential in demonstrating and promoting school values of hard mahi and positive behaviour. They have great influence over the conduct of younger students – as much as the official rules and authority of teaching staff.

Until this year, the Miller Avenue student leadership group, made up of select Year 8s, was known as the student council.

Debs was not fond of the council term and wanted to assign titles that reflect each student’s achievements in reaching such standing. At the beginning of the year, the roles were rebranded.

“I’ve started fresh, they are now ‘student leaders’. I’m going to meet with them fortnightly and we’re going to talk about different events and how we can make our school better. They’ve got their own badges which we will present formally in assembly.

“The other day I got them in my office to show them the badges. You should have seen their faces, they were so blown away to get something really nice and personally named. It’s those little things that make the difference.

“I’m hoping when they stand up there with their badges, other students will look and say, ‘Wow, I want to be that person’.”

Nelly, Torino, Dreous, Marlee and Marcielle enjoy learning in Waipuna-ā-rangi (Room Seven) .

Nelly, Torino, Dreous, Marlee and Marcielle enjoy learning in Waipuna-ā-rangi (Room Seven) .

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:42 am, 20 April 2023

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