Responding Authentically to Pasifika Children’s Learning and Identity

Responding Authentically to Pasifika Children’s Learning and Identity

The pacific population in NZ is the fastest growing population, faster even than the general population is growing!
Pacific Islanders make up 7.4% of NZ’s population. The seven main Pacific ethnic groups in NZ in order of greatest…

Pacific Islanders make up 7.4% of NZ’s population. The seven main Pacific ethnic groups in NZ in order of greatest numbers are Samoa, Cook Islands, Tonga, Niue, Fiji, Tokelau and Tuvalu. Pacific peoples remained the major ethnic group with the highest proportion of children (aged 0–14 years), at 39 percent. In comparison, children make up the following proportions of other major ethnic groups:

  • European – 19.6 percent
  • Māori – 33.8 percent
  • Asian – 20.6 percent
  • Middle Eastern/Latin American/African – 25.5 percent

Of the children in Pacific families, almost 70% are in the 0-4 years age group. However, despite these vast numbers, Pacific children have the lowest percentage of enrolment in ECE at around 85%, compared with around 91% for Maori children, 95% for Asian children and 98% for European. This means making ECE accessable for Pacific families is vitally important and the first step to this is finding out what is holding them back and what they want from ECE for their children. There are a vast number of barriers which are in the way of Pacific families enrolling their children in Early Childhood Education services.

Many of these barriers are not limited to only Pacific families, but they do affect the vast majority. The first of these is the most important for us to understand as it relates to differences in the Pacific culture. To be able to respond appropriately and respectfully, we must first understand these differences. As close relationships with family is so important to Pasifika people, parents often prefer to have their child or children at home with them. This is a normal aspect of life for them, their children are at home until they turn five and begin primary school.

Quotes from two Pacific parents interviewed by Linda Mitchell for her 2013 research paper ‘Reducing barriers to participation’ –

“I rather them beside me than anywhere else—I feel like it’s not safe out there for them. The kindys are all right, it’s not them it’s just me. I don’t want to be apart from the kids. I feel like if something happens out there in the world it will be hard for me to get them. Whereas, if something happens and they’re here with me it’s better.”

“He’s always been with me, I’ve never let him go … It was more of me letting go of him. I’ve always had him with me— everywhere I go—it was just that parting thing. I knew he was well ready when he was about three but it was still like I don’t want him going.”

Respecting and responding to differing cultural and language aspirations is an area that many ECE services fall short on and so many families from different cultural backgrounds, including Pasifika families never gain a sense of belonging and that their values and aspirations are important. This is a huge barrier to the participation of pasifika families as this is of vital importance to them culturally.

Cost of fees is a huge barrier for many families. An unintended consequence of the 20 free hrs scheme is that fees outside of the 20 free are often loaded to compensate for the low funding received for the 20 hrs free. This leads to many ECE centres appearing to be very driven by money which is of course off putting to families in itself. There is very little responsiveness to the financial needs of families from a service, it is simply here is the cost you need to pay. Not only fees, but also other costs of attendance – food, transport, clothing. This too can be a huge burden to families, simply having the money for petrol or bus fares to get their child to preschool can mean going without something else for a family. If this is a big issue, a family will simply put attending an ECE service in the too hard basket.

Often the cheapest and most accessible centres will have long waiting lists which can put families off as it probably means to them that it is unobtainable. Hours of opening may not fit with a family’s needs. Some services have a minimum of two or three days enrolment but parents cannot afford this. These inflexible enrolment policies are a barrier as some families have enrolled and got into debt and so they will never go back. Location can be a barrier for many as transport is a cost many families cannot afford. Maybe the only centre they can get into is a long travel away which means many absent days for the child as costs of travel cannot always be met. How do I enrol? What is the process?

Many Pasifika families will come across as unsure and even shy, this could be viewed as a cultural difference and can seem stand offish to non-pacific people. It can come from the high regard given to teachers by Pasifika culture and feelings of inadequacy Pasifika people may feel around educators. It can also come from a difficulty with literacy skills as English is not their first language, therefore reading, understanding and signing enrolment forms can pose difficulties. This can also lead to the worries of “What is expected of me once I have signed?” All of this combined can lead to families feeling overwhelming, that they are being judged and viewed with prejudice. Belonging is crucial – An ECE service where all participants experience a sense of belonging and wellbeing, a sense that this is our place, we are welcome here, our contribution is valued is a service that will appeal to Pasifika families.

As with Maori, family is very important in Pasifika culture, therefore really getting to know Pasifika families shows respect and that you value their collaboration in the learning and development of their child. Teachers are regarded very highly in Pasifika culture and so many families will shy away from asking questions or offering their own ideas as they view themselves as not knowing as much as a teacher would about educating their child. This is often taken the wrong way by non-Pasifika teachers, who instead view this as disinterest by the parents and family members.

Understanding this and other cultural differences is vital for you to be able to engage Pasifika families in the education of their children. Expressing to them that they are the experts in their child and their culture and that you want to work with them to ensure that you are responding to their child’s learning in an authentic and culturally sensitive way will help to show families that you truly value their input and want to understand more about their beliefs, values and aspirations.

The Ministry of Education introduced the Pasifika Education Plan 2013-2017, which had specific goals, targets and actions for ECE:

  • Pasifika children begin primary school well prepared for education success
  • All pasifika parents, famiies and communities understand the importance of ECE
  • ECE services are culturally intelligent and effectively engage pasifika children, families and communities

“Pasifika Success will be characterised by demanding, vibrant, dynamic, successful Pasifika learners, secure and confident in their identities, languages and cultures, navigating through all curriculum areas such as the arts, sciences, technology, social sciences and mathematics”.

The challenge for teachers is to build on pasifika views of learning so as to honour this within our centres. Adapting these and making them fit for specific purposes is important. Being able to implement this way of viewing learning to all aspects of curriculum so that your teaching takes into account the cultural differences, beliefs and aspirations of Pacific people. This means learning about and understanding the many Pacific models and how they can be incorporated into curriculum.

It is vitally important to have a conceptual framework for teacher knowledge and practice to be able to establish genuine knowledge of children and their families. As teachers, we must strive to build ongoing, authentic relationships with children and families so that we can construct culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy with children and their families. Simply participating in ECE in itself is not sufficient as a way to enable Pasifika children to begin primary school well prepared for education success. It is also not sufficient for Pasifika families and communities to understand the importance of ECE if they are simply participating.

Teachers need guidance, analytical frameworks and the ability to reflect and learn in order to recognise, respond to, record and revisit children’s interests authentically. Teachers must avoid making ‘surface-based’ assumptions about children’s interests and stereotyping children and families as making assumptions about families based on a limited cultural knowledge threatens the relationship you are trying to form and grow with both the child and their family as well as risking the quality of interactions and collaboration. Truly getting to know families and collaborating with them on their goals and aspirations for their children will grow your knowledge and understanding of the cultural similarities and differences that exist with Pasifika children and their families.

Having this deeper knowledge and understanding will enable teachers to respond to children’s interests and learning in a culturally appropriate and authentic way, as well as being able to show families you understand the beliefs and values that are important to them and are striving to include this in the every day curriculum for their child. An important aspect of a Pacific person’s identity is cultural practice. Cultural practice includes the language, values, and social institutions that make up a particular ethnic group’s culture or society. Cultural practices also play an important role in passing cultural knowledge from one generation to another. This knowledge is often portrayed in stories, cultural models and metaphors.

Think about how you strive to respond authentically to Pasifika children and their families. How do you build the relationships and really try to learn and understand the cultural background that they are bringing with them to education?

Interested in learning more about this topic? Check out our course – Pasifika Learning and Identity Development – via the Online Learning Hub.

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