After our speaker session on 17 May 2019, Cassandra Favager sat down with Donna Provoost over a cup of coffee to delve more deeply into Donna’s personal insights about the findings of the important piece of research recently completed through the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, exploring “what makes a good life” for New Zealand’s children.
By Cassandra Favager
You took a very deliberate approach to how you engaged with children and young people and made sure their voices were heard, including referencing which organisations you worked with and the skill sets of the people leading the engagements. What lessons can you share about how this worked and are you planning any further engagement with the groups of young people who participated?
Firstly, we couldn’t have done this in such a short period of time, and in such a comprehensive way, without all the work we have done to get here. We have totally changed our approach to engagement, making sure we go to children and young people in their spaces. That includes schools, who provided our platform for the online surveying, and you just can’t show up once to schools. You need to go with good intention and demonstrate good practice. That’s how you build trust and get invited back.
Secondly, we had to think carefully about who to engage. For example, rather than starting from “we want to know about young people’s views on sexual health, let’s ask a group of seniors from a nearby school”, you need to think carefully about the right people in this space, with the relationships, skills and knowledge to talk to young people. This is so important because children need to be safe; there needs to be follow-up and pastoral care if they need it. The people engaging with young people need to know how to deal with disclosures. By partnering with groups working in that space we shared the responsibility to make it a safe experience for children.
You have talked about “activity-based” engagement. Can you give some examples?
Engagement needs to be appropriate to children’s age and development stage. So for example, we’d run arts and crafts activities with young children where we would ask them to draw a house and put in it the things that make them happy. With older children, it was about asking them to describe what they would take to a desert island to make it perfect. We co-create these with the groups helping with the engagement - you need the people who have the skills to plan and run activities like this, and the ability to interpret and understand what children are saying. That way we can really understand the themes and insights.
You shouldn’t underrate the importance of having people with the skills to do this. Skills to interpret and understand theme and insights - these are professional skills that need to be recognised.
What surprised you most about what children and young people told you?
Well we’ve been working at this a long time so there was not that much that surprised us. It really reaffirmed the data on hardship, and corroborated the 70/20/10 story we tell (70% of children are doing fine, 20% have some things going on, and 10% have a lot of challenges. The 2% with really serious challenges was probably new to us.
Something that we found by engaging with children with a range of experience is that there are children who have already lowered their expectations and their aspiration for their own happiness, yet as soon as we asked them about what they want for other kids, we break the circuit and they talk about the same things that everyone else does. Their ambitions for themselves have already been made smaller.
I enjoyed your description of how David Attenborough might describe an ecosystem of family and community around children, and how important it is that that ecosystem is healthy for children’s wellbeing. What stops people who work with children every day from being able to see that clearly?
I think it’s easy to fall into assumptions about what the issues are, because we have been doing what we do for so long. Even if we are right, it’s important to ask and engage with children and to get them to share it with us. As a result of the research, we’ve been contacted by lots of people asking how they can put this information into practice but I’ve also had emails from people to say ‘thank you, this made me really think and I’m going to change my practice’.
If we all were to do just one thing differently in our interactions with children and young people, I would say genuinely listen and engage - value what children have to say.
How is the Office of the Children’s Commissioner using these findings?
Firstly, we are sharing it widely and encouraging people to put it into practice. We are also using it to inform all of our advocacy work – for example, looking at particular cohorts to inform our input into current reviews and submissions. We are also looking deeper at the information we collected and analysing by different cohort and issue, and we’ll be publishing short snaps on those as we go.
You also mentioned that people can contact you if they are interested in looking at specific cohorts or areas of interest. How can people get in touch with you?
They can email me directly. We have started this already, and are looking at the experience of teen parents, children with disabilities and kids in the care of Oranga Tamariki.
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