Understanding special education from the perspectives of Pasifika families

Publication Details

The aim of this report is to identify the strengths of current service provision; barriers to accessing SE services for Pasifika; and the extent to which cultural perspectives on disability and SE and the low numbers of Pasifika professionals affected engagement and satisfaction with SE services for Pasifika families.

Author(s): Lila Mauigo-Tekene, Lin Howie, Dr Bill Hagan, School of Education, Manukau Institute of Technology.

Date Published: July 2013

Executive Summary

This research was conducted in New Zealand in 2012 as a contract research project funded by the Ministry of Education.  This project arose from the Pasifika Education Priorities: Using research to realise our vision for Pasifika learners (Ministry of Education, 2012). One of the priority questions identified in the document is ‘How can we better understand special education from the perspectives of Pasifika families’? The purpose of the research was to better understand special education (SE) from the perspectives of Pasifika families in order to increase their engagement and satisfaction with SE services provided by the Ministry.  The Pasifika Education Plan 2013-2017 puts Pasifika learners, their parents, families and communities at the centre of all activities.

The research was qualitative and involved in depth interviews with eighteen Pasifika families with children of early childhood and primary school age who have special educational needs; both those engaged and those not engaged with SE services.  Ten professionals, whose role involved working with Pasifika children with special education needs and their families, were also interviewed.  In addition two focus groups were held to explore themes emerging from family and professionals’ interviews.

The aim was to identify the strengths of current service provision; barriers to accessing SE services for Pasifika; and the extent to which cultural perspectives on disability and SE and the low numbers of Pasifika professionals affected engagement and satisfaction with SE services for Pasifika families.  Participants were also asked for suggestions as to how SE services could be changed to increase engagement and satisfaction for Pasifika families.

Given that all families and the majority (80%) of professionals were Pasifika and included seven Pasifika cultural backgrounds, a blend of two different Pasifika research methodologies were used in this research project.  These methodologies included Teu le Va (Airini, Anae, Mila-Schaaf, Coxon , Mara & Sanga, 2010) and Talanoa (Vaioleti, 2003, 2006).  In addition, lalaga (process of weaving a mat) (Mulitalo-Lautā, 2000) was used as a metaphor for the snowball sampling technique used in the project (Heckathorn, 1997; Noy, 2006).  Lalaga was used for participant recruitment purposes as there was an identified challenge in making contact with families particularly those who do not currently access SE services.

Because Pasifika cultural identity is relational rather than individual, relationships were nurtured during the research.  Teu le Va (Anae, 2010) and Talanoa Research Methodologies (Vaioleti, 2003, 2006) both acknowledge the paramount importance of building and maintaining good relationships between the researchers and participants.  All families were interviewed by an interviewer from their own cultural background.  Eight of the family interviews (44%) were conducted in a participant’s first language and all were given a koha towards the cost of their contribution to the research.  The research took place within the South Auckland area and one small Central North Island city.  However, the numbers of family participants was lower than anticipated in the Central North Island city, so it was not possible to explore differences between the two communities.

Summary of Findings

A summary of key findings relating to each of the research questions are presented below followed by a list of recommendations based on the study findings.


Question 1:  What aspects of SE service provision are considered strengths by Pasifika parents and/or caregivers of service users?

The majority of the families whose children were engaged with SE services expressed some satisfaction with the support received from the professionals. Some were satisfied with the outcomes of the support on their children’s learning and development.

A substantial number of families felt that early intervention support services were strengths of SE.  Where support staff in centres and schools were skilful and built good relationships with a child and family, parents were very satisfied.

Some families reported that they valued the professionals who worked with them for their cultural understanding, passion and their willingness to extend knowledge and practice to offer a professional service.

Others felt that the professionals had developed good relationships with families which supported their children’s development and learning.  Two families said that when they had a name for their child’s special education needs for example autism, this enabled them to gain more support from early childhood and school teachers rather than their child being labelled naughty.

Question 2:  What barriers exist to accessing SE services for Pasifika parents and/or caregivers of young people with special education needs?

Two main types of barrier emerged for Pasifika families in accessing SE services.  These were personal barriers and systemic issues.

Personal barriers included language and cultural barriers and families’ lack of knowledge of available SE services.  A further sub theme emerged as economic barriers that included the lack of transportation and the cost of care for children with special education needs.

Systemic barriers included those within the SE services and the lack of more holistic support for families including their extended family whose children had special education needs.

There was also a sense that the SE services were focused primarily on the child whereas families might need counselling, and/or support to meet the additional costs of raising a child with special education needs for example.  Some families reported poor relationships between services and families; lack of coherence and communication between professionals and between professionals and families; and lack of cultural intelligence and sensitivity. There was a strong feeling from families that if they did not agree with the professionals that supported them, they might be withdrawn from that service.  The professionals interviewed reported that both early childhood and school teachers sometimes lack the skills, knowledge and capacity for identifying and referring children to SE services.  For six families in the study who were not engaged with SE services, the reason was that their early childhood teachers had not advocated for referrals.  Through this research, six of the seven ‘non engaged families’ began the process of engagement with SE services.

Question 3:  To what extent do cultural perspectives on disability and SE affect engagement and satisfaction with SE services for Pasifika families?

One of the cultural beliefs described by participants that affected their engagement and satisfaction with SE services included a belief that child rearing is the parents’/family’s responsibility and therefore help outside the family was not normally sought.  Another cultural belief expressed by some participants was that there is shame and stigma associated with having a child with special education needs.

The majority of parents reported that for their culture, having a child with a disability was seen as a punishment or even a curse for something that they had done.   Both of these beliefs might prevent families from accessing help and support. These beliefs were reported more as belonging to the grandparents’ generation rather than the parents; however grandparents can be influential in encouraging or discouraging access to support, or their ability to provide direct support to parents themselves.  This was not the same for all Pasifika cultures.  A Tokelauan participant indicated a difference between Pacific Island and NZ born, suggesting that community awareness and visibility regarding difference and disability is more pronounced when families come to New Zealand.  Some participants reflected on how difficult it is to discuss with their elders at home the meaning of the concept of ‘disability.’ Their traditional views can sometimes contradict the meaning of this concept in the New Zealand context.

Question 4:  To what extent does the low number of Pasifika SE professionals affect engagement and satisfaction with SE services for Pasifika families?

The responses to this question were grouped into three main themes. These were the need for more Pasifika professionals to work with families; the need for representation of all Pasifika ethnicities; and having enough Pasifika professionals to support cultural understanding of other professionals.

Participants noted the importance of sensitivity in building relationships with Pasifika families and also in respecting their language.  As a result of their language preference, families need Pasifika professionals who are responsive and able to reciprocate appropriately in their relationship with the families, particularly as their first point of contact.

Question 5:  How could SE services be changed to increase engagement and satisfaction with Pasifika families?

Suggestions for improvement have been developed from two main aspects of the research.  Firstly by considering the barriers Pasifika families experience when engaging with SE services that could be mitigated; secondly from direct suggestions for improvement made by the families and professionals. Participants were very vocal in making suggestions for increasing Pasifika families’ engagement and satisfaction with SE services.

Key themes included improving professionals’ cultural intelligence, developing holistic support services such as local family service centres (one stop shops), and fostering playgroups and parent led community support groups.  There is a need to work holistically with families.  It takes time and lots of talanoa to build relationships, not only with families but with community groups such as local churches.  Professional development for both early childhood and school teachers was seen as being needed to improve identification and referral of children to SE services.

These recommendations are summarised below.


Five priorities to increase engagement and satisfaction of Pasifika families with SE services

  1. Improve professional cultural intelligence and sensitivity
  • Provide professional learning and development in intercultural communication and sensitivity for non Pasifika professionals
  • Ideally ensure that the first person to contact a Pasifika family from SE services is from the same culture and speaks the same language
  1. Work holistically with families
  • For consistency, assign one key professional to support each family and facilitate communication between professionals
  • Maintain relationships and services across the transition to school including the child’s support worker
  • Proactively work with other services to meet the holistic needs of the family and where appropriate include the extended family in communication
  1. Strengthen local community support services
  • Work with other services to create local services or ‘one stop shops’ located in each community
  • Encourage supported playgroups that are welcoming to Pasifika families with children with special educational needs
  • Encourage family led support groups for Pasifika families that have children with special educational needs.
  • Provide professional learning and development to church and community groups to increase understanding and engagement with SE services.
  1. Provide professional learning and development opportunities for teachers (ECE and school)
  • In identification and referral
  • To foster inclusion and inclusive practices
  1. Increase resources to support Pasifika families’ needs
  • Increase support for children with special education needs across the transition to school.
  • Be more proactive in providing and disseminating information materials in a range of Pasifika languages within communities
  • Develop and disseminate resources to help Pasifika families support their children’s learning and development

The findings from this research also substantiate the significance of underpinning Pasifika research with the three principles of Teu le va, in particular supporting collaborative relationships alongside Pasifika voices, issues and concerns.  This authentic talanoaga can result in opportunities for maximizing delivery of services and policy making.

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