Hei Oranga Tika: Wellbeing Matters

Emerging evidence of the impact of the Christchurch earthquakes on young children


The research

A University of Canterbury-led multi-disciplinary research team, had been carrying out longitudinal research on children's wellbeing, behaviour and stress, before the Christchurch earthquake.

The researchers were able to compare pre-earthquake, baseline groups of children of different ages with matched groups of children who had experienced the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. The team wanted to investigate the impact of a prolonged disaster on the wellbeing of children and their families, focusing on how children were settling into school.

The context

On 22 February 2011, at 12:51 pm (lunchtime), Christchurch was struck by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. The quake was centred 10km south-east of the city at a depth of 5km. In the ten minutes after it hit, there were 10 aftershocks of magnitude 4 or more.185 people died, 164 people were seriously injured and there was major, widespread damage.

The destruction and dislocation experienced by families was ongoing. From 2010 Christchurch has experienced over 16,000 earthquake aftershocks and repeated flooding.

The findings

The 2016 findings indicated that post-traumatic stress symptoms in children aged 24 months and younger at the time of the 2011 earthquake were far more prevalent (20.7%) than those for a pre-earthquake, baseline group (8.8%). Problem behaviour was also significantly more prevalent.

The 2016 findings indicated a developmental vulnerability for children who were very young at the time of the catastrophic Christchurch earthquakes. The study found that the cohort of children who were older when the earthquakes struck, were not so affected.

The cohort of children most affected by the Christchurch earthquakes included new entrants to Canterbury schools from 2014 to 2016.

Source Evidence [LINK]


Photo: Professor Sonja Macfarlane

Associate Professor Sonja Macfarlane (Ngāi Tahu) has been recognised for her contributions to Māori education, most recently by the New Zealand Association for Research in Education through the 2017 Te Tohu Pae Tawhiti Award.

In this series of short videos, Associate Professor Macfarlane, a member of the University of Canterbury research team, explains the implications of the research for parents, teachers, school leaders and communities. She also discusses early findings of protective factors for Māori children through Māori whānau and marae connectedness.


Literature reviews caution that estimating the effects of disasters on the behaviour of children following a disaster is difficult without baseline information and few studies report the effects of earthquakes on young children. In addition the relationship between age at the time of disaster and consequential behaviour problems have not been reported for young children who experience disaster-related stress during a developmentally sensitive period.

Importance of this Research

Behaviour problems and symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS) were reported for two groups of children from nearby neighbourhoods during their first term at school, using the Behaviour Problem Index by teacher report, following approved informed consent procedures. Data on one group, "Pre-EQ" (N=297), was collected four years before the beginning of the earthquakes on children born 2001-2002. Data on the second group, "Post-EQ " (N=212), was collected approximately three to four years after the beginning of the earthquakes on children born 2007-2009 and living in heavily damaged neighbourhoods. The Post-EQ group had significantly more children from high socioeconomic neighbourhoods but no other significant differences on main demographic characteristics.


The mean behaviour problem score was significantly higher in the Post-EQ group (Mean =6.11) as compared to the Pre-EQ group (Mean = 3.78). PTS symptoms were also significantly higher in the Post-EQ group (Mean =2.91) as compared to the Pre-EQ group (Mean=1.98) and more children had high PTS scores (20.9% v. 8.8%, OR= 2.73, 95%CI =1.57, 4.76). Model testing identified that a younger age at the time of exposure was the only significant predictor of high numbers of PTS symptoms in the Post-EQ group.


Rates of teacher-reported behaviour problems in young children more than doubled following the Christchurch earthquakes. Younger children may be more vulnerable to the effects of earthquakes that occur during a developmentally sensitive period. Additional research is needed to consider the effects of age and duration of disaster effects to better understand the effects of disasters on children, their families and communities.


The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals call for a global shift to afford more priority to building competencies and wellbeing for an uncertain future. For many communities, that uncertainty is a reality that affects children and young people. See the paper below for more about teaching and leadership for children's wellbeing, belonging, social connectedness and curriculum learning through collaborative problem solving.

Read the UNESCO Paper:
PDF Icon   'Walking the talk' matters in the use of evidence for transformative education
Alton-Lee, A. (2017, September) This paper was prepared in response to an invitation for a think piece for the UNESCO Project: Rethinking and repositioning curriculum in the 21st century: A global paradigm shift.

Where to Find Out More

The best evidence in action video series for BES Exemplar 1 Hangaia Te Urupounamu Pāngarau Mō TātouDeveloping Mathematical Inquiry Communities demonstrates a high impact teaching approach that when well-implemented focuses on equity, excellence, belonging and wellbeing. Teaching focuses on progressions for students relating and participating as well as progressions for mathematics. The context of this video series is the first year of implementation of this intervention in highly earthquake impacted Shirley School in Christchurch 2016.

As one Ngāi Tahu student explained: 'It's not just because you're working. It's because you're having fun and you're actually happy'.

Find out more about this pedagogy here and here.

The implementation of Hangaia Te Urupounamu Pāngarau Mō Tātou was made possible in 2016 through the James Stewart Loper Bequest.

Members of the University of Canterbury research team have continued to publish widely on specific strategies to support the wellbeing of children affected by earthquakes. For more information see here and here.


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