Tamariki at Te Kōpae Piripono (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)
Tamariki at Te Kōpae Piripono (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)

ĀteaSeptember 2, 2022

Measuring Māori early childhood development requires Māori tools

Tamariki at Te Kōpae Piripono (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)
Tamariki at Te Kōpae Piripono (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)

New research by a Taranaki puna reo has identified a way to measure the impact of Māori immersion ECE on tamariki for the first time.

In the 1970s, as the te reo Māori revitalisation movement fought for the survival of the language in the face of massive decline, it was determined that tamariki – from the moment they were born to about age six – were the most effective group to reach to create intergenerational rejuvenation of te reo Māori me onā tikanga.

Forty years ago, on April 13th 1982 the first Te Kōhanga Reo, Kōkiri Pukeatua Kōhanga Reo in Wainuiomata, opened its doors. By 1983, there were 111 others operating across the country. There are now more than 400 kōhanga reo in Aotearoa, as well as 54 puna reo (independently-run kaupapa Māori immersion early years settings). The whāinga of both kōhanga reo and puna reo is to regenerate te reo and tikanga Māori in a total immersion kaupapa Māori learning environment and create vital intergenerational language exchange.

In Taranaki, the severe devastation of colonisation required a unique approach to the restoration and reclamation of local Māori identity. Te Kōpae Piripono, the region’s first Māori immersion early childhood centre, was established in 1994 through the determination of a group of community leaders and educators. Essential to the special kaupapa of Te Kōpae Piripono is the reinstitution of Taranaki tikanga and its practices; the retention and enrichment of Taranaki reo; investment in the bond between local Māori communities; and the restoration of pride, confidence and hope among whānau.

As part of its special offering, Te Kōpae Piripono has put reversing the impacts of Taranaki’s traumatic colonial history at its centre. The centre has embraced the principles of the community of Parihaka, whose resolute non-violent resistance in response to the violence and land confiscation of the colonial government in the 1800s is a vital part of Taranaki Māori identity.  

“We’re a tiny piece of te reo Māori in a sea of English,” says Dr Aroaro Tamati, who helped establish Te Kōpae Piripono and has been a director of the centre for over 25 years. This cultural isolation has made Tamati a staunch advocate for the role of centre in the region’s rejuvenation of te reo Māori me ōnā tikanga. Te Kōpae Piripono is a sanctuary of Taranaki Māori identity, and Tamati is passionately committed to its principles and role in protecting that.

“In Taranaki, with the muru and the raupatu, the language was decimated over generations. You can go to another rohe and see lots of native speakers, but in Taranaki it’s such a stark difference. So we  purposely established Te Kōpae Piripono through the vehicle of early childhood that kept this kaupapa really at the forefront, and the legacy of Tohu and Te Whiti would follow through generations. And you can only do that by being pretty staunch.”  

Aroaro Tamati at the University of Otago (Photo: Supplied)

A huge amount of research has been done that shows quality ECE can have significant positive impacts on outcomes for children. It can contribute to the development of confidence, social skills and self regulation in children that equates to positive outcomes in their adult lives. However, there has been very little research into the benefits of kaupapa Māori immersion early years education, such as kōhanga reo and puna reo, on Māori children in Aotearoa. And equally there are no frameworks that examine the different needs and development of Māori tamariki growing up in colonial Aotearoa. 

“Anecdotally, indigenous early childhood approaches have been found to make a difference for young indigenous children. The problem is that there’s been very little research in this area at all about evaluating kaupapa Māori approaches, researching their effectiveness and what that actually looks like,” says Tamati.

So she set about doing it herself. Twenty six years after Tamati helped establish Te Kōpae Piripono, it became the focus of her PhD research at the University of Otago, looking into “understanding strengths-based Māori child development constructs in Kaupapa Māori early years provision.” The research project, He Piki Raukura, was a collaboration between Te Pou Tiringa, a Taranaki Māori community organisation, and the University of Otago’s National Centre for Lifecourse Research (NCLR).

Tamati realised it was essential to understanding the true impact of these centres to use mātauranga Māori frameworks to assess how they influenced the development of tamariki. The feasibility study was to identify and define specific child behaviour constructs unique to Māori tamariki that may be the source for positive child development within kaupapa Māori ECE. Now the project is a compelling example of the intersection of mātauranga Māori and western science to create a new way of examining effects of kaupapa Māori ECE using child development constructs based in te ao Māori.  

Based on in-depth interviews with Māori educational experts and 21 whānau from Te Kōpae Piripono, the project identified five key features of the centre’s approach that were then distilled into four Māori child behaviour constructs. 

“Constructs are basically ways of doing and being, things like self-control and resilience,” says Tamati. “There are lots of western constructs that we understand and are familiar with. But what about Māori constructs? What do they actually look like? If a child went through what I call the washing machine of Te Kōpae Piripono, what would they have in their kete when they left? What would they carry with them through life?”

Aroaro Tamati at Kōpae Piripono (Photo: Supplied)

The five themes the whānau and experts identified as the key contributions of Te Kōpae Piripono were local reo, tikanga and identity; building whānau/community; having integrity and a commitment to a shared kaupapa; clear and consistent processes; and dealing with issues positively. The interviews captured the impact the centre had not just on the children but across the community. 

“The thing I like about Kōpae is when I walk in the door … there’s a sense of belonging. … It’s a small nutshell of Māoridom,” said one of the parent interviewees as cited in the He Piki Raukura research paper. “It’s like a food, that everywhere you get fed in a physical, spiritual, in all those ways. It’s about being who we are.” 

To understand how those ideas impacted Māori child behaviour constructs, the project ran a series of wānanga over more than a year. Those wānanga embraced te ao Māori and customary cultural texts, and were often conducted in te reo guided by tikanga protocols. The wānanga process identified four Māori child behaviour constructs that defined the development of children at Te Kōpae Piripono: tuakiri (a secure local Māori identity), whānauranga (feeling and acting as a member of whānau), manawaroa (courage despite adversity, persisting despite  difficulty and a positive outlook), and piripono (integrity, commitment and responsibility for a shared kaupapa). These distinctly Māori constructs created new ways of understanding the significant positive impact of kaupapa Māori immersion early years education on young Māori children’s development. 

“Kaupapa Māori early years education should not be mistaken for childcare, it should not be mistaken for just an early childhood entity. I like to think of it as like a forcefield where it actually looks after the tamariki and it looks after the whānau and they move forward together and it’s intergenerational,” says Tamati. 

As tuakiri develops in a child they show more desire to speak te reo Māori and use the Taranaki mita. They are confident in engaging with cultural practices like pōwhiri, hongi, karakia and waiata. Whānauranga equates to tamariki who are more selfless and show leadership, responsibility, collaboration and an ability to express ideas. Children with developed manawaroa are “able to control their behaviour and emotions and stay calm even if they get upset, frustrated or disappointed… A child with well-developed manawaroa has patience, persistence and hope.” The development of piripono sees tamariki develop ethics and the confidence to stand up for what is right and true, even if that might not be popular.

After articulating those Māori child development constructs, the project set about measuring them in tamariki. The research showed there were significant positive increases in each of the constructs in all of Te Kōpae Piripono’s tamariki, even factoring in ages.  

“We identified the constructs, we created the measures, we tested the measures, we collected the data, and then we did the analysis and out popped the results. I was petrified when I went to push the button: ‘Is it gonna show change?’ And then it came back as being significant, significant, significant,” says Tamati.

“We were able to show significant growth in the constructs over the five data collection points, from the time we started to the time we finished. We could see that there was growth in tuakiri, in whānauranga, in manawaroa and piripono. So these children are actually developing all of these traits, skills, abilities that are going to hold them in really good stead moving forward.”

The investment in these constructs has not just positive outcomes for the children, but for the entire local community. By creating understandings of child development based in mātauranga Māori, it’s an opportunity to truly understand the impact of kaupapa Māori early years education in tandem with its mission to revitalise te reo Māori me ōnā tikanga. 

Tamariki at Te Kōpae Piripono (Photos: Supplied)

“Early childhood is a vehicle for rebuilding our generations that have lost so much, it’s a vehicle for rebuilding Māori community. When you look at it that way it all makes sense. It’s got a purpose, it’s got an intent, it’s really powerful. Whānau see themselves in that picture and they make a difference for their children just by that alone.”

Following the completion of her PhD research into Māori child development constructs at the end of 2021, Tamati was awarded a Hōhua Tutengaehe Māori Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship by the Health Research Council of New Zealand. In the next step in her research she is expanding the analysis of the constructs on a wider scale across a range of early years settings to gather comprehensive evidence on the impact of kaupapa Māori ECE.

“My PhD sought to identify and test ao Māori child development constructs. We are now planning to widen that to look at young Māori children in other settings such as kōhanga reo, puna reo, kindergarten and mainstream. We plan to work with six centres over a two year period. Once that data is gathered and analysed, we can hand-on-heart say, ‘We’ve taken a snapshot of where tamariki Māori are at in the early childhood education landscape and are able to identity some positive longer-term impacts of quality kaupapa Māori early years education approaches for tamariki – and that’s why it’s so important to the country’,” Tamati says.

“Given the significant and persistent systemic disparities and inequities for Māori across a range of social issues such as health, wealth and education there is a strong argument to move away from Western frameworks and priorities and instead focus on ao Māori approaches to child development.

“If we can fully understand the substantial long term benefits of kaupapa Māori early years education, it will help with better decision making around appropriate and effective resourcing and support. But it will save so much too. The government has acknowledged that the investment in early childhood has so much return.  Kaupapa Māori early childhood education has potentially just as significant a return. Unfortunately appropriate and effective government investment is considerably lacking.”

The project was supported by the TOI Foundation, the Ministry of Education, the Health Research Council, National Science Challenges and the University of Otago. 

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