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Keeping our focus on mokopuna

Updated: 17 June 2017

What's Important To Us

Children and young people are the building blocks of nations and of all humanity (UNICEF, 2001). As such, we need to provide them with love, care and support so that they can grow up to be motivated, positive and contributing members of society.

Helping a child or young person to reach their full potential requires us to listen to them, maintain a focus on them and strive to understand them. We need to recognise and acknowledge the child or young person’s strengths, champion them to overcome any barriers that might prevent them from reaching their goals, and assist them to build their own network of support.

This key information outlines the importance of building and maintaining a child-centred approach in our practice, engaging with mokopuna, encouraging and supporting them to participate, and getting others on board to support the mokopuna.

It also provides guidance and practical information about how we can keep our focus on mokopuna.

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Putting mokopuna at the centre of our work

When you are busy and there are lots of competing priorities, it can be easy to lose sight of mokopuna and allow other issues and demands to dominate (Winkworth & McArthur, 2006). Putting mokopuna at the centre of our work means keeping their perspective and experience at the forefront of all considerations.

Below are some factors to consider when working with mokopuna and their families/whānau to help you keep them in focus:

‘Five eyes’ on under fives

Mokopuna aged five years and under are a particularly vulnerable group and require special attention and focus. In New Zealand the average annual rate of maltreatment deaths for children under one year is 4.6 deaths per 100,000 mokopuna, more than three times higher than the one to four year old age group, and eight times higher than mokopuna in the five to 14 year age group (Child, Youth and Family & Ministry of Social Development, 2006; Connolly & Doolan, 2007).

Recognising the inherent vulnerability of this cohort, the ‘five eyes’ concept was developed to ensure there are at least five sets of eyes focused on building safety and wellbeing for these very young mokopuna. The ‘five eyes’ includes a household family/whānau member, a member of the extended family/whānau, a health professional (e.g. GP, Wellchild provider) an educator (e.g. school or kindergarten teacher, teacher aide) and a community member. We need each of these five pairs of eyes to be a regular and ongoing part of the life of the mokopuna – a person who sees the mokopuna every six months cannot be one of the ‘five eyes’ but someone who sees the mokopuna within their family/whānau context every few days could be.


Another tool to use when completing your assessment of a young mokopuna is VVABC. It outlines five key areas to be taken into consideration when considering safety and wellbeing:

  • Vulnerability – we know under fives are particularly vulnerable as they are dependant on adults, have limited ability to protect themselves and can’t seek help for themselves.
  • Visibility – under fives can lose visibility within a sibling group as their needs become lost within the more obvious or vocal needs of the older mokopuna.
  • Attachment – securing a secure and stable attachment is a key developmental need of this age group.
  • Brain development – we know that the first five years in the life of a mokopuna is a critical time in brain development. Disruptions can have long term impacts.
  • Cumulative harm – repeat episodes of abuse can have a profound impact on the development of a mokopuna.


We often focus on the impact of abuse and neglect, chaotic living arrangements and difficult family/whānau relationships on the wellbeing and outcomes for mokopuna. Just as importantly we need to take the time to explore the ability of the mokopuna to thrive, even in the face of these negative or adverse experiences.

There are a number of individual characteristics that contribute to resilience such as optimism, self-esteem, intelligence, creativity, humour, independence, a sense of belonging, strong cultural identity, and the acceptance of peer and other positive influences such as teachers, mentors and role models. Other factors can include the social environment of the mokopuna, and their access to social supports, education and health care.

Working with teenagers

Older mokopuna have their own thoughts, opinions and views of the world, and we need to respect these while at the same time addressing their safety and wellbeing needs and guiding them towards actively participating in society and making healthy and sensible life course choices.

Issues around identity and belonging, self harm and suicide are more prevalent among our older mokopuna, so keep an eye and ear out for any indications from the mokopuna that one or more of those are impacting on their day to day life.

Peers are very important to older mokopuna – they can often focus on whether their behaviour conforms to their peers rather than its inherent rightness or wrongness. Older mokopuna will seek to define themselves as a separate identity from adults in their life; it is a time when they typically test boundaries, take risks and make decisions which are often contrary to the advice that the adults around them provide (McLaren, 2000).

Pay special attention to older, female mokopuna, who are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence while under the influence of alcohol, family violence from a partner or other adults in their family, working in prostitution (either by choice due to lack of other options or coercion by others), abuse due to family, cultural or religious beliefs, and self-image issues.

Also keep in mind the vulnerabilities of older, female mokopuna who have been abused, as research shows that victimization of females before the age of 14 almost doubles their risk of later adolescent victimization and also victimization as adults (Humphrey & White, 2000).

Offending behaviour

When mokopuna offend, they need to be accountable for their behaviour and learn there are consequences for their actions. At the same time we need to turn our minds to thinking about what led to the offending behaviour. Without truly understanding this, we can’t begin to support the mokopuna to make different life choices should they find themselves in the same situation in the future.

Working with changing needs over time

As mokopuna grow and develop, their physical and emotional needs change (Hepworth, Rooney, Rooney, Strom-Gottfried & Larsen, 2010). Strengthening our understanding of their physical and emotional development will help us identify whether or not the specific needs of the mokopuna are being met.

A particular strategy or activity that was introduced to the mokopuna two years ago may no longer be appropriate or practical. Talk to the mokopuna and their caregiver on a regular basis to determine whether their needs are being met “now”.

It is important that we understand and are alert to the signs of trauma in mokopuna at each developmental stage. These signs may be subtle, delayed and misinterpreted as naughty behaviour. The impact of trauma in a previously settled and compliant mokopuna can suddenly present itself as the mokopuna grows and experiences new challenges.

Age and developmental stages

Understanding cumulative harm

A single or isolated incident of abuse or neglect may not appear to have a lasting effect on a mokopuna, but a number of abusive or neglectful incidents over a period of time can have a significant negative impact on the ability of the mokopuna to build resilience and on their long-term wellbeing.

Every time we receive a report of concern about a mokopuna we need to look back to see if they have had previous involvement with us. An incident that may seem relatively harmless on its own may seem less so once we have taken their history into account.

Cumulative harm

Caring capacity

Most parents/caregivers assume the parenting role without any training, qualification or skill base. That being said, most are keen to learn and read books, talk to experienced parents/caregivers, attend parenting education classes and groups and receive one-on-one support (e.g. Plunket).

However, in any society there is always a small group of parents/caregivers who tend to either undervalue the parenting role, avoid or ignore advice and education that might strengthen their parenting, or lack the cognitive or intellectual ability to understand and respond appropriately to the needs of their mokopuna. Mental or physical illness and the impact of substance abuse can also diminish a parent/caregiver’s capacity to respond appropriately to the needs of their mokopuna.

We must always keep the needs of the mokopuna at the forefront of our work and seriously consider whether or not the parent/caregiver has the ability, capacity and willingness to safely care for them.

Thinking about culture

The culture of a mokopuna can play a significant part in their sense of belonging, identity and self-worth. Culture can also have an impact on how the mokopuna views the world and their place in it.

Take the time to find out what their culture means for them, how it supports them, how it shapes their views about things like gender roles, family violence and family responsibility, and how their cultural identity can be supported to enhance their wellbeing.

For mokopuna Māori, we need to know what hapū and iwi they identify with, both on their paternal and maternal sides. Sometimes mokopuna may be living in an urban context or at considerable distance from their hapū or marae. We need to make every effort to contact the extended whānau and hapū of the mokopuna so that they can identify local support to wrap around the mokopuna and their family/whānau. In some cases this might need to be provided by an urban iwi authority that has links with hapū and iwi of the mokopuna. It is important that enduring support is provided by those who will be available to the family/whānau for as long as they are needed.

To identify support for Pacific mokopuna, find out what Pacific island and village they come from. If church is an important part of the life of the family/whānau, church leaders and the congregation can provide support to the mokopuna and their family/whānau. Does the family/whānau belong to a cultural performing group or are they currently linked into a support agency within their local community? Who are the family elders and how do their decisions influence the parents of the mokopuna or affect the wellbeing of the family/whānau?

When mokopuna are new to New Zealand, they will need to make a number of adjustments to adapt to a new way of life. They may push against some of the more rigid or traditional aspects of their culture which can strain the relationship between them and the adults in their family/whānau.

This may be particularly evident in migrant cultures where roles and expectations of older mokopuna are well defined, and may not fit with what is socially acceptable by the peers of the mokopuna. In these cases we need to understand who the community of support is for the mokopuna, and make sure we are in touch with the right people who will continue to support the family/whānau when Oranga Tamariki is no longer involved.

Many migrant families/whānau may need an interpreter to help them (and you) understand what is happening. Don’t use the mokopuna in the family/whānau to translate for their parents. Be sure to involve a cultural consultant who can guide you in protocol, gender and age issues and help you understand the cultural norms and expectations of the family/whānau you are working with.

Participation and views of mokopuna

Participation is about mokopuna having the opportunity, on an on-going basis, to freely express their views and opinions in any matter concerning them and have these taken into account, influence and enrich decision-making, and bring about change that will allow them to fulfil their potential. It is not a matter of giving mokopuna information about what has already been decided or what is going to happen (Archard & Skivenes, 2009), and it goes beyond simply listening to them, or them ‘taking part’ or ‘being present’ (Kirby, Lanyon, Cronin & Sinclair, 2003). Participation in decisions and planning about their lives is their legal right.

There are many and varied benefits of participation for mokopuna. Participation:

  • acknowledges their right to be listened to, their right for control over their life, and for their views and experiences to be taken seriously (Gilligan, 2000)
  • creates a sense of power and control by providing them with a voice (Bromfield & Osborn, 2007)
  • increases the visibility of children’s issues (Save the Children, 2003)
  • improves the relevance and appropriateness of decision making on children’s issues (Save the Children, 2003)
  • promotes civic engagement, active citizenship and good governance (Lansdown, 2009)
  • is a process of learning and discovery (personal and collective) which enables children to receive new information, understand what it means and use and respond to it on the basis of their own experience (Save the Children, 2003)
  • builds self-esteem and self-confidence (Ministry of Social Development, 2003; Save the Children, 2003)
  • enhances their resilience (Gilligan, 2000)
  • provides opportunities to develop social networks
  • develops their understanding of how organisations operate and make decisions
  • ensures that decisions are grounded in the lived realities of children’s lives
  • helps them learn to debate, negotiate and communicate with groups and act as facilitators and leaders (Ministry of Social Development, 2003).

In all instances, any decision making or planning about mokopuna needs to involve them. The optimal outcome is for mokopuna to attend all meetings in a way that is safe and appropriate for them, and to have their say and feel like they have been heard. Being physically present should always be the automatic default option for mokopuna. In cases where it is not appropriate for mokopuna to attend meetings in person or the mokopuna does not want to be there, their views and opinions can be obtained via other means. You can help them to express themselves, perhaps by writing, drawing, taking photographs, or recording their views (e.g. they could communicate through singing or rapping, or by just talking freely) – whichever feels most comfortable to them. Always remember to debrief with them after the meeting (whether they were present or not) to get their views about how things went and if they want to participate in a different way next time.

Utilising support people to assist with participation

Mokopuna have the right to nominate and be represented at meetings or proceedings by a support person (who is not their social worker) in order to gain greater access to participation in decision-making. This support person could be a whānau member, someone from a service or activity they are involved with (e.g. guidance counsellor from their school, mentor, rugby coach), or any other person that they trust.

The role of the support person is to:

  • ensure that information is understood by the mokopuna and to assist the mokopuna to express their point of view and share information
  • attend to the personal support needs of the mokopuna
  • help ensure the mokopuna is provided with opportunities to participate in decision-making processes in matters affecting their lives
  • help the mokopuna to understand the planning process and contents of their plan
  • provide the mokopuna with access to review mechanisms should they feel that their participation has not been promoted.

The support person does not attend meetings or proceedings on behalf of the mokopuna; their role is to sit alongside them.

A support person is not a legal advocate or representative and should not intervene in, or influence, planning processes or outcomes. Their primary focus is on the participation rights of the mokopuna, the processes and procedures which contribute to these rights, and the safety and well-being needs of the mokopuna.

How do you encourage the participation of mokopuna?

For all mokopuna, participation requires two factors to be in place before it can genuinely work:

  1. There needs to be a positive and trusting relationship between the mokopuna and their social worker to allow the mokopuna to feel safe to voice their thoughts and feelings (Stephenson, Gourley & Miles, 2004)
  2. The mokopuna needs to have an understanding of the care and protection or youth justice process (Cossar, Brandon & Jordan, 2014). This includes them knowing what Oranga Tamariki does, what the role of their social worker is, why they are involved with the Ministry, and the purpose of the particular meeting they’re about to attend; meaningful participation will be limited without this understanding.

There are also some ways to encourage the participation of particular groups of children:

Mokopuna Maori and Pacifica mokopuna
  • recognise that some mokopuna may prefer to participate using their own language, and making this happen
  • recognise that there may be some cultural taboos and consent issues
  • ensure that they have support people with them, if appropriate (Ministry of Social Development, 2003)
  • read Te Toka Tumoana or Va’aifetu to better understand the cultural aspects of working with these mokopuna.
Disabled mokopuna
  • give them lots of information beforehand (and in appropriate formats) so they have time to consider things and how they’d like to participate
  • find a space for the meeting that is physically and emotionally safe (Ministry of Social Development, 2003)
  • talk with them respectfully (showing interest and not patronising them) and not interrupting them or finishing their sentences
  • validate what they say and acknowledge the feelings being expressed (Dickens, Emerson & Gordon-Smith, 2003).
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgender mokopuna
  • work with established networks and organisations
  • choose facilitators who are acceptable to the children and young people
  • ensure privacy and confidentiality, and clarify this (Ministry of Youth Development, 2009)
Very young mokopuna
  • talk in a practical and less abstract sense
  • involve facilitators experienced in working with the age group, or who the children know and trust
  • use imaginative techniques e.g. brainstorming, art (Ministry of Social Development, 2003).

There is a common misconception that babies and toddlers cannot communicate, which makes it difficult to involve them in planning and decision-making. The reality is that very young mokopuna are incredibly communicative, if you just take the time to listen and get to know them. Babies are born already prepared to find other people interesting and worth communicating with from the start (Makin & Whitehead, 2004). Although babies cannot talk, they have no problems communicating through sounds (e.g. squeals, gurgles, chuckles, coos, grunts, giggles, babbles or cries and a range of tones within those sounds) and actions (e.g. waving their arms, kicking their legs, stiffening their bodies, arching their backs, clenching or stretching their fingers, shifting their gaze). Adults can learn about a baby’s likes and dislikes by learning their repertoire of actions and sounds, which can easily tell an adult who is listening and observing with care what they want, how they feel and what interests them. Children aged between three and four years speak an average of 15,000 words per day (Hurlock, 1978) and their language skills can increase rapidly as they use repeatedly language to express their ideas and feelings. Thus, adults have many opportunities to converse with children and to learn about their social, emotional and cognitive desires, perspectives, interests and needs (MacNaughton & Williams, 1998).

Refer to Age and developmental stages resource for ideas about how to interact with mokopuna of all ages.

Engaging with mokopuna

The purpose of talking with a mokopuna should be clear from the beginning. There are many reasons to spend time talking with a mokopuna, including obtaining and clarifying information from them and understanding their perspective on events. There will also be times when the purpose is to provide information that is important for them to know. This might include sharing the Tuituia report with them or talking with them about the recommendations of a psychological assessment.

Think about where the mokopuna might feel most comfortable e.g. a park or favourite café as opposed to the Principal’s office or a Courthouse. Sitting at roughly the same height as the mokopuna can also assist in developing rapport and making the conversation comfortable.

It is important that the mokopuna knows who you are and what your role is. Explain why you want to talk with them, and let them know that it's okay if they don't know the answer to something, don’t want to answer, can't remember, or don’t understand the question.

Building rapport is important, so spend time talking about neutral topics or things that you know they are interested in. Use free narrative, open ended questions and probing questions when you need to clarify or get more information. Throughout the conversation use your general listening skills (e.g. paraphrasing, reflecting and encouragers like "uh-huh") to encourage elaboration.

Mokopuna might benefit from access to a portable ‘tool box’ which could contain items such as play-dough, pens and paper, and Koosh balls. These ‘tools’ tend to settle mokopuna, are generally non-distracting and can assist the flow of conversation.

Remember, be flexible and adaptable, tailor the questions you ask of the mokopuna to their capacity and capability, and take notice of how well they are staying involved in the conversation.

Effective communication techniques take into account the developmental level of the mokopuna, their language ability and the research on best practice for talking with mokopuna:

  • use simple, everyday language and short sentences
  • use names rather than pronouns (e.g. avoid “he”, “she”, “they”)
  • avoid speaking in negatives (e.g. “Did you not see the car?”) and “if this, then” sentences
  • use sentences containing only one thought (e.g. “You went to the shop”, not “You went to the shop, met the man and he took you to see the ducks” – this contains three thoughts)
  • use questions and comments with a minimum number of ideas; the younger the mokopuna the smaller the number (one main idea is good)
  • begin questions leading with the main idea (e.g. “Were there any grown-ups there when you were eating?” not “When you were eating, were there any grown-ups there?”)
  • avoid leading questions (e.g. ”What was the biggest animal at the zoo?” instead of “Did you see the great big elephants at the zoo?”)
  • avoid asking the same question twice; young mokopuna may think they gave you the wrong answer the first time so they’ll change it to what they think you want to hear
  • use concrete examples as mokopuna do not tend to handle abstract examples well
  • when gathering information implicating another person in any way, be as open as possible and don’t suggest what may have happened to the mokopuna
  • don’t dismiss a mokopuna as incompetent if they don’t seem to follow the questions; it’s probably due to the wording of the question rather than their level of understanding.

When talking to very young mokopuna bear in mind that they will likely have: a short concentration span; use and interpret language literally; not give a linear account (from beginning to end), and have a limited understanding of time, space and distance.

Be very specific with your questions. For pre-verbal mokopuna, spend time with them and their family/whānau so that you have ample opportunity to observe attachment patterns. During this observation ask yourself:

  • is the mokopuna having their needs met by their parent in a warm, loving and continuous relationship?
  • does the parent demonstrate concern and interest about the wellbeing of the mokopuna, or are they indifferent to the mokopuna with little demonstration of nurturing behaviour?
  • does the parent provide adequate physical care and safety, but lack emotional warmth and regard for the needs of the mokopuna?

Closure is an important aspect of any engagement with a mokopuna and should not be rushed. It can include explaining what is going to happen next, answering any questions they might have, checking in with them about who they might talk to if they have any worries, and thanking them for talking to you. Consider ending on a neutral topic or something that the mokopuna has told you they enjoy.

Balancing the views of mokopuna with their best interests

Sometimes there will be a disparity between the views of mokopuna and the views of their social workers. Where differing views are held, it is important that the mokopuna feels that their voice has been heard and knows that their social worker remains open to hearing their view (Office of the Children’s Commissioner, 2011). The views of the mokopuna must not be ignored, but this doesn’t mean that they must automatically be endorsed either.

A process of dialogue needs to be encouraged in which the social worker provides direction and guidance to the mokopuna while considering their views in a manner consistent with the age and maturity of the mokopuna. Throughout this process, the mokopuna will gain an understanding of why particular options are followed, or why decisions are taken that might differ from the one they favoured.

Let’s look at an example. Amy (10) has been in her nan’s care for two months and has begged you to be able to return home to her mum. As Amy’s social worker, you may believe, based on what you know about mum’s situation at the moment, that it is not safe for Amy to return to her care but you know you still need to take Amy’s views into account. So how do you do this? You end up developing a concurrent plan with Amy, her nan, mum and other family members where you explore the possibility of Amy permanently living away from her mum, and also the possibility of Amy returning to mum. Tasks associated with Amy returning home may involve referring Amy for a psychological assessment of her needs, referring mum to a psychologist who will assess her parenting ability and whether or not she can meet Amy’s needs, and increasing the hours of supervised contact between Amy and mum per week to allow the psychologists to observe their interactions with each other.

This process of concurrent planning shows Amy that you’ve heard her and are actively doing something with the information she has given you, while also maintaining her safety.

Building networks of support around mokopuna

Parents, siblings, extended family/whānau, friends, teachers, peers, and other members of the community all play an important part in shaping the development of a mokopuna. The social support provided by these relationships can have a significant impact on the emotional health of the mokopuna (Belle, 1989), and research shows us that family/whānau and community support can enhance their sense of competence, while a lack of such support can undermine this sense (Hutchison, 2003).

For our mokopuna, their involvement with Oranga Tamariki signals a turning point in their lives; having the right people around them to help and encourage them to go down the best possible path can make all the difference in the world.

A major part of our role when working with mokopuna is to help strengthen the social and professional supports around them to ensure there are people actively engaged and committed to their best interests.

Bringing family/whānau together

When there is family/whānau support available, bring the family/whānau together to look at the particular role or roles that each family/whānau member can play in the life of the mokopuna. Perhaps one family/whānau member might take responsibility for transporting the mokopuna to and from rugby practice every week, while another might offer regular babysitting so that the parents can attend relationship counselling together, and a third may agree to be the support person in meetings with the mokopuna (see section above – Utilising support people to assist with participation).

Even if a mokopuna appears to have a lot of family/whānau around them, this still may not mean they feel supported (Bahr & Pendergast, 2007). Talk with the mokopuna about how available and approachable their family/whānau are and, in cases where they don’t feel able to approach them, what might need to happen to improve these relationships.

When supports are limited

In situations where there are none or few family/whānau members available to support the mokopuna, you’ll need to explore some other alternatives with them. Who will be the ‘adult’ figure in their life? Who will be their role models? Who will be there for them in the middle of the night when they need someone to talk to? Who will they celebrate their birthdays, holidays and special occasions with?

Talk with the mokopuna about who is important to them, and incorporate these people into their support network. Perhaps there are people and agencies within the community that you could link the mokopuna with if they can’t identify anyone immediately. Think about setting one person up as a mentor to work alongside the mokopuna to support, nurture and challenge them and help them achieve certain life goals (Buckley & Zimmerman, 2003).

Getting dads on board

Parents are partners in raising their mokopuna, even when they do not live in the same house. Fathers can be important contributors to the wellbeing of the mokopuna and it is important that time is given to engaging with them and, where possible, drawing on their strengths and protective factors (American Humane Society, 2003).

While engaging with some fathers may prove difficult, involving them in decision-making is vital – not only can they provide access to their extended family/whānau whose engagement may provide significant protective support options for the mokopuna, but they themselves may be in a position to provide care, support and oversight to their mokopuna if given the opportunity. The Engaging with fathers practice session provides more detail about the importance of fathers being part of the picture.

Involving victims of offending

For mokopuna who have offended, their victim/s can be key people in terms of supporting them to change their behaviour. Victims are known to have a particularly positive impact on the understanding by the mokopuna of how their offending affected them (Crawford & Burden, 2005; McIvor & Raynor, 2007) and, as such, play an important role in the accountability process specifically within the family group conference but also in a continuing support role with the mokopuna.

Some of the most successful family group conferences are those where the mokopuna is directed to work for a victim as part of their community work programme – this type of scenario helps each person see the other in a different and much more positive light, and provides the opportunity for learning and understanding on both sides.

When the support network is in place

Once the support network has been mapped out, hold regular meetings and make sure one person in the network takes the lead in putting together a roster or schedule so that everyone (including the mokopuna) knows their particular role, what they will be doing, and when. Give everyone a written copy of the roster, signed by the social worker, and ensure everyone in the support network has each other’s contact details too.


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