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.
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 whānau or family 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 whānau or family member, a member of the extended whānau or family, 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 whānau or family 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 whānau or family 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).
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 whānau or family 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.