Dr Russell Wills


New Zealand has exceptionally high rates of family violence and child abuse compared to the rest of the world. Even if not physically assaulted, violence is profoundly harmful to children in the short- and long-term. The cost to our society and economy is enormous. Māori are over-represented among both perpetrators and victims. Family violence is our national shame.

There are many causes to this, including the effects of colonisation, entrenched inter-generational poverty and inequalities in wealth and income, overcrowded, expensive and poor-quality housing, and societal attitudes that normalise and accept violence within families, particularly men’s violence to women and children. Solutions will require addressing all of these issues and a start has been made, but they will take time.
It shouldn’t surprise us then, that paediatricians are seeing increasing numbers of children referred due to problem behaviour in our clinics. Family violence, mental illness, addictions, poverty and transience are common in the families we see. Parents often tell us of the violence they witnessed as children, and how desperately they want their children’s lives to be better than theirs.

Medicine can offer little to such children and families. We refer to expert colleagues in social services and mental health, and we involve child protection staff or police when we need to. However, for many of these children our intervention is too late and there are of course many children we never see. We need to intervene much earlier in the life of the violence, and in the life of the child. In my experience, the key to this is helping parents to understand the impact of their behaviour on their child. And a key to that is giving children the skills to understand what is happening to them and the language to safely share this with other adults they trust, and with their families and whānau.

Jade Speaks Up is a teacher-delivered programme for students in years 5-8 (8-14 years old) that aims to improve students’ emotional literacy, self-calming and social problem-solving, and to give them skills to stay safe in scary situations including family violence. Teachers receive dedicated professional development on how to deliver the programme and respond to disclosures, support from mentor teachers and supervision. The programme has run 23 times over three school years, 2017-2019, in 18 schools, four of which have repeated the programme at least once. These schools have a combined total of over 3,200 students participating in Jade Speaks Up. The initial invitation to join the pilot went out to schools already participating in the Ministry of Education’s Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) programmes, which is based on Webster Stratton’s Incredible Years for Teachers programme. PB4L in New Zealand is directed to schools in low income communities, so JSU schools had a median decile of 3.6 with significant numbers of Maori and Pasifika families. Involvement of parents, communities and external agencies with appropriate expertise has been integral to the programme.
The evaluation you will read below has been comprehensive. Standardised, quantitative tools addressing multiple aspects of student wellbeing, behaviour and safety address questions like, “How much difference did the programme make?”. Qualitative (narrative) data addressed questions like, “What did we do?”, “What lessons did we learn?”, “What did we change during the programme and why?” and “what else changed that could not be captured by the quantitative tools?”
The quantitative data demonstrates that the schools chosen had appropriately high levels of risk for an intervention of this kind. Only half said that home was a safe place and 4% said their local park was safe. Forty-one percent had an at-risk wellbeing score on the Child Outcome Rating Scale.

Quantitative improvements in student-reported wellbeing measures pre- and post-intervention were generally positive, greater in at-risk than low-risk children, varied with age and gender more than between ethnic groups and while not large were maintained over time. In contrast, student skills to deal with scary situations increased significantly and teachers reported substantial improvements in classroom behaviour and improved academic outcomes.
Narrative comments demonstrated many other changes that teachers and students ascribed to the programme. Teachers described developing skills and confidence to manage students’ disclosures of violence, neglect and being left home alone. Many were surprised at which students disclosed, noting that many were “good at hiding” problems at home. School policies and professional development changed in some schools in response. Other students shared attitudes normalising physical punishment, giving the opportunity to open up conversations about appropriate and unsafe discipline. Mentor teachers reported their colleagues’ empathy and insight towards students with behaviour problems improved and students were better able to cope when unexpected changes occurred in their school.

Lessons were learnt and the programme improved over time. Some schools delivered the programme differently according to their school culture, though generally teachers found that if they delivered the programme themselves, they learnt more about their students and it was more powerful. Boys and girls process social and emotional situations differently. There are challenges with boys and more active students learning self-calming strategies, for example. Lessons were learnt about how to integrate students’ own cultural practices and language, which made some interventions more effective.
I commend the Accident Compensation Corporation for its courage and vision in funding Jade Speaks Up. We need more innovation like this in health, education and social service delivery. We particularly need more programmes like Jade Speaks Up that address the lived reality of children and young people in Aotearoa. There is risk in innovation; not all innovations work and some can do harm. This is why funding comprehensive evaluations alongside innovative interventions like this are so important.

Jade Speaks Up works. It should be made more widely available as funds permit and as schools learn of it and are prepared for it. The teachers and principals I know are desperate for programmes like this so I look forward to seeing the programme expand and continue to learn and improve. I hope we will also see more innovative, well-evaluated programmes of this kind funded by our central government agencies and philanthropic funders.
No-one should believe however that this is “the solution” to family violence in New Zealand. Alongside empowering our children, we must continue our work to make Aotearoa a more equitable, more just and safer country. Our children deserve no less.
Mō tātou, ā, mō kā uri a muri ake nei.
For us and our children after us.