School Resources

Four strategies to effectively support Pasifika students

The term “Pasifika” is used in educational contexts to refer to students and families who originate from the Pacific Islands or identify with the Pacific Islands in terms of ancestry or heritage. This means they derive from a diverse range of cultural and language backgrounds, identifying with one or more of the Pacific groups, including Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Niue, Tokelau, or Tuvalu. There are of course many inter- and intra-ethic variations between people of these groups, and while some identify common values and beliefs across these groups, not all people accept the label “Pasifika”. Indeed, it certainly would be mistaken to view Pasifika as a single ethnicity. An awareness of the diversity amongst Pasifika groups and individuals can help prevent stereotyping.

National data[1]demonstrates that Pasifika students achieve at the lowest level of all cultural groups, with Pasifika students tending to be in the lowest quartile for achievement, and generally remaining in that band of achievement for their school career. The Ministry’s Pasifika Education Plan’s (2013-2017) urges schools to support Pasifika students to be “demanding, vibrant, dynamic, successful Pasifika learners, secure and confident in their identities, languages and cultures, navigating through all curriculum areas such as the arts, sciences, technology, social sciences and mathematics.” This requires teaching that is culturally responsive to students.

There is no single recipe for cultural responsiveness, and the diversity in Pasifika people makes it impossible to define a single pedagogy for Pasifika students. However research[2] has identified that the principal reasons for the poor achievement of Pasifika students are related to teachers:

  • Having deficit views of Pasifika students and their potential for learning, and a failure to develop strong and positive relationships with Pasifika students
  • Failing to understand Pasifika students’ identities
  • Using ineffective pedagogies

Other research[3] notes that high achieving Pasifika students perceived that important factors contributing to their success were the maintenance of their cultural identity, high expectations by teachers and parents, home-school relationships, parental support and love, the role of the church and the use of ICT.

Culturally responsive teaching can be enacted when teachers work on:

  • Having high expectations for Pasifika students (link to section)
  • Knowing students as individuals, knowing the cultures they identify with and what this means for them (link to section)
  • Developing strong relationships with Pasifika students and families (link to section)
  • Effective pedagogies which are discursive and collaborative (link to section)

Having high expectations for Pasifika students

Research shows that teachers’ beliefs and understandings about Pasifika students (implicit and explicit) can be the biggest barrier to improving student outcomes.

In research comparing teacher and student perspectives on poor achievement2, teachers believed Pasifika students’ low achievement was due to poor behaviour related to Pasifika values. Teachers often attributed poor behaviour to the discipline students received at home, either believing it not strict enough, or too strict, so that students couldn’t cope with the freedoms permitted at school. The students however, said it was the attitudes and actions of the teacher that were the cause of their poor behaviour. Negative relationships between teachers and students were felt to be a principal cause of poor behaviour and consequent low achievement.

Deficit thinking, generalised assumptions and stereotypical views of Pasifika students in particular encourage teachers to use pedagogical strategies which reduce cognitive demand, limiting the complexity of their learning. For example, teachers often believe that most Pasifika children require concrete materials and repetition in order to learn. They limit students to simpler problems and do not engage them with higher order ideas or in thinking abstractly, so that students are unable to extend their knowledge.

The same research also indicates that Pasifika students are aware of their teachers’ low expectations. Teachers’ low expectations influence their choice of teaching strategies, including giving work that is too easy, doing students’ work for them, giving simple instructions, repeating instructions, and singling Pasifika students out for attention. Students understood that teachers had high expectations when they gave them problem-solving activities and time to think rather than telling students what to do and explaining solutions to them.

What this looks like

Quality teaching based on high expectations and challenging learning tasks are likely to support Pasifika students to make the greatest progress. Students are more likely to meet expectations to do well if they have opportunities to take charge of their learning and are scaffolded to build on what they already know. When schools and teachers have high expectations then parents are also likely to expect and support high levels of achievement for students.

You need to be aware of stereotypical patterns of thinking and behaviour related to Pasifika students, and instead:

  • Focus on students’ personal and ethnic diversity, and ensure that when, what and how they learn reflects and reinforces their identity.
  • Understand students’ behaviour as specific to the situation and influenced by social norms, rather than characteristic of a cultural group
  • Co-construct the curriculum and involve students in assessment as a way of ensuring you are responding to individual students’ specific strengths and needs rather than operating by generalised assumptions

Know your students as individuals

Knowing your students as individuals, knowing the cultures they identify with and what this means for them. Planning interactions and behaviours without taking into account students’ social and cultural backgrounds is detrimental to student progress. However, in thinking about and preparing work for their students, teachers often draw on the identity they have allocated to their students, based on their own personal beliefs and experiences about different cultural identities. Instead, get to know your students as individuals through conversation and classroom activities which enable students share their cultures and perspectives.

Pasifika students want to have teachers who know their culture and know about them as people. They want to read, learn, and write about their own culture. They want their teachers to care about them. Research[4] shows that more than two thirds of teachers make a point of finding out which Pasifika culture their students and families identify with. This is important as the label Pasifika, instead of Tongan, Samoan, Niuean, Fijian, Tokelauan or Cook Islander, limits identity formation and disguises important differences. It also is important that teachers affirm their students’ diverse personal identities. This does not occur through the use of curriculum units or classroom celebrations that focus on different cultures, which only reinforce an assumed and generalised identity for Pasifika students. Instead, teachers need to recognise that students have the right to construct their own identities. These unique, personal and multi-faceted identities can be better affirmed through sensitive listening and understanding. Knowing your students’ identities refers to knowing who they are as people, as opposed to what groups they belong to.

Aside from an ethnic identity, Pasifika students develop multiple identities in regard to diverse contexts, including home, school, church, sports groups, music groups, part-time employment, and socialising with friends. Often these different contexts are quite separately associated with different identities: a student might be a New Zealand citizen, Samoan and German, Christian, female and an All Blacks supporter, with none of these identities to be taken as the student’s only identity. In order to present a particular identity, students may choose to conceal cultural behaviours, including the use of their own language, in the classroom. However, valuing students’ cultures and reflecting them in the curriculum and school culture will enable students to engage openly in cultural behaviours and understandings.

What this looks like

Finding out about and responding to the identities of your students means learning about the specific cultural practices and language that influence students outside of school. Cultural responsiveness does not mean just learning about others. Developing an awareness of your own cultural identity is an important tool for developing cultural understandings. This means critically reflecting on and coming to understand how identity, language and culture influence your own life and your own identity. In so doing, you can develop an appreciation of complexity rather than reinforce stereotypical and essentialist understandings of cultural differences which leave some students feeling they are not understood or accepted. Students also want to know about their teachers, and their lives outside school.

  • Share information about your own cultural identity and personal story. Find opportunities for self-disclosure, which encourages students to reciprocate. When you share a personal story, students believe they can reveal more about themselves by sharing their personal stories. You can also, for example, share stories about times you have made mistakes, to help students feel more comfortable about making mistakes themselves. All of this supports the development of strong relationships.
  • Acknowledge students’ choice in the ways in which they identify themselves and are identified in order to avoid inappropriate assumptions on your part. Ensure when you attempt to validate or affirm Pasifika identities, cultures and knowledge, that this is not based on your own views of a Pasifika identity but on those of the student.
  • Set up activities which involve students in meaningful exchanges that enable the class to learn about each other. Ask students to identify similar or relevant practices in their culture to those under discussion. For example, when learning French vocabulary for mealtimes, ask students to describe a typical meal in their culture/family, or, when learning about historic graves, ask how dead people and death are treated in different cultural groups.
  • Encourage and support students to maintain their own cultural identity. Beware of putting Pasifika students and their cultures on show, or developing a “tourist” approach to diversity, in which students experience particular cultures in the same way as a tourist might, tasting foods, observing songs, music and dances, and learning a few words of the language or facts about a country. This does not help students feel understood or develop a sense of identity, but perhaps leads to students being unwilling to identify as Pasifika and to distance themselves from the identities promoted.
  • Seek professional development not from workshops or books but in participating in an event with your local Samoan community, or attending a Tongan church service.

Understanding and using the cultural knowledge and experiences of students is a vital and integral part of planning curriculum and pedagogy. Once you know your students better, you can construct relevant teaching content to capture their interest and build on their prior knowledge.

  • Construct learning situations based on what is important to students – for example, place maths problems in the context of ula lole, the lolly leis (garlands) that are given out at a celebration[5].
  • Ensure that texts used by students make links with students’ interests and prior knowledge. An easy way to do this is to use the free reading texts provided by the Ministry of Education about different cultural groups that incorporate most Pasifika languages and cultures.

Developing strong relationships with Pasifika students and families

All students, but particularly struggling and low-achieving students, require a positive relationship with their teacher. They need to feel that they belong and that they are connected to the group. Pasifika students prefer teachers who are responsive, reasonable and available, who teach from their hearts and who regularly describe and frame them as competent.

Respect is a very important notion. Students report that when they feel they are not being respected by the teacher, they respond by ignoring the teacher and avoiding participation. For Pasifika students, the teacher needs to earn the respect of the students in order to gain legitimate authority in the class. Pasifika students want the teacher to be a strong authority figure in the classroom, so that there is order and discipline. Pasifika students do not want teachers to act as substitute parents, which they see as an insult.

Pasifika parents want their children to have a good education and are committed to supporting them. However, the way in which parents support their children can differ from that which schools and teachers expect. As the teacher is seen as the authority in the classroom, the one with the responsibility to impart knowledge to the students, parents believe it is their role to ensure that their children respect the teacher, behave well and do their work. In other words, they focus more on behaviour, assuming that good behaviour will enable the teacher to teach them to achieve high levels of performance.

This total trust in the school and teachers can also work to disadvantage Pasifika students, as families are prevented from challenging the teachers, content, or teaching methods. If there is an issue with attainment, parents blame their children rather than challenge the teaching. This leads teachers to believe that the parents accept poor levels of learning for their children. It is therefore important to build relationships with Pasifika parents to find ways to improve their understanding of, and confidence in discussing, school related activities. Yet research3 reports that Pasifika parents feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in school. The development of a shared perspective on student learning is hindered by the difficulties of cross-cultural communication, work and family commitments, second language use and the structures of meetings, which reduce the capacities of Pasifika families to express their views.

What this looks like

Treat students with dignity. This means treating every student as a unique individual, listening to them, and responding respectfully to their ideas, questions and concerns. It means avoiding interactions which assign blame, show distrust or disbelief of students, and even interactions that single out Pasifika students for help (instead, allow them to ask for help or ask their friends for help instead).

  • Don’t use put-downs or impatience, or blame students for what they don’t know. Avoid authoritarian actions and words (shouting, not listening, making accusations, and hurtful comments) which make Pasifika students feel as if they are constantly being punished.
  • Avoid programmes in which students change classes for particular subjects (interchanging), recognising that an ongoing relationship with the same teacher is crucial.
  • Speak to students respectfully, treat them as adults or equals. Show respect by pronouncing and spelling students’ names correctly.
  • Develop caring interactions, emphasising reciprocal relationships.
  • Ensure to engage in both public and private interactions with students, focusing on qualities of trust, support, and companionship.
  • Interact with families to try to understand the reality of students’ lives.
  • Ensure students see themselves reflected in the curriculum.

Strong and positive relationships with Pasifika parents encourage parents to feel comfortable coming into school, getting involved, and sharing views.

  • Find ways to bring Pasifika parents into school. Involve them in running cross-cultural activities and events or provide enticement in the form of adult education courses, a fruit and vegetable cooperative, or use of computers.
  • Be present as children and parents are arriving each day, and greet families daily. Visit Pasifika families in their homes.
  • Have a Pasifika liaison person in school or in a cluster of schools. This might enable families to use their first language in meetings, for example, which aids their confidence and willingness to ask questions and express their views.
  • Share data with families to increase their knowledge of the school system and their child’s achievement within it, so that they can advocate for their child, for example, by inquiring about outcomes and demanding better outcomes.

Utilise effective pedagogies that are discursive and collaborative

Research[6] finds that in learner-centred and discursive classrooms, which provide students with opportunities to actively listen, support and question one another, there are more meaningful conversations, better student-teacher relationships, and greater engagement and achievement. A discursive approach can help students make connections between the meanings they gain from their own experiences and the meanings they gain from their school learning, which strengthens their understanding of school concepts. Pasifika students report that they want challenging work, opportunities to do the work for themselves, and space and time to think. When students feel powerless over their learning, they may display silence, compliance and conformity while simultaneously disengaging from the curriculum.

Avoid applying a one-size-fits-all teaching approach for all Pasifika students or constantly trying to identify and categorise Pasifika ways of learning. It would be wrong to assume that all Pasifika students enjoy group work as a result of being Pasifika. Some Pasifika students report that although they enjoy group work and discussing learning with peers generally, they are daunted when they move into larger classes. Most important for improving Pasifika students’ achievement is to listen and respond to students and their actions. This means hearing students’ perspectives and acting on them, as well as examining data to make decisions about staffing, resources, teaching approaches and programmes.

Pasifika students can be fearful of making mistakes or situations in which they might display a lack of knowledge. They may not like to take risks in the context of a whole class or group discussion, for fear of the ridicule and shaming that accompanies failure. They may not be assertive in class, for example, in asking questions or asking for help. Research3 claims Pasifika students prefer to fit in with cultural expectations to listen passively and obey, and can be concerned by others’ noisy and disruptive behaviour, or ineffective classroom management, which hinders their ability to learn.

As some Pasifika students have to navigate and transition between different worlds, they have competing demands placed on them which may affect their achievement. Teachers might be able to draw on Pasifika students’ understanding of cooperative venture, and respect for elders and the church, and values of reciprocity, service, spirituality and family within their teaching practices.

Raising students’ self-esteem and self-discipline requires the inclusion of the students’ languages, and an appreciation of their cultural activities such as music and dance. The use of students’ own languages has been found to promote successful learning experiences, increase students’ engagement and enable them to gain a more sophisticated understanding of concepts. For example, research in mathematics5 found students demonstrated more sophisticated higher level reasoning when learning incorporated their social customs, values and language. Using a home language can support students to better understand the teacher’s questions or the set activity, and to find the right English words to represent what they want to communicate. This provides students with equitable learning opportunities and also helps equalise power relations in the classroom, when students are empowered to help each other because they can use a language the teacher doesn’t understand.

Pasifika students often acquire and practice literacy skills in the context of their church, therefore using the processes and texts that are familiar from church can support students in gaining school literacy skills. However, note that challenging a Biblical text is considered inappropriate. This can create a conflict with school discussions in which active discussion, dispute, debate and critical questioning are encouraged. These discursive activities might make some Pasifika students uncomfortable.

What this looks like

Explore culturally appropriate teaching approaches and resources with students and try to meet students’ needs from a cultural perspective. Flexibility and individuality are important features of a culturally responsive curriculum, and learner-centred classrooms provide the teacher with time to discuss learning with individual students, respond to students’ questions and give feedback. Students have more time with, and access to, the teacher.

Students are supported to use their own languages in class, although some students can experience concerns related to their ability to speak the language competently, family pressure to speak their indigenous language, or peer pressure about speaking another language. The aim is to support students’ expression in their indigenous language, and preserve students’ languages as a source of interest and pride for the student. Even the slightest recognition of students’ first language helps to build students’ confidence and their sense of being cared for.

  • Plan occasions for collaborative learning, for example, in researching different areas of a topic in groups or pairs, or in asking students to share experiences or personal ideas, or to make decisions by reaching consensus. Have students report back to the class to open up further dialogue.
  • Consider a buddy system for Pasifika students, to allow Pasifika students to support each other. Be careful that you don’t focus these pairs on repetitive and concrete activities, but encourage work that involves higher level thinking.
  • Empower students to take control of their own learning. This could involve using a system in which, after class teaching, students break into groups that ‘feel able to work by themselves’, that ‘feel confident but would like to tag back with the teacher at the end of the lesson’, or that ‘want to continue working with the teacher’.
  • Ensure that students don’t feel failure or are singled out and put on the spot. However, this doesn’t mean minimising discussion or reducing the complexity of work.
  • Draw explicitly on your Pasifika students’ understandings of the concept of family, in order to shape expectations for positive and collective interactions in class. Get students to talk about their experience of this in everyday life, for example, sharing chores, or preparing a meal or umu. Then create expectations around “we are all in this together”, such as if someone doesn’t understand, we help him or her, and around “everyone helps out”, such as sharing the work for equal participation and collective responsibility in group work.
  • Offer students opportunities to use their home languages, for example, “you might like to talk about this problem in Samoan or your home language”.
  • Value the literacies and skills that Pasifika students have gained in their first language, and make clear connections with school literacy so that students can build upon these.
  • Make connections between Pasifika languages and Māori language. Ask students to create a Pasifika dictionary of example phrases in different Pasifika languages and their translations.
  • Ensure second language students are assessed to see if they require support.
  • Highlight specialist, unusual, or culturally specific terms (for example, “wheelbarrow”, “sidewalk”) within texts to support students’ understanding. Pasifika students can usually be quite skilled in decoding text while struggling with understanding the meanings of words and therefore comprehension of the text.
  • Integrate Pasifika culture into classroom content, for example, bringing Pasifika music, dance, drama, art, myths and legends, literature and journals into classroom activities, or basing numeracy or literacy activities in Pasifika contexts.
  • Notice students’ responses to different activities – do they become animated in discussion of certain topics, more engaged when they use their own language, when they are challenged or when they play interactive games?

[1] Wylie, C., & Hodgen, E. (2007). Competent learners @ 16: Competency levels and development over time. Wellington: Ministry of Education. Retrieved from http://www.nzcer.org.nz/research/publications/competent-learners-16-competency-levels-and-development-over-time-technical-re

[2] Spiller, L. (2012). “How can we teach them when they won’t listen?” How teacher beliefs about Pasifika values and Pasifika ways of learning affect student behaviour and achievement. Set 3, 58-66.

[3] Fletcher, J., Parkhill, F,. Fa’afoi, A., Tufulasi Taleni, L., & O’Regan, B. (2009). Pasifika students: teachers and parents voice their perceptions of what provides supports and barriers to Pasifika students’ achievement in literacy and learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25, 24-33.

[4] Bonne, L. & Spiller, L. (2017)Pasifika students, Pasifika cultural activities, and engagement with Pasifika families: Findings from the NZCER national survey of primary and intermediate schools 2016. Wellington: NZCER. Retrieved from http://www.nzcer.org.nz/system/files/National%20Survey_Pasifika.pdf

[5] Hunter, J., Hunter,R., Bills,T., Cheung, I., Hannant, B., Kritesh, K., & Lachaiy, R. (2016). Developing equity for Pāsifika learners within a New Zealand context: Attending to culture and values. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 51, 197–209

[6] Conway, C., & Richards, R. (2017) “We can all count to 10 but we do it in different ways”: Learner diversity in the language classroom. Babel, 51(2) 30+


Dr Vicki Hargraves

Vicki runs our ECE webinar series and also is responsible for the creation of many of our ECE research reviews. Vicki is a teacher, mother, writer, and researcher living in Marlborough. She recently completed her PhD using philosophy to explore creative approaches to understanding early childhood education. She is inspired by the wealth of educational research that is available and is passionate about making this available and useful for teachers.

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