Fighting the odds to make it even: How a kindergarten supported and invested in ‘vulnerable’ families

Dr Jeanette Clarkin-Phillips, University of Waikato

Note: The early childhood centre involved in this research is identifiable in accordance with the wishes of its staff and the ethical approval obtained for the study.

When we think about early childhood education, we generally think about young children and how attending an early childhood centre can benefit children. My PhD research, however, focussed on how being involved in early childhood education can afford opportunities for adults such as parents and other whānau members.

My thesis highlighted a number of recommendations, including:

  • Interventions for ‘vulnerable’ communities need to assist individuals and communities to recognise and draw on their own resources and find solutions to suit their contexts rather than ‘provide treatment’ for such communities.
  • There need to be sustained ongoing professional development opportunities for building the capacity of teachers to have an empowerment or strengths based approach to supporting whānau/families
  • More broadly, public provision of early childhood education needs to support the sustainability of community-based services within ‘pram-pushing’ distances of family residences and the development of community hubs attached to these services.


The topic of my PhD research stemmed from my own personal experience as a mother and, later, an early childhood teacher and researcher. As a mother of three young children, I found myself in a situation I had never envisaged, and my local kindergarten played a significant role in helping keep me sane and maintaining my self-confidence. My involvement with the parent committee and recognition, by the teachers, of my skills and previous qualifications gave me the incentive to complete an early childhood teaching qualification.

Throughout my teaching career, I was very mindful of trying to create positive experiences for parents and encouraging them to use their skills and pursue their interests. Much later, as an academic and researcher, I was involved in a research project at a kindergarten that had been awarded a contract to support parents through the development of a ‘Whānau Tangata’ centre that provided a community hub for families. Our research project showed the positive outcomes that the Whānau Tangata centre was having in empowering families and helping adults realise their aspirations. I decided that I wanted my PhD to focus on how and why the kindergarten was supporting families, and what impact this was having on the community – a community labelled ‘vulnerable’ by government bureaucrats and national statistics.

My research

Much of my interest in the kindergarten and the families that attended centred on trying to unravel the multifaceted questions of why and how life becomes so complex for some people – and more importantly what and who can provide opportunities for positive interventions. It was apparent that this particular community had the odds stacked against them, largely due to dominant ideological discourses and being poorly provided for by government systems. Dominant ideological discourses are those beliefs and values of a society that essentially determine who ‘succeeds’. These discourses pervade education, law, and media, influencing policies and structures that perpetuate the dominance of certain groups of society.

Thus, the main objectives of my research were:

  • to identify any affordances that have enabled opportunities for families attending the kindergarten to enhance their agency; and
  • to develop some implications from this case study for other educational communities labelled ‘vulnerable’.

By interviewing seven parents, three teachers, the general manager of the kindergarten association and spending prolonged periods of time at the kindergarten observing daily activities, I gathered data for analysis.

My findings

In listening to the families’ stories, I was interested in identifying the ‘affordances’ offered by the kindergarten. Affordances are often defined as the objects or features of an environment that might be recognised and appropriated by an individual to achieve certain goals. I found that, at this kindergarten, there were a range of affordances that provided opportunities for families to become involved in the kindergarten, utilise their strengths and interests and begin to realise their aspirations. The teachers played a significant role in encouraging families, brokering relationships with other agencies and helping families recognise and take up opportunities.

The kindergarten offered employment opportunities and opportunities to increase social networks, providing a safe and comfortable place for families to gather. The non-judgmental approach of the teachers, coupled with their determination to make everyone feel welcomed, was crucial in helping families see other opportunities for their lives. Over the years, families have taken up opportunities at the kindergarten such as: kaimahi (cultural support worker), coffee-come-playgroup facilitator, Education Support Worker for children with disabilities, administrator, and kindergarten chef. They have also been able to pursue other aspirations: To date five parents have completed their teaching qualification and are now employed in various kindergartens or early childhood centres in Levin. Of the five, four were teen parents who had left school without any formal qualifications. A number of other parents have undertaken further study or obtained qualifications and found employment in areas of interest and expertise.


My findings highlighted the potential of community-based and community-located early childhood centres to provide multiple affordances for families to realise their aspirations. I also argued that a crucial component of the success of the kindergarten and its transformation was due to the leadership of the kindergarten and the association. The general manager and the kindergarten teaching staff were committed to social justice and were determined to help transform the odds for the families.

As outlined at the beginning of this piece, my thesis made recommendations about policies to do with interventions for ‘vulnerable’ communities, ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers and the public provision of early childhood education.

Author’s note:

Researching and writing a PhD is a significant undertaking and generally involves a number of people, including participants, supervisors and examiners. I am immensely grateful for the willingness of my participants to share so openly with me and I am indebted to my supervisors for their wise advice and support. I was privileged to have two very experienced academic examiners, one of whom was Emeritus Professor Anne B. Smith who passed away a few weeks after conducting the oral defense of my PhD. Thus my PhD will always be tinged with some sadness. Throughout the time of researching and writing for my PhD, I found it very useful to attend the NZARE annual conferences. These conferences afforded opportunities to test out ideas, hear other perspectives and meet with a variety of people involved in research – some new to the academe and others very experienced and well-respected. Being awarded the NZARE Sutton-Smith Doctoral award (citation) was a very unexpected and wonderful culmination of four and a half years of study.

Jeanette square.pngJeanette Clarkin-Phillips is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Waikato. She has been involved in early childhood education as a teacher, researcher, initial teacher educator and union activist for 25 years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s