Helping youth make a successful transition

PROFESSOR ROBYN MUNFORD - School of Social Work and PROFESSOR JACKIE SANDERS - Children’s and Youth Studies

A unique collaboration between research, social service agencies and government departments is transforming the delivery of social services to New Zealand teens.

Leaving school, furthering one’s education, joining the workforce, establishing an independent base and making identity and lifestyle choices are all part and parcel of growing up, yet a significant proportion of young New Zealanders between the ages of 13 and 17 find they have insufficient support to help them to successfully make these changes.

Until now, there has been no clear evidence of how education, health, welfare, youth justice and community services can support young people to move forward with their lives, or why they fall through the cracks at this critical stage. However, two researchers from Massey’s School of Social Work—Professor Robyn Munford and Associate Professor Jackie Sanders—are leading a 10-year longitudinal study that seeks to investigate the linkages and make major contributions to policy and practice.

By 2022, it is anticipated that the study, known as Long-term Successful Youth Transitions, will have identified new approaches for agencies in the welfare, justice, mental health, education and employment sectors, in order to enable young people seeking their services to achieve better outcomes.

The young people who participated in the qualitative research over a three-year period represented more than 90% of the original cohort. This high retention rate ensured robust data and is a testament to the way the study was conducted.


Explaining resilience

The research builds on and significantly extends an international study led by Dr Michael Ungar of Dalhousie University in Canada. Dr Ungar says because the New Zealand team collected a huge amount of data, over multiple points of time with the same young people, there is now a two-country data set which we can use to understand children’s changing patterns of service use and resilience over time.

“This is extremely valuable, as this is the first study in the world like it. We are already in the process of developing new theories to explain resilience in ways never before discussed,” Dr Ungar says. “Even better, the New Zealand data was able to capture a national sample of young people. That has meant that even on its own it has provided valuable insights into how children in one country can follow very different pathways to resilience.”

The New Zealand research team also helped Dr Ungar to develop several of the qualitative methodologies used in other studies around the world. “Their research group is among the best there is when working with vulnerable young people,” he says.

Professor of Law Mark Henaghan, from the University of Otago, has been a partner throughout the study, with his law students active in analysing different aspects of the data. “Robyn and Jackie’s longitudinal research study on Pathways to Resilience is the most significant research study I have been involved with in nearly 40 years of academic life,” he says. “We often say that the young are our future—this study provides hard evidence of what we need to do as a society to make sure all our youth can be a major part of our future.”

Pivotal to the research are the voices of young people receiving care from multiple social services. A total of 593 young people have participated in three annual surveys, and detailed case studies on 107 of these youth are being developed. These voices provide powerful testimony about keeping them engaged, even when the circumstances of their lives and their often challenging behaviours make this difficult.

The young people involved are very keen to support the project. Not only do they give permission for their case histories to be investigated, they also welcome researchers back into their lives each year and willingly share their personal stories. Already, the compelling information being shared is impacting on service delivery. Places where more resources could be applied, ongoing training for staff, a commitment to young-people-centred thinking and an integrated response required within and between agencies have been identified as key areas.

When you understand the story and experiences of a young person, you can get a better understanding of their behaviour.


On the right PARTH

The learning from the successful interactions with study participants was developed into a model of effective practice with multi-system youth known as PARTH. The key elements of this model are perseverance, adaptability, relationships, time and honesty.

One of the community organisations contributing to the research, Kapiti Youth Services (KYS), has taken a lot of the early learnings from the study and implemented them as a framework for the social services they offer. Part of the orientation for new staff involves reading about the PARTH model. KYS manager Raechel Osborne says that being able to refer to the research validates what their organisation does: “It’s incredibly powerful.”

KYS works with 10 to 25-year-olds at youth one-stop shops, providing continuity of care, which for some lasts more than 10 years. “Some of these young people have really complex lives, and developmentally it’s a very formative time of their lives,” Ms Osborne says.

“What I love about this research, too, is that both Jackie and Robyn are not just academics. They’re grounded in the practice, and live and breathe it. They give back to you all the time because you’ve contributed to the study.”

Antonia Hunt, a former youth development worker at Youthline, conducted the research interviews. “Getting to understand all the different layers of a young person, including talking to their support person, changes your perception,” she says. “When you understand the story and experiences of a young person, you can get a better understanding of their behaviour. You can step into their shoes and walk beside them. There’s still hope when they’re young.”

At the policy level, changes are yet to be made. However, Robyn Munford and Jackie Sanders’ findings are being regularly disseminated to government agencies delivering essential services to young people. Hopefully, future policies will more effectively deal with the broad spectrum of issues young people face through appropriate allocation of resources and facilitating continuity of service between multiple agencies.

Project details

Funders Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment


  • Ministry of Education
  • Otago University
  • Clarity Research Limited
  • RRC-Evaluation and Training Institute Inc
  • Youthline


Dates 2009 to 2019