Children’s Commissioner Russell Wills credits an inspirational intermediate teacher with guiding his excessive energy onto a more productive path of helping others. He talks to Michelle Nixon.

Russell Wills is tireless in his work to convince governments to spend more on children.

Since becoming Children’s Commissioner in 2011, he’s produced an influential report, Solutions to Child Poverty, that clearly identifies child poverty as the root cause of, among other things, New Zealand’s educational underachievement. This year he helped set up what will be an annual report, the Child Poverty Monitor, to record and publicise our shameful poverty statistics.

These efforts are designed to drive public opinion so that “governments can make those investment decisions [in children] confident in the knowledge they have public support”.

Will’s route to the role of public hero has been anything but predictable. When he was three-and-a-half, he fell off a bench in a garage and suffered a severe head injury. He lost his hearing, but because he was able to talk, he was able to learn to lip read. He credits his mother with ensuring his education didn’t suffer.

“So I saw first-hand the power of a well-educated parent advocate – parents as partners in education. My mother worked really hard to make sure I was mainstreamed and then maintained the relationship with teachers the whole way through.”

By age eight he was doing fine and that was when his hearing returned in his left ear. “It opened up a whole world that I had not really known.”

Influential teacher

Later came the influential teacher Robin Schofield. “In Year 8 at Taradale Intermediate he was able to take a mouthy precocious 12-year-old with excessive energy, and direct that into helping others. That began my interest in St John Ambulance.”

From there, Wills did health sciences for his first year at university but he didn’t get into medical school. “I was also good at archaeology so I thought I was going to be an archaeologist.

“Then some unwise young people withdrew from medicine and they had a couple of places left so I scraped in.”

Wills now spends half his time at home in Hawke’s Bay, working as a paediatrician, and half his time in Wellington as the commissioner. He sees a lot of connections between the work of doctors and teachers.

“Many parents find schools and hospitals very scary foreign places, which means we have to work really hard to engage with those parents. And when we do that, as many teachers and health professionals do, it’s incredibly rewarding and children benefit enormously.”

Prioritise relationships

He emphasizes the importance of those relationships. “The demands on teachers particularly in terms of continuous assessment are huge, but I know lots of good teachers who prioritise the relationship with children and with parents. And that makes the job much more rewarding and you get better outcomes.

He also appreciates the referrals that teachers make. “Paediatricians generally welcome referrals initiated by teachers because we want to see the most challenging kids. Sometimes we’ll get a referral that’s initiated by a parent via a GP for a child with difficulties and we’ll ring the teacher and they’ll say I’ve got four children in my class who are more challenging that this one, why are you asking me about this child. Whereas when teachers initiate the referrals it’s always the most challenging. We welcome those referrals.”

He sees a clear connection, too, between behaviour and health problems. “The most important influences on the child are income, housing and family violence. They are obviously intertwined. The children that we see in in patient settings are very commonly from very poor households where there’s cold, damp, crowded housing.

Social timebomb

“So preschool Maori and Pacific and poor children fill our children’s wards, particularly in winter, with respiratory and skin diseases. And in our outpatient settings we see large and growing numbers of our children with developmental and behavioural problem as a consequence of those three things as well.”

The long-term consequences of the entrenched rates of child poverty are frightening” child poverty is back up to 27 percent of all New Zealand children living in poverty, with 20 percent living in severe poverty.

“You’re born with all the brain cells you’re going to have. Thereafter what you grow are neural pathways. These connections are determined by the environment in which you grow up.

“So if you grew up with love and care and affection and lots of language and learning you’ll grow certain pathways. If you grow up with a paucity of those things and with parents who are mentally ill or have addictions or where there’s violence you’ll grow different pathways” those pathways make it harder to make friends and form relationships and learn.”

It’s poor environments in early childhood that then lead to lifelong issues such as developmental delays and conduct disorder. “That’s why investing in the first five years is so important. Those differences are hardwired ­– and very difficult to change by the time a child gets to school. So that’s why we talk about an investment approach in the first five years.”

Parents not to blame

But he’s adamant that parents are not to blame. “They’re still parents who love their children but because of the addictions and mental illness they just don’t have that skills and resources to provide what their children need and so we need to identify those children and make sure that we intervene as early as we possibly can to prevent that harm.”

But whether or not that happens is, at the end of the day, a political choice. “We can either invest in children or we can invest in something else like roads or bridges or older people. If we want government to prioritise investing in young children that needs to have strong public support.”