Summary of Research


“Alone we can do so little.  Together we can do so much.” Helen Keller

It’s my last day in New Zealand, and I’m finally getting around to taking photos of my friends here. Last night, I had a going away party and long after everyone had left I realized I didn’t take any photos. I have far too few photos of the wonderful people I have met here. Spending the last few months discussing pedagogical best practices with educators from New Zealand and the United States has been a dream. In less than twelve hours, I will be at the airport, boarding a plane to come home. It’s bittersweet.

While here, I completed a small inquiry project titled Wraparound Programs in Schools: Creating Inclusive Environments and Fostering Post-secondary Success New Zealand. This project illuminated New Zealand students’ experiences of school-based wraparound services, with a focus on their perspectives of how receiving these services has affected the development of key life competencies/ non-cognitive skills.  These are necessary skills for post-secondary school life, so they give an indication of how well these students might be able to function independently, as successful adults. The objectives were to learn about the nature of wraparound services offered in New Zealand secondary schools as experienced by students, and to identify the impact of wraparound services on the student’s behavior and involvement in their communities.   


Special educators in this field often find this work to be particularly challenging and exhausting, which leads to the one of the highest turnover rates in the educational arena. Special education teacher retention is so important; we need good, experienced teachers to stay in special education. I remember when I first started teaching, I would come home so overwhelmed.  I did not feel equipped to solve the problems I was faced with, nor did I know how to ask for help.   Even after 10 years of teaching, I still struggle with this. I pride myself on being a dedicated teacher, which I often conflate it with being able to do it all myself. Children, now more than ever, are entering the classroom with complex behavior needs often stemming from trauma.  A team based wraparound approach can help special educators in this field navigate the compounded needs of the child and can counterbalance feelings of isolation within the field. Special education is inherently a team based approach, but it seems to often be reduced to the case manager (whether that is teacher, social worker, or SLP) being accountable for it all.  It is exhausting, unsustainable, and its not in the best interest of children or the educators servicing them.  

New Zealand has implemented a national wraparound service delivery model, Intensive Wraparound Services (IWS), for children with severe special education needs.  IWS is primarily referred to as Te Kahu Toi, which is the Maori name for the program. New Zealand’s Intensive Wraparound Services research indicates that students enrolled in Intensive Wraparound Services improved  their non-cognitive abilities. Intensive Wraparound Services have had a particularly strong impact on Maori youth. New Zealand’s wraparound model has been an effective means of engaging children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders.  

There is a strong emphasis on whanau/ family and community in New Zealand’s k-12 education, which supports the development of wraparound programs in schools.  Community Engagement in New Zealand schools is integrated into the national curriculum, making a strong statement that family and community involvement should be prioritized in schools.  Wraparound programs are able to capitalize on the principle and practice of community engagement within New Zealand schools and build upon those partnerships.

My research (specific findings are below) found that wraparound programs have a positive impact for youth with severe behavioral challenges, as self reported by students and as reported by coordinators of the programs.  Every student reported success within the program. Students in all of the education settings self-reported improvements in the areas of managing self and participating and contributing. The students interviewed indicated that positive relationships had the biggest impact on their success at school.  Positive relationships with adults in the school promote pro-social behavior and support the development of non-cognitive skills.  Based on student and wraparound coordinator interviews, successful wraparound programs will have the following:

  • Positive relationships with caring adults
  • Allow for student voice
  • Incorporate natural supports that student can access in their own communities
  • Restorative practices

I work at a day treatment center that offers many of these things; sharing about staff and programs at Beacon Day Treatment with educators in New Zealand has made me incredibly proud.  I am constantly learning from my colleagues at Beacon and inspired by their innovative ideas.  Even though my school offers many of these things to varying degrees, my project here has made me reflect on how to incorporate them more into my practice.  I look forward to returning to work and using what I have learned here.

This experience has changed my perceptions on school leadership.  The wraparound programs I have observed here have hinged upon strong leadership.  I recently visited Tawa College, which is one of the first completely restorative secondary schools in New Zealand.  Since becoming a restorative school, Tawa College has seen improvements in student graduation rates, reduction of suspensions, and increased academic performance among their students.  I was fortunate enough to meet with the deputy principal and restorative justice coordinator.  While discussing restorative practices in schools, both of them stated that the success of the program is dependent upon the school leadership- principals have to be on board in order for a school to become fully restorative.  My masters and educational specialist degrees are both in special education leadership, which up until now I have not had much interest in pursuing.  These last few months, I keep thinking about how exciting it would be to be a principal in a special education program- to create a restorative school embedded with wraparound.  Perhaps one day an opportunity in leadership will arise, until then I am excited to return to my classroom and implement this on a micro level and share with my colleagues.


Wraparound Programs

Feature Mainstream Activity Centre Alternative School Residential


Support Person X X X X
Restorative Practices X X X X
Natural Supports X X X X
Student Voice X X X X
Extra-Curricular Activities X X X X
Team Meetings with Students   X X X
Parental Involvement   X X
Parenting Courses   X

I observed wraparound programs in four different educational settings: a mainstream school, an activity centre, an alternative school, and a residential school.  The wraparound programs at the mainstream school and activity centre were independent programs developed by staff in each respective school.  The wraparound program at the alternative school and the residential school were a part of the Intensive Wraparound Services program, which is a specific program administered and financed by the Ministry of Education.   The chart above highlights some of the key  similarities and differences between the programs.


Every student interviewed discussed how the program had supported their development in different ways.  Each student had positive experiences in the wraparound programs.  Behavior was also consistently discussed during the interviews.  All of the students indicated that their behavior has had marked positive changes since entering the wraparound program.  When discussing changes in their behavior, many of the students noted that they felt more confident and capable, which led them to experience success outside of school.  Some of the students tied these feelings directly to the programs they participated in with wraparound.  For example, many of the students had participated in equine therapy through wraparound.  Four students mentioned how working with a horse increased their confidence, so they were able to use those skills in other areas in their lives.  Other wraparound activities that the students mentioned participating in were: DogAble, Police Academy, circle groups, accessing nurses and doctors at school, counseling services, transition services when entering the school, and family support groups.    Students also reported on increased academic success, better relationships with their teachers, and more time spent in the classrooms.

“Last year my grades were really bad.  I didn’t go to class often because I didn’t like school, but now that I have these people to talk to, I go to class all of the time.”

“I wagged a lot last year, but I haven’t wagged this year.” 

“I never thought this program was going to help me, but I know- I can not feel it helping me, but it does on the inside it does, but I just cant feel it.”

“Before I came to this school my behavior was off the charts.  I was a naughty-as kid.”


Across all four environments, students reported similar perceptions of the wraparound programs and the impact it has had on them.  Relationships were most consistently emphasized by the students as a key to their current success.  Eleven out of the twelve students surveyed (92%) discussed the importance of their relationships with the staff in their wraparound programs.  Many of the students (50%) identified the staff in their wraparound programs as “family” or “best friends.”  One student described his relationship with the case manager as that of, “an old married couple.”  When discussing relationships, four students indicated that it was important to be able to joke around with the staff.  Another element of relationships that was discussed by many of the participants was trust.  The students expressed that it was important that the staff in the programs say what they mean.  This population of students have often been through several schools, which has created trust issues between themselves and schools.  Students need to be able to trust that the school will follow through on their word and not give up on the students.  When I probed about why they were able to develop strong relationships with the staff in the wraparound programs, some ideas that students shared were: the staff encouraged the students, the staff understood where the students were coming from, the staff listened to the students, and the staff help students understand their self-worth.

“It makes me feel like I’m not alone, and I’m not the only one going through this kind of thing.” 

“Yeah, they’re my best friends.”

Participating and Contributing

Many of the students discussed an increase in participating and contributing in their classes and school environments since being a part of a wraparound program.  Seven out of the twelve (58%) reported an increase in participating and contributing. This was particularly emphasized by students in the mainstream environment.  These students discussed attending classes more frequently, participating in polytechnic courses, and joining extracurricular activities.  The students who attended courses at the local polytechnic schools reported that they would be interested in pursuing a career related to the course they were enrolled in.  Students in lesser restrictive environments (mainstream school and activity centre) reported more gains in the areas of participating and contributing; which could potentially be due to the fact that the students in more restrictive environments are not in their home communities.

“Before I came here, I wasn’t doing anything.  I would just sit in the corner.”

“I used to be really scared to walk around the school.  I was always shy and I did not want to go to school.  Sometimes I would just ask my mom if I could stay home and not go to school, but this program has made me feel like I can come to school and participate in the work.  This year I have been doing the sports, because  I feel enough confidence to do everything now.”

Student Voice

Attention to student voice was also emphasized by the students during interviews in each of the settings.  Seven out of the twelve (58%) of the students discussed the importance of student voice and what it means for them.  The students who discussed student voice viewed it as an opportunity for themselves to be heard and to have a say in their educational experiences.

“It’s about us being heard.”

“We do a thing called Student Voice.  Do you do that?  It is where we all come together as a group and talk. I can make suggestions to improve the school” 

“I can just ask the staff stuff and they will give me a straight answer.  The staff here listen to the students.”

Students’ Advice to Me

Mainstream Activity Centre Alternative School Residential School
“Just let kids be themselves and express their feelings, even if they curse and stuff, it’s okay.”


“You need to have boundaries.”


“Help people.”


“Get people who have been through it so that they understand what the kids are going through.  Don’t get the ones that are like, oh that’s bad.”


“Just encourage them and give them loads of confidence.” 

Get staff members that work really good with kids, who can connect with kids.”


“Find out where the problems are in the student- every individual student- and help them in those areas.”


“Hire staff that are patient.  Who are strict and understanding.”


“Be sure the staff relate to the kids and believe in what they can do.”


“Ask the kids if they need any help.” “Teachers should have secured guns and tasers so school shootings do not happen.”


“If someone is angry and tries to hit someone, the teacher should get their arm and put them on the ground.  If you put them on the ground, they won’t hurt anyone.”


“Cut down all of the trees by your rooms, so kids don’t climb in them and get hurt.”


“Encourage kids to go to their safe places.”

The final question asked during the interviews was, “I would like to go to Detroit and create my own wraparound program.  What advice do you have to me?  What do you think would be important in a wraparound program?”  The students in the less restrictive environments commented on the importance of staff establishing good, caring relationships with the kids.  Many of these students stressed hiring the right people to be involved in the wraparound programs.  The students in the most restrictive environment, the residential program, all commented on safety.  Each of the students at the residential school discussed their use of a safe space and how that was meaningful it was to them.  An explanation as to why students in the residential program emphasized safety and students in the mainstream program did not, could possibly be due to students with more severe behaviors having perceived school as being an unsafe place.  The students at the residential school all discussed violent incidents that they were a part of at school, which makes me wonder what impact these events had on their feelings of safety in school environments. A question that arose while looking at the data was: knowing that students’ safety needs need to be met before they can successfully engage in academics, what are the impacts of violent acts on this populations’ academic performance and engagement?  Further research is needed around the long-term impacts around students engaging in violent acts at school and their perceptions of school safety.

Below are a few photos from the last few weeks.  I am missing the beautiful views already.



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Gabrielle Popp

My name is Gabrielle Popp. I am a high school English teacher at a center based special education school for children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. I work with children from all over Wayne County, Michigan. This February, I will be going to New Zealand on a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grant. I am looking forward to researching best practices on increasing community engagement opportunities for children and adults with special needs. This blog is an opportunity to share my insights and thoughts about teaching special education in the United States and aboard.

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