When Paora Hona is greeted by tamariki at Whitiora School they give him a wave and refer to him as 'matua'.

The formal Māori term is commonly used for teachers in schools, but for Paora - who works at the school as a social worker supporting ākonga and their whānau - it's a badge of honour he wears with pride.

"It's amazing because it shows me that - to them - I'm just another kaiako - so I can build relationships with them on a much deeper level, and that allows me to pick up on when things aren't going quite right and talk it through before it becomes more of an issue."

Paora has been working at Whitiora School since the end of 2020, after the decile 2 school - made up of about 240 ākonga - sought funding from the Ministry of Education to employ a full-time counsellor and social worker as part of its pastoral care team: Te Puumanawa o Whitiora. The application was approved as part of the urgent response fund, set up to help kura after the Covid-19 lockdowns.

At the time, Whitiora School was dealing with a spike in enrolment numbers - many families had moved into the area to live in emergency housing.

"Covid caused a lot of trauma, stress, anxiety and fear for our whānau. There's no doubt that was felt by our kids as well, and the behaviour (from ākonga) that came with it was out the gate," says tumuaki/principal Te Haumoana Biddle.

Tamariki swearing, fighting, and refusing to go to class were a challenge for kaiako, many of whom were themselves feeling the impact from Covid-related restrictions.

Te Haumoana says the school needed the skillset and knowledge of a trained counsellor and social worker to help ākonga re-engage with learning.

Using Sir Mason Durie's Te Whare Tapa Whā model to guide them, Whitiora School has adopted a 'whānau-centred approach to wellbeing', where the focus is on forming strong relationships with tamariki and their whānau.

"We're consistent in their lives - we're not in and out sporadically - which means we've got that trust and connection. Without that, we're going to get nothing from these kids or their whānau. We knew that for any learning to happen, the child's hauora needed to be attended to," says Te Haumoana.

Paora's role involves wrapping around both ākonga and their whānau, sometimes acting as their voice if they don't have the courage, skills or confidence to connect with external agencies that provide support. He pays them visits, checking in to see how he can help them through whatever challenge they're facing.

"If they weren't here the mahi that's happening right now wouldn't happen. It's meant that the teachers can do their job - which is to teach," says Te Haumoana.

The impact has been felt far and wide across the school community. Disciplinary actions like stand-downs and suspensions are vanishingly rare, with the school opting to "exhaust as many possibilities as we can before that happens."

"The wairua of the whole school has changed, our teachers are happier, they're laughing a whole lot more than before," says Te Haumoana, who is keen to share his learning with other schools throughout Aotearoa.

"Here is an alternative solution to the challenges faced in education, especially in hauora and mental health and especially with our Māori whānau. This is something that's worked, so let's implement it across the motu."