Lesley Max says her children will be astounded today when they find out their mother has been made a dame.

"They will undoubtedly have a few jokes at my expense," she said.

The wife, mother of four, grandmother, former teacher, author and charity CEO has been made a dame companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to children.

"It's a recognition for the people I work with. There's no way in the world that I could have achieved a fraction of this without the wonderful people who do the work who are face-to-face with the families and the students."

Dame Lesley is the founder and CEO of the Great Potentials Foundation and the Family Service Centre to help underprivileged children, young people and their families succeed.

"A major issue is children who've grown up without the encouragement of attached parents and who then enter school only to feel uncomfortable, never part of it and inevitably fail. If you're on a path to failure in education then you're on a path to a struggling, poor life."

She also introduced the Home International Programme for Parents and Youngsters (Hippy) and the Mentoring and Tutoring Education Scheme (Mates) to New Zealand.

Hippy enables parents to prepare their children to do well in school, while Mates works with senior students who have the potential for tertiary study, but need help from mentors to get there.

"We've made educators out of two huge and previously untapped groups, one of them being parents and the others being tertiary students," Dame Lesley said.

Her other achievements including chairing the Parenting Council, being a founding member of the Brainwave Trust and a government appointee to the Northern Regional Health Authority and the Family Violence Advisory Committee.

Dame Lesley started her work with children as a teacher and mother, but really began to pay close attention to child development when her second son, Jamie, was born with a disability.

"He's demonstrated just how people can learn and grow and develop when they have the right kind guidance," she said.

Dame Lesley began working with IHC, but when Jamie started primary school she became aware there were children at his school who did not have intellectual disabilities, but had psycho-social problems that were going to hold them back.

"I gradually changed my area of focus from people with intellectual disabilities to those with normal potential whose potential was not going to be realised," she said.

Dame Lesley was distressed by the amount of child abuse, death, maltreatment, neglect and cruelty she was seeing and began asking questions.

"How it was in this wonderful country, that we say is the best country in the world to raise children, how was it happening, and how is it happening today that so many children are suffering and dying," she said.

In 1990, she published the book Children: Endangered Species and with Gordon Dryden established the Great Potentials Foundation.

"At the moment babies are being born in circumstances where the odds are so stacked against them," Dame Lesley said.

"We can really improve that situation and it's going to take a lot of willingness on the part of Government, non-government organisations and the population."