A companion for all seasons

A programme to help young people deal with death or family breakdown works to 'name and tame' their emotions. Eleanor Caldwell finds out more
14th November 2008, 12:00am
Eleanor Caldwell


A companion for all seasons


The pain of bereavement and loss in all forms presents immense challenges to the Scottish psyche. Even with the support of a well-run guidance system, the pent-up feelings of young people facing loss through death or family breakdown can remain unaddressed.

Seasons for Growth is a structured programme which, through group sessions and metaphorical visits to different "seasons", helps young people aged six to 18 to develop their own strategies for accepting and managing their emotions.

The Notre Dame Centre in Glasgow, which runs the programme in Scotland, has appointed a national co-ordinator with funding from the Scottish Government. Kate MacLeod, who has a social work background and worked previously with the Children's Hospice Association, has used the programme with bereaved families and says it helps ease young people through the "morass of feelings" by developing their communication, decision-making and problem-solving skills.

Central to the programme is the principle of peer support facilitated by a trained companion, recruited from either education or social services. The role of the companion is not simply to impart knowledge, but to encourage a process of self-awareness or "to claim, name, tame and aim" their emotions, as Dr MacLeod puts it.

Feelings are teased out in the "claiming" process and given names by the young people. They are then "tamed" as the pupils start to understand that their mixed-up emotions are completely normal. Finally, "aiming" allows them to develop their own strategies for coping and moving forward.

"We experience emotion firstly in the body and then in the brain," says Dr MacLeod.

In moving around the seasons and identifying and recognising emotions, the "butterflies" and "hurt" work towards a renewed sense of self-awareness, self-confidence and self-esteem.

Targeted young people attend a total of eight 40 to 50-minute group sessions, led by a trained companion who is known to the young people. These are followed by a further three sessions: one to allow celebration and two to further "reconnection". Positive relationships in the group are fostered through a variety of activities that are often creative, such as storytelling, music, craft or poetry.

Educational psychologist Mike O'Connor, director and chief executive officer of the Notre Dame Centre, says the content of the sessions is ideally embedded in the curriculum and seen as an extension of what the school offers within an educational and social whole.

Positive peer support pervades everything, as young people make important connections with their companion and fellow pupils. Strict confidentiality is essential. Relationships have been "transformed" by the programme, says the depute head of one secondary school.

The "seasons" metaphor is important, says Dr MacLeod, as it is simple for adults and young people to follow, and they are encouraged to identify and describe their feelings about the season in which they find themselves at any time.

The seasons do not have to follow a chronological order. A young person can go straight from an optimistic, bright and cheerful "spring" into a darker, colder winter without passing through a gentler and less painful autumn.

Mr O'Connor hopes to embed the programme across Scotland. At present, about half the local councils are involved, with 1,600 trained companions from different professional backgrounds: teachers, social workers, school nurses, community and school liaison workers. Over 6,000 young people have already benefited.

Bereavement is recognised, under the Additional Support for Learning Act, as requiring support for any child - with or without other additional needs. For those with other needs, the programme uses their own particular emotional literacy to claim, tame and aim.

Companions working with children from different cultural backgrounds also work from the basis of differing cultural and faith perspectives on loss and bereavement. The programme is also adapted for working with groups of looked-after children.

The success of Seasons for Growth emanates from the fostering of trusting and communicative relationships within the group, say Mr O'Connor and Dr MacLeod. This, plus the provision of appropriate activities, creates the correct ambience for young people to feel secure enough to express their feelings and develop a more self-assured and confident approach to accepting their loss.

They stress that this is not a counselling programme. The growing sense of ownership of feelings is reached by the young people themselves, with their companion creating the environment in which this can happen.

Alison Russell, the acting principal psychologist in Clackmannanshire, says companions frequently describe the group sessions with the young people as "great fun".

Training courses for companions are conducted over three days, during which trainees are encouraged to come to terms with their own emotional response to a significant personal incidence of loss. One teacher on a recent session admitted to having been "very worried" and to having found the session addressing personal issues "really, really difficult". By the end of the course, she said she was completely convinced of the potential value of her work as a companion and looked forward to forming a Seasons group.

Mr O'Connor says trainees often express a fear "that they might do harm" in perhaps adopting the "wrong" approach in sessions with children. But he sees this as a natural anxiety, which is normally dispelled by the end of the course.

The three-day course costs Pounds 235 and includes a training manual. The Notre Dame Centre. E: sfg@notredamecentre.org.uk.

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