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How to be friends and influence lives

For the past three years, Barnardo's has been running a volunteer befriending scheme for children with behaviour problems and according to a report out today it has been 'highly instrumental in contributing to positive change'. However, Scottish Executive funding for the scheme ends next month and the charity is looking for new supporters to carry on, Raymond Ross reports

Which child would you rather befriend? Child A, who is disruptive in school, often excluded, always fighting or attention seeking in other negative ways and whose behaviour is generally unpredictable? Or Child B, who is deeply insecure but looking desperately for recognition and to be valued, and who lives in poor conditions with his single parent who has an alcohol abuse problem?

"Whatever your answer," says Graham Haddow, a Barnardo's project leader in Dundee, "you have first to recognise that they are one and the same child."

The charity's education projects provide services to ensure that children with challenging behaviour are maintained in mainstream education or, if they have been excluded, return to school as soon as possible. For the past three years it has been operating a volunteer befriender scheme. Its purpose is to recruit, train and support volunteers to be matched with individual children who are at risk of being excluded. Each friend offers individual and informal support in tandem with other services.

In Dundee, the Barnardo's Supporting Primary Aged Children Early (SPACE) project has worked with children from 39 of Dundee's 42 primary schools, accepting referrals from schools and social work. Over the past two years it has trained 42 voluntary befrienders, 28 of whom are still working in the Dundee area.

Although the majority of children with challenging behaviour are boys, most of the befrienders in the six Scottish projects which Barnardo's runs are women and most are aged under 30.

Training to become a befriender involves a four to six week induction of around two and a half hours per week covering issues of confidentiality, challenging situations, communication, team work, child protection and boundaries. Thereafter the volunteers receive regular support sessions and additional training evenings.

Volunteers are checked and interviewed both formally and informally before being accepted for training. Many of the befrienders at the projects in Dundee and Edinburgh are undergraduate or postgraduate students; others are teachers, office workers and one is a retired dentist. Befrienders are often people without children of their own.

Most volunteers are asked to commit to the scheme for six months and may meet their paired child for a few hours a week, taking them out for recreational activities such as swimming or to play pool, to the cinema or to the seaside.

"The focus is on emotional support, someone who turns up when they say they will," says Mr Haddow. "Children befriended often say it makes them feel special and there's no doubt befrienders impact positively on the child's self-esteem, confidence and behaviour."

The Barnardo's evaluation report on the befriending scheme which is published today concludes: "It has been strongly evidenced in quantitative and qualitative terms I that the service has proven to be highly instrumental in contributing to positive change in the functioning of children and young people at risk of social and educational exclusion. (It) has achieved what it set out to do."

The three-year funding from the Scottish Executive's Innovation Grant of pound;432,940 runs out next month and Barnardo's is now seeking further funding to ensure that four of the original six projects can continue and develop.

In Dundee, the befrienders operate not only on a one-to-one basis but also work in primary schools with groups in classrooms and the playground. Kirsty McNally, the project's volunteer co-ordinator, says: "They can work with classroom assistants or directly with teachers, but their input isn't primarily pedagogical but educational in the widest sense.

"We would like to see this aspect develop over the next few years, particularly for structured lunchtime games, which are popular with schools and children. A lot of our children tend to be isolated over lunchtime and structured play prevents some of the behaviour problems that might otherwise occur," she says.

Stella Andrews, the headteacher of St Columba's Primary in Dundee, says:

"We have two volunteers on a Monday and two on a Friday. They lead lunchtime games, singing games and traditional street games. The benefits are wonderful.

"In my area children are particularly needy and attention seeking and the extra adults provide that attention. If they disappeared they'd be sorely missed. The children would be back to playing the games they see on TV and videos, mostly physical and aggressive.

"Now they're smiling and laughing and playing together, whereas before they'd rather be fighting. And now we don't have children isolated, standing alone.

"It's impacted on behaviour, on ethos, on the whole school."

Blackford Brae school in Edinburgh is a joint education social work project run by Barnardo's. The school caters for primary children excluded from mainstream education (with the aim of returning them there) and its community support team helps children with emotional and behavioural difficulties in mainstream schools. Nearly 50 children have been befriended.

Andrew Saunders, the principal, says: "I take my hat off to the befrienders, some of whom travel from outwith the city to spend two or three hours a week with the children.

"They are extending the children's education informally. They take them places they might otherwise never go. But even if they're on a hill flying a kite, it's an opportunity for the child to talk about life issues, moral issues and so on, things they might want to talk about but would find difficult with an authority figure, things that affect them."

An important and perhaps crucial aspect of the befriending scheme is that both the befriender and the child volunteer. Leyla Charlaff, Blackford Brae's volunteer co-ordinator, says: "These children often have a range of professionals involved in their lives but the volunteers are there only because they want to be and the children know that and like that. It makes it easier to build up trust, particularly if there is a distrust of authority figures. It's a natural, evolving relationship.

"The befriender's role is informal, accepting and non-judgmental and sometimes both children and parents see the volunteers as less threatening," she says.

As with the SPACE project, Blackford Brae also regards sustainability as an issue. Mr Saunders says: "When a child moves back into mainstream education from here, or when the community support team's intervention comes to an end, we are simply not staffed to do follow-up work. Many of these children need ongoing support and we're increasingly trying to use volunteers to give them it.

"Families find this extremely helpful too and we'd like to see this role expanded," he says.

Mr Saunders admits to being surprised at the effect the volunteer befriender scheme has had on Blackford Brae pupils and on those mainstream pupils helped by the community support team.

"The effect is incredibly positive on both the children and parents because the volunteers can act as ears for the parents too and can make them more positive about their children.

"They can encourage trust and sharing between the child and his or her parents and it's not unknown for the whole family to go out with the volunteer. Here, both child and parents are looking for positive rather than negative attention," he says.

University student and volunteer befriender Veronica always makes a point of speaking to Blackford Brae pupil Brian's parents before and after she has taken him out. His parents will alert her to his recent behaviour or moods and, on returning from their excursions, she always tries to emphasise how positive his behaviour and attitude have been.

"We've had our scary moments but he's lots of fun and it's great to see him grow up over the last year. He's 12 and loves the seaside where I take him.

"When I was away over the summer he actually took his family to where we go and did the things we do together, like play mini-golf, look for shells and so on.

"Brian worries about the end of our relationship but it won't end until he's ready. I'm trying to get him into a club on the afternoons we normally go out.

"He was very physical and aggressive in school but has not been in trouble once this session. So, it has helped.

"He'll talk about problems and feelings, about being angry, rather than just hit out.

"I do it because it's good fun. That's the bottom line. It's rewarding when you can help someone smile.

"I'll miss him a lot."

Michael, who is also 12 and attends Blackford Brae, says of his befriender: "Lynn's great. She picks me up on Friday afternoons from school and takes me places, like Laser Quest, the pictures or ice skating. She's away to London this week. I miss her.

"She buys me sweeties. She makes me feel happy and special. She's nice, kind and funny and the best person I know. She tells me jokes, makes me laugh.

"Last time we went to the museum, the new and old one, looking at the ancient mummies.

"I hide from her and scare her, jump out on her. She jumps out of her skin.

"She's only there for me and not anybody else in the family. I want more time with her. I'd like to stay out with her till 7pm or 8pm at night and then go straight to bed."

Sandra and John's 11-year-old son Jason is supported in mainstream education through Blackford Brae's community support team. His parents say: "Before he had a befriender he found it extremely difficult to make friends. He had no confidence and low self-esteem. He believed he wasn't liked.

"He laughs a lot more now and we don't get called into the school to calm him down. We used to have to go in regularly. We've only been in once recently.

"He was aggressive to others including his sisters and us. And he used to cut himself.

"He's had two befrienders, both great fun. He talks to them about his feelings. He'll sometimes say, 'Do you think it'll be alright to tell her about X?' He's afraid if he does she won't like him. He thinks more about how other people feel, now.

"We were relieved when a befriender was suggested because we'd tried to get him the help he needed, and we needed help too. At the age of seven he was trying seriously to hurt himself and others, but that's passed. He's seen psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers but the befriender has added an important element.

"He's happier in school and has more real friends, not like before when his so-called friends just wound him up for their entertainment to see him get into trouble.

"He wasn't bad academically, just had no social skills and wasn't allowed on school trips or to school parties.

"He watches out the window for his befriender to come. He just can't wait to see her.

"We hope he still has a befriender to help him when he goes to secondary school this year."

Melanie, a teacher in Dundee, has befriended an eight-year-old boy. She says: "There's been a huge change in Peter in the 18 months I've known him. He used to be aggressive, didn't respect boundaries with other children and hated rules being imposed on him.

"He was very vulnerable and desperate for adult approval. He had a terrible home life but is now with foster parents where he's much more settled. My role has changed because his foster parents advocate on behalf of him now, but I know I've been consistent. I've been a constant for him.

"I missed one session, on Christmas Day, and he's never forgotten!

"He's back in mainstream education and has more confidence. He controls his anger and will negotiate more and hit out less.

"It's been good for me and informs what I do in class. Knowing some of my pupil's backgrounds and having seen Peter's problems from his side, I think it helps me understand other children's behaviour.

"I'll always remember this experience and hope that even if Peter runs into problems in 10 years' time this experience will help.

"He's become part of my life. Do you think I'll have a wee greet when he moves on? No. I'll have a big greet!"

For more on the Barnardo's befriender scheme contact Alison McLaughlin, Barnardo's Scottish Headquarters, 235 Corstorphine Road, Edinburgh EH12 7AR, tel 0131 334 9893 (The names of the children, parents and volunteer befrienders have been changed in order to protect the identity of the children.)

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