SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD Kirsty Wood is a good listener. And despite facing exams and coping with her own teenage years, she volunteered to be trained to help younger pupils with their problems.
Kirsty is one of a small group of fifth and sixth-year students at Portlethen Academy in Aberdeen-shire who are part of an "on call" rota at lunchtimes for younger children. The senior pupils have been trained in listening skills by an educational psychologist and experts from the charity Children 1st. And their efforts are coming under close scrutiny from a team of sociologists at Robert Gordon University.
The researchers set up this action research project into young people's emotional well-being with funding from the Scottish Executive's Choose Life suicide prevention strategy. It was launched in 2002 in response to the high rate of suicides among young Scottish males.
Portlethen had a support system to help youngsters cope with the move from P7 to S1. PALS - Port-lethen Academy Links Students - involved sixth years chaperoning first years in their first weeks and sitting in on some personal and social education classes. But the school wanted to add to this.
Phil Sutton, senior lecturer in sociology at the university, says peer listening was adopted in consultation with the school because of the evidence suggesting children turn to each other rather than teachers or parents when problems kick in: "One key friend is the difference between kids being able to cope and not being able to cope. We designed it as action research, which means rather than being in the business of trying to gain knowledge for its own sake, we were targeting a particular intervention. We would introduce something, monitor and track it and see what difference it makes."
The scheme began with just sixth and first years and extended to include fifth years as peer listeners. Second and third year pupils have been added, with the eventual aim of involving the whole school. Pupils were surveyed in P7, then followed up with additional questionnaires in S1-2.
Jen Skene, the depute headteacher at Portlethen, thinks it's very positive:
"It's another layer of support that the pupils can access, and it just adds to the positive ethos of good communication."
Pupils were surveyed about their emotional well-being, school, feelings and the things that were important to them. As they progressed through school, the same areas were covered but with additional questions to reflect their maturity. Some senior students chose not to become involved with the listening scheme but helped younger pupils with school work.
The researchers were recently awarded another two years' funding which will enable them to track the well-being of the original P7 pupils through their schooling.
"Now that the listening scheme is in place, we will be monitoring and evaluating its success. To my knowledge, this is the first time a scheme of that kind will have been longitudinally monitored over two years," Dr Sutton says.
Kirsty has found taking part in the project challenging and worthwhile: "I feel competent to deal with it because we have had some training so we know the kind of problems that can happen and we kind of know what to tell them what to do. It's common sense. You don't want to make them feel as if they've made a fuss over nothing, because it's obviously something to them.
You've just got to talk to them, help them and listen."
Phil Napier, 17, agrees: "A lot of people would come just for a chat at first - that would be their way of seeing if they could trust us." He says his friends have been positive and some of them are approach-ing him with their problems.
Interested senior pupils had to go through rigorous selection and training, says Jim Hampson, principal teacher for guidance: "They had to apply to be a peer listener, write a personal statement out-lining their reasons for doing it and why they would be good at it. Then undergo an interview."
Dr Sutton says: "Sometimes it's these relatively minor problems that can accumulate and escalate, and they eventually get to the point where they require some kind of professional intervention. The point of the listening scheme is to try and help kids cope with the difficulties as they arise, so they never become chronic problems."