`Children have a story, just not the means to tell it'

23rd January 2015 at 00:00
How counselling is coming to the aid of struggling students

There is Play-Doh on the shelves of Neema Fauvrelle's office. There are soft dolls, too, and brightly coloured balls in boxes. On the desk is a tray full of sand; on the floor is a mat, decorated with cartoons.

The office is not, however, a place for preschool children. Nor is it a place of carefree laughter and games. Ms Fauvrelle's office is where pupils at Globe Academy, a joint primary and secondary school in the South London borough of Southwark, come to express their sadness, frustration and pain.

"Generally, if you ask a child how they feel, they'll say `fine'," says Ms Fauvrelle, one of several counsellors working at the academy. She is employed by Place2Be, a charity providing counsellors and therapists to schools in England, Scotland and Wales. "But I think children always have a story to tell. They just don't always have the means to tell it. I have to find ways to help them express what's going on."

School counsellors are currently dealing with increased workloads, including more severe cases that would previously have been referred to local-authority psychologists and psychiatrists, charities have said.

At Globe, nine counsellors offer weekly 50-minute sessions to 18 children at any one time. Most of these children are referred by classroom teachers, worried that they are struggling to cope with day-to-day life.

These are children such as Peter*, a Year 6 pupil who was having difficulty making friends. His teachers believed that he had greater emotional needs than they were able to identify.

Peter was offered ongoing counselling sessions. "I think children are like icebergs," says Claire Mitchell, Place2Be project manager for the school. "If a teacher notices something that's difficult about them, I will nearly always be interested in them."

But this is not the only way that pupils come to the attention of Place2Be counsellors. Ms Mitchell has a cardboard box in her office, into which primary and younger secondary pupils can post requests for a 15-minute slot. Alternatively, they can simply ask to come and see her during lunchtime.

"We're probably seeing the more secure, grounded kids there," Ms Mitchell says. "The more everyday issues." For example, two children who are having friendship problems might come to see her; even former friends who profess to hate one another will happily come to see Ms Mitchell together.

"I wasn't really a talking type of person," says 12-year-old Abigail. "I used to write down what I was feeling and then throw it away so that people wouldn't know."

Abigail came to see Ms Mitchell together with her friend Monae. "When I went there, I didn't know what to say," says 13-year-old Monae. "It was kind of awkward. Then we gradually started talking. Sometimes your friends don't understand, so it's nice to talk to Claire."

But many of the children who see counsellors are dealing with far more challenging issues. "An awful lot of it is economic," Ms Mitchell says. "We don't know the half of it. We talk to some of these kids and their parents are struggling.

"I've spoken to three or four children this term, who've come about something else, and it's very clear that a lot of their stress is around parents working shifts and the stresses of looking after younger siblings. Many get themselves up in the morning because their parents are already working. It's heartbreaking."

In other cases, children will be living in an overcrowded house, surrounded by extended family. Many subsequently end up in trouble with teachers for unfinished homework. "The parents I meet - some of them are struggling emotionally as well," Ms Mitchell says. "They've been through difficult times, or they've not got a lot of money. The children don't know the details of what's going on, but they know that their mother is unhappy. A lot of them don't want to burden their parents."

Many of these children therefore find it hard to talk directly about what is worrying them. Boys in particular tend to turn up in Ms Fauvrelle's office and immediately begin bouncing a ball against one of the walls.

Peter is one of them. "Just throwing it up against the wall while I'm talking," he says. "It's just a feeling. I don't know how to explain, but I like it."

"There's one child who straight away launches into role play," Ms Fauvrelle says. "The child doesn't have an emotional language - he isn't able to put his feelings into words," she says. "So it's up to me to express how I'm feeling in the role - to help him express how he's feeling and put that feeling into words."

Some children just need to be listened to, Ms Mitchell says. "You see a 12-year-old, and she comes in dishevelled one week, and the next week she's smiling and happy, just because she's talked to you for 20 minutes. It's like something in them has just been ironed out. That really is quite a gift."

*All children's names have been changed. For more information, visit place2be.org.uk

When cuts bite, who picks up the slack?

Cuts in government spending on children's mental health services mean that charities are working with young people who would previously have been referred to psychologists and psychiatrists.

Figures released by the government this month show that spending on children's mental health services in England has fallen since 2010. In 2009-10, the equivalent of pound;766 million was spent on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). By 2012-13, the most recent year for which figures are available, that sum had dropped to the equivalent of pound;717 million.

A survey carried out last summer by The Key, a support organisation for school leaders, shows that 77 per cent of headteachers have had to deal with mental health issues among their pupils. And some 66 per cent have had to refer a child to CAMHS during their school career.

But of those headteachers who have referred a child to CAMHS, 45 per cent had to wait between one and three months for the case to be followed up, 26 per cent had to wait between three and six months, and 9 per cent had to wait more than six months.

A survey of headteachers conducted by the CentreForum thinktank supports those findings, reporting that half do not believe CAMHS is working properly.

Fiona Pienaar, director of clinical services at Place2Be, says that her counsellors are increasingly working with children who have the kinds of severe problems that, in the past, would have been referred to CAMHS. These include children with mental health conditions that affect their ability to perform at school.

"I can't stress strongly enough that we should be putting money into early intervention, when people are young," Ms Pienaar says. "It costs a lot less to society than having to intervene when they're older."


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