When I first met 14-year-old Naomi*, she had been living in London for only a year. She had emigrated from Colombia and was struggling to learn to speak English fluently. Naomi knew enough to get by but was finding her schoolwork difficult. She was also adjusting to a new way of life and was missing everyone and everything she had known.
Naomi became more and more frustrated as she came up against these barriers. Her frustration manifested itself as anger and she was often in conflict with teachers and friends.
What her school did next was unusual. Naomi was enrolled in a programme that paired her with a three-year-old boy who needed support in nursery. Although English was his first language, he rarely spoke. Naomi worked with him for one afternoon a week over 18 weeks - the impact on both of them was huge.
The programme is run by Teens and Toddlers, a UK charity that matches disadvantaged secondary school children with nurseries in the local area. In my role as a facilitator for the charity, I have worked with some amazing young people: teenagers who have been identified by their schools as being able to benefit from the alternative education process that we offer. Whether a young person is underachieving, disaffected, taking risks with their health and well-being, or just a square peg in a round hole, the programme can lead to incredible progress.
A chance for change
The programme targets two sets of children simultaneously, seeking to raise the aspirations of teenagers by trusting them as mentors and role models to young children who will benefit from extra support. The teenagers learn interpersonal skills through work experience and classroom sessions, and we see their sense of responsibility grow. They are empowered to make positive decisions about their education, their health and their future.
On the surface, the work experience element (or "nursery time") is about helping a small child by being a good role model. But it is so much more than that. It's an opportunity for teenagers to explore alternative ways of building relationships and to test the limits of their capabilities. Meanwhile, being mentored by the teenagers helps to improve the toddlers' personal, social and communication skills.
The teenagers learn to consider what the toddlers need. They work through the challenges of nurturing a young child and often come out the other side feeling deeply satisfied because they have been able to help.
The programme also includes a classroom element, which underpins the practical work that we do and is customised to meet the specific needs of each group. One of our sessions encourages young people to reflect on their choices and how these will affect their future. I have witnessed countless breakthrough moments as teenagers put pen to paper and plan out the lives they want for themselves.
As they reflect on each milestone, we talk about empowerment, self-management and responsibility. When they question whether or not they can achieve their aims, I remind them that the skills they have shown in caring for the toddlers are the same skills they will need to fulfil their dreams - they are already doing it.
Being recognised as resourceful and reflective agents of change allows these young people to escape the labels that define them in the other areas of their life, particularly in school. In my experience, this approach can be more effective than traditional problem-focused methods. I would not be naive enough to claim that it is possible to remove all the obstacles faced by these young people, but I have seen the programme help teenagers to stay in school, tackle stress and become successful learners. Perhaps most importantly, I have seen their self-belief grow, and this stays with them as they attempt the monumental task of achieving their potential.
It takes two
As for Naomi, many things changed - both for her and the child she was mentoring. An improvement in the child's language and social skills began to occur after a few weeks. Naomi remained motivated in the difficult early sessions, even though it seemed that her attempts to help the child were not working. The task of encouraging this child to use language and interact with others was not an easy one: it took perseverance, commitment and patience.
Naomi's genuine empathy for the child's predicament allowed her to relate to and understand him; she was able to come up with creative ways to help. Each time the child spoke, she felt a sense of achievement and her confidence grew. Her outlook changed: she began to take a different view of the obstacles she faced, attempting to solve problems rather than lashing out in frustration and anger.
*Name has been changed. Phillipa Ioannu works for the charity Teens and Toddlers in London.