Space to improve behaviour

28th May 2004 at 01:00
A Barnardo's Scotland project is helping primary-age problem children by looking at their environment and getting key people in their lives to make changes, Douglas Blane reports

Naji is tall and well-built, with jet-black hair, big brown eyes and the most spectacular red print shirt Dundee has ever seen. "I like dragons," the 13-year-old says unnecessarily.

As he chats about school and life, he looks good and seems relaxed, but it wasn't always so, says his mother, Amanda Swaiker. "A couple of years ago, before Barnardo's started working with us, we were in a really bad place." she says.

"After his father died, Naji started having lots of problems at school, getting kept in at playtime and lunchtime, not getting on with other kids, being bullied and sometimes doing the bullying.

"He and I stopped communicating. We were stuck and didn't know where to go.

"The first thing we got from Barnardo's was new ideas and routes to take us from where we were. What happened quite quickly was that Naji and I were able to sit down and talk to each other again. Looking back, I'm not really sure how that happened. But it did."

Barnardo's Scotland's Supporting Primary School-Aged Children Early project, run in partnership with Dundee City Council, works with youngsters such as Naji to help them stay in mainstream education and with their families. It is one of 61 services provided by the charity.

"Our experience tells us that by intervening early in the lives of disadvantaged children and young people, we can help them build a better future," says a spokesperson. "We also know that we are at our most effective when we work in partnership with other agencies."

Space was set up in 1997 and has worked with 39 of Dundee's 41 primary schools. Roughly a third of its annual funding (pound;215,000) is provided by each of Barnardo's Scotland and Dundee City Council's education and social work departments. In addition, Space has received funding for the past four years from the Scottish Executive, including pound;28,000 last year, for its volunteer befriending scheme.

The first full-scale evaluation of the service recently concluded that Space is achieving considerable success.

"We don't go in like the cavalry saying we're going to solve all the problems," says the children's service manager for Barnardo's Scotland, Graham Haddow. "And we don't usually provide specific resources up front."

Instead, initial discussions with the important people in the child's life explore his behaviour (95 per cent of the children the Space team works with are boys) and how it might change for the better.

"We're prepared to take a few weeks to do that," says Mr Haddow. "Then we share what we have learned with all the key people in the child's life, mum, dad, granny, teachers, health visitor, social worker."

"By itself this can often change things for the better. People learn things they didn't know or realise they'd been making assumptions about the child that simply weren't true.

"It's about shifting thinking, even if it's only a wee bit to start with.

It's always a good sign when someone says 'Oh I hadn't thought of it like that' or 'We could always try it this way'."

This emphasis on taking small positive steps is part of the solution-focused approach the Space team of teachers, social workers and childcare specialists has been trained to use. The techniques differ radically from traditional ways of tackling emotional and behavioural difficulties, which delve deeply into the origin and nature of problems and have been shown time and again in studies to be costly, time-consuming and largely ineffective. In contrast, solution-focused methods demand much less investment of time, effort and money and, growing evidence shows, have a beneficial effect on people's lives.

The approach is based on a few key ideas: that small changes can lead to widespread change; that solutions can be developed without in-depth exploration of the past or the problem; that studying when the problem is absent generates valuable ideas for change; and that people possess resources to solve their own difficulties.

"By concentrating on the problem and the bad behaviour, you are reinforcing it," explains Mr Haddow. "Instead, when we interview the important people in a child's life - what we call the support group - and get them to talk about what they would like to see a bit different, what is OK now, what they are not worried about, what works, what they would like to see more of.

"We put a whole range of questions that start to look for a way forward rather than dwelling on the past."

Within a couple of weeks of the Space team's help, says Ms Swaiker, "I found myself in a better place, and Naji had obviously been thinking about things as well. One morning he just got up and without any argument took the dog for a walk, then came in for his breakfast. There was no shouting, no Mr Grumpy.

"Somehow we had lost each other among all the troubles. We learned to be mother and son again."

Change for the better doesn't always follow so readily.

Mary Robertson's son Jack, aged nine, first started having problems in Primary 2. "He would just take it into his head to wander away from school," she says.

"The older he got the worse it got, with a lot of swearing and calling me and his teachers names.

"We had meetings at the school; we had psychologists and health visitors in the house; we went on behaviour courses: nothing made any difference.

"Even after the headteacher suggested Space get involved and I agreed, it was still tough for a while."

Because Jack's behaviour did not improve significantly in response to the first stages of Space intervention, the team provided extra resources: a teacher to work with Jack and his classmates in school, particularly at circle time, and a befriender.

"Poppy takes him out every week to places he likes," says Ms Robertson. "He loves swimming and it's done a lot for his confidence and self-esteem. He likes showing me what he has learned, what he can do now."

As well as swimming, Jack has been skating and visiting the library and reading poetry, which is "not at all what we would have expected of him", says his mother.

Poppy has also taken him to a Chinese restaurant, which was a new experience. "He was very nervous, quite agitated the night before, because he usually doesn't like change, but he came back and said he loved it."

Providing a befriender, additional support in the classroom or other resources is only ever done after the initial stages have been worked through, explains Mr Haddow. Information gathering and sharing, forming a support group of key people in a child's life and encouraging them to generate ideas for change can take six weeks. "But it is time well spent," he says. "If you provide additional resources too soon, it undermines what the key people in the child's life are able to do themselves.

"I have to say, though, that the befrienders have been a big success. They are people who can relate to youngsters and help to build their confidence, take them to fun activities and talk to them about things that are nothing to do with the problems the kids are having in school and at home."

Where once Jack was walking out of school almost every day, he has done so just a couple of times this term and not at all in the past few weeks.

Nobody knows exactly why Jack has had so many problems, but things are beginning to look better for him.

"For me, the big thing is there's always someone there for you," says Ms Robertson, "and someone there for Jack."

Naji was lucky in going to a school that recognised he was having problems and knew where to go for help, says his mother.

"I especially liked that Space is a voluntary service and no one said 'You have to go and do this.' Also, when things go wrong they didn't say to Naji 'There's no point in coming again because you didn't do what we told you.'

We have had that in the past from other services."

Graham Haddow, Barnardo's Scotland Space Project, Dryburgh Education Centre, Napier Drive, Dundee DD2 2TF, tel 01382 436621, e-mail

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