Special friends

6th December 2002 at 00:00
Young children are giving older ones valuable lessons in family responsibility in a pregnancy prevention programme that takes teenagers back to the nursery. Reva Klein reports

The grim housing estates of Peckham could be straight from the pages of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Featureless and alienating, they exude a sense of something being not quite right.

The citizens of this part of the south London borough of Southwark may not have been drugged into compliance by a totalitarian regime, but they have other worries. Infamous as the neighbourhood in which 10-year-old Damilola Taylor was murdered two years ago, the place exudes a general unease.

Huxley's widow, Laura, has devoted much time to developing a programme that reaches out to at-risk youth. Brought to the United Kingdom from the United States last year by Diana Whitmore, a professional psychotherapist, it was successfully piloted in neighbouring Greenwich and is now operating in two secondary schools in Peckham.

Teens and Toddlers is a pregnancy prevention programme that helps teenagers to experience what it is like to be responsible for young children and to be appreciated by them. Organisers hope that, by working alongside nursery staff, these young people will acquire the skills and insights that will enable them to avoid premature pregnancy and parenthood.

Developed 10 years ago in Los Angeles by Children: Our Ultimate Investment, the organisation the now 91-year-old Laura Huxley launched in 1974, Teens and Toddlers is not unique. But its fresh approach brings together elements of social and emotional literacy in a programme that is pedagogically sound and fun.

At Gloucester primary school on the Aylesbury estate, 15 Year 10s from the nearby Warwick Park secondary school come for two hours twice a week to befriend toddlers in the nursery. Out on the streets, these boys and girls can be mean and menacing; inside the nursery, they are gentle, responsible and emotionally responsive to the individual toddlers they have been matched up with.

Chosen by Warwick Park's head of learning mentoring, Hanif Parillon, because of their troubled backgrounds and difficulties with school, they love coming to the nursery. Fatou Thorpe, crouched inside a tiny playhouse from which three-year-old Ibrahim has just bolted, says: "It's a good experience working with little kids. When you're with them you can't swear because you need to be teaching them manners. It makes me behave better. I feel calmer when I'm here. Ibrahim's my special friend. I think about him a lot."

Terry Borondy, 19, took part in the Greenwich pilot. Now he's a learning supervisor and works alongside the adult facilitators, all of whom are qualified counsellors or psychotherapists trained in the Teens and Toddlers methodology. "When I was asked to participate in Teens and Toddlers two years ago, I was bunking off from school a lot," he says. "I thought it was okay to have children at 18 or 19. But since doing the course, I've matured and started thinking about the consequences of what I did.

"I was brought up to believe that if you're naughty, you get smacked. But now, if a child did something bad, I'd talk to them instead of hitting them. This has made me think of my future more realistically, and now I wouldn't want to have a child until I was at least 25."

As well as working for a total of four hours a week with the toddlers, the secondary school pupils have an hour after each session with the facilitators. The focus is on anger management, conflict resolution and communication skills using the usual repertoire of role plays, trust games and so on. They also discuss issues around sex, contraception and parenting.

The two parts of the programme help to give the young people a sense of achievement and much-needed confidence. It is also a source of pride that they have stuck with the 12-week course (their achievements are celebrated at Warwick Park's end-of-term assembly).

Hanif Parillon says: "They want to come because of the information they receive on things like contraception and child development as well as for the experience of being given responsibility. Though it's hard to measure a programme that only runs for 12 weeks, they say they feel they've made progress; and their teachers say they have become more reliable as the course progresses.

"One of the great strengths of Teens and Toddlers is that the personal development and self-esteem they acquire won't go away once they leave the nursery. It will stay with them."

Teens and Toddlers: 01732 454490

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