Since 1995, Ecologia has worked to enable vulnerable and marginalised children and young people to realise their potential and thrive within their own communities. We are delighted that our newest project, Growing2gether, is now bringing this mission home to youngsters living in Scotland. In the extract below, Rachel, our volunteers coordinator, describes what she saw when she visited the programme recently.
“We enter the nursery, its walls covered from floor to ceiling with colourful teaching aids, and theme-based displays of the children’s work. The four teenagers I am with look unsure of themselves, until a blonde, curly-haired four-year-old in a dinosaur top, flies across the room yelling ‘Jamie!’ to give his shy but pleased 14 year-old mentor a huge hug. What a welcome!
Jamie and young Milo belong to one of the first three groups enrolled in Growing2gether, an innovative youth-mentoring-children programme, which was launched at the start of this year. It is the first time Ecologia has worked with youngsters in Scotland and I’m excited to have the chance to observe it today.
24 teenagers and the same number of pre-schoolers, from three secondary and three primary schools in the Inverness-Dingwall area, have been selected to participate. The younger children are children whose language, social, and emotional development could benefit from regular one-to-one mentoring. The teenagers, who are aged from 13-15 years-old, have their own challenges to overcome. They are disengaged in school and in danger of falling through the cracks, of losing the chance to make the most of their potential and the opportunities that a secondary education can open the doors to.
For the next 18 weeks, these teenagers have committed themselves to attending the Growing2gether programme for one morning a week. As well as 90 minutes spent with their mentees in the nursery, they will work with trained facilitators to develop their self-awareness, confidence and resilience. They will also work to achieve a nationally recognised qualification through the portfolios they will keep throughout the duration of the programme, in which they will record their reflections on their experiences both in the nursery time and in the interactions during their group time.
Today, it is Week 4 and the group is exploring the question of how we can grow up to be the best we can be. Through a series of activities, games and group discussion we look at what a child needs at different stages of development in order to flourish; how and why people use body language to mirror each other; what are some of the things that stop us from listening deeply to one another; and how we distinguish between thoughts and feelings.
It is clear that the initial excitement of being out of regular classes has started to wear off, and the reality of how much patience and commitment they are going to need in order to be there for their small charges is starting to hit home.
At one point, Jess expresses her frustration to the facilitator, Marjie. The little boy she is mentoring, Tom, seems very unresponsive and Jess is not enjoying his lack of eye contact and verbal communication when she tries to engage with him. She asks Marjie for some guidance. Marjie suggests she speaks to one of the staff to find out more about the young child and what his needs are, but at this stage, approaching a member of staff can be too big a step for a young person; besides the staff all look busy. In the end, Marjie, the facilitator and Jess approach one of the nursery staff, Ann, who informs Jess that he is autistic.
Ann explains to Jess what autism feels like and how she can use pictures and cards to communicate with Tom. Ann praises Jess’s patience, acknowledging that it can be hard to keep communicating with a child who doesn’t respond overtly, before suggesting that she limit herself to working with Tom for 20 minutes at a time, and then talk with some of the other children for a while. Jess is reassured and Marjie is thrilled! This is the first step – Jess has recognised when she needs support and has been able to ask for help.
When we leave the nursery, Mharie, who hung back for several minutes at the start of the session looking like she didn’t believe any of the children would want to play with her, is the last to leave the room. She has been delayed because her mentee wanted to make sure she would be there again next week. “I think I’ve made a friend”, says Mharie, who had found it very challenging to come on the project, having not been to school for several months. She looks pleased and relieved. “A good day then?” I ask, and she nods.
Back in the group-work room, as the teenagers reflect on what they saw and felt today, Marjie gives Laura some feedback. She focuses on the positive actions she saw Laura take and because she makes sure that feedback is ‘based on the truth of what they have done’ it is clear that Laura trusts and values Marjie’s observations. I can see her gaining self-confidence and belief in her ability to be a good mentor and later, when I ask Marjie how the programme manages to produce these effects, she explains:
I have huge trust in this process and we know that neuroscience is increasingly backing it up. It’s like sowing seeds – some hit fertile ground and shoot up straight away, others need a bit of watering and feeding. But there are seeds in everyone – by valuing what they do, we just show the young people that they each have their own unique gifts to offer. We encourage them to have curiosity around the child, to ask what is difficult for their mentee, and what they can do to build on the child’s strengths. They are discovering how to support a young child and they suddenly realise they have solutions within themselves and that they are making a difference and playing an important part in the nursery. Marjie Beach, Growing2gether Facilitator.
As Marjie works with Laura, the others quiz Mharie about why she has missed so much school. Mharie tells them that she has been diagnosed with anxiety and they fall silent, but while they move onto other topics, I see Jess write a message on her hand and show it to Mharie. Just before we say our goodbyes, I glimpse what Jess wrote:
“I have it too. You can rely on me.”
A good day indeed!”
With grateful thanks to Education Scotland and Highland Council who enabled this programme to be possible, as well as to Marjie Beach and Jyan Bean who created a curriculum that promises to support the mental health of our young people.