“Tom has a difficult home life and as a result has very low self esteem. He finds it very difficult to attempt work in class or on a one-to-one basis,” explained a referral made by a Waltham Forest primary school.
“He expects to fail, and does not have the confidence to try.” Tom (name changed) is a 9-year-old boy from Walthamstow. This note was written in 2013, before the intervention of charity, Chance UK . It went on to say:
“There are times when Tom is able to become engaged in a task and sees that he can thrive… Unfortunately the school does not have the resources to give him what he needs…and feel that a mentor would help him to see that he could flourish.”
Chance UK is an early intervention charity aiming to improve the lives of primary school children with behavioural difficulties who may be at risk of developing anti- social or criminal behaviour by mentoring 7–11-year-old children in Waltham Forest.
Today the charity works with 30 families per year in the borough. Children are referred to Chance UK because they are displaying challenging behaviour that poses a barrier to their education, social and emotional development. They may be close to permanent exclusion or already excluded from mainstream education.
Once referred the child is matched with a volunteer mentor who meets with them once a week and takes them out into the community to do positive activities. This ‘problem free time’ such as arts and crafts, visiting museums, sports or making a scrapbook in the library, is used to give positive feedback to the child, with the aim of raising their self esteem and confidence.
The programme is for one year and once completed they celebrate at a graduation ceremony where families, friends and the borough’s mayor gather in the town hall to mark the achievement.
Tom from Walthamstow was mentored by Simon, 38. Simon describes it as an “eye opening” year for him. I asked him how he came to become a mentor with Chance UK.
“I guess since my early twenties I felt I wanted to do something for charity but wasn’t sure what. After an internet search I came across Chance UK. I guess it was a combination of wanting to give a little bit back and also taking on the challenge.”
Simon was trained, alongside all other potential volunteer mentors in how to work with children in a solution- focused way. Rather than focussing on a child’s current problems the mentor is encouraged to notice their strengths and build on these.
“That was the most interesting part of the training for me; learning the specific tools and techniques that you use in conversation with your child, in order to help them realise their potential. It was all about the conversations we had whilst on the sessions, the activities were a fun way of bonding and spending time together, but really it was a setting for the solution focused talk to take place.”
In the beginning, Simon described Tom as very shy and not willing to try anything new, he also noticed early on that when Tom couldn’t do something, or when he thought he couldn’t do something, his difficult behaviours came out.
“Reading was a problem for Tom because he lacked confidence. The first few sessions he didn’t show much interest, but this changed as the year went on, and he started to show a curiosity, he wanted to know more about the world.”
“It took some time for us to bond. I remember about five weeks in we visited a farm, which he didn’t find that interesting, but on the long walk back to the bus stop, there was a breakthrough, we just bonded. That was when I felt yes this is really worth doing.”
During the year, the mentor and child set goals together. “One of the goals we set was for Tom to try something new every week. It started off slowly but it got to a point where we he was trying new things unconsciously.”
Chance UK also work with the parents of the children referred to them. They have specially trained parent workers who help the family feel included in the process at the same time as helping them set and work on their own personal goals.
The charity also support them to work with other services and have a detailed knowledge of the local community and what is on offer to help families in need. Tom’s parents were very supportive of the mentoring and could see the positive effect it was having on him:
“His mum said she was picking him up from school one day and all the other mums had noticed a real change in his behaviour. They all asked where they could get a mentor for their own child!”
“I saw in the beginning a child that was a bit lonely and lacking in confidence, not quite sure how to find his way in life, but as time went on you could see the changes happening in front of your eyes. You can see how the process brings their inner self out. They just need that opportunity, they need someone to guide them through it.”
Now you have completed the programme, how do you feel?
“I feel a real sense of achievement from doing this. You can’t help but feel a little bit proud about what you have done. I have also developed my skills in building a relationship with children. Which will definitely be useful should I become a father myself.”
Finally I asked Simon what the best thing about it all was.
“I guess it’s the knowledge that I’ve made a difference in a child’s life and he is without doubt a different child now to what he was in the beginning.”
At the Graduation ceremony, at Waltham Forest town hall at the end of the year, Tom’s dad turned to Simon and said “Before books were like Kryptonite to him, now he reads all the time. You have changed my boy’s life…”