Mentoring a child with SEN offers great benefits for both the young person and the mentor
The twins bounce into the room full of grins and hellos and, like most 14-year-old boys, dive straight into the chocolate biscuits. Mum Jackie follows behind accepting the offer of a coffee, but gently turns down a biscuit proffered by her boys.
Whilst the boys whoop with laughter as they thrash Dean, their case worker from their mentoring charity, at Top Trumps, Jackie tells me more about the family.
All three of her boys were born with global learning delay and problems with their speech. Her eldest son is now 22 and lives independently near the family home. The twins Jake and Brett live with Jackie and her partner. Nan is in the next road. They are a close knit family.
I can tell Jackie is very proud of her boys. The twins went to a mainstream primary school and are now at an “amazing” school for special educational needs in East London, where they are thriving. The boys have problems with reading, writing and maths. Jackie says their core subjects will never be up to standard, although Jake’s maths is “at quite a level”. But, she adds, they don’t let their difficulties get in the way of anything.
The family became involved with a peer mentoring charity after a good friend of Jackie’s suggested she contact them and for the past year Jake has been paired with Tamasin, and Brett with James (pictured above).
For the charity, the children and young people are referred by their families, services such as their school or child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) or they can refer themselves. They are all children who are in need. They may be a young carer, have a problem with social integration at school or may be isolated socially. One of the largest categories are those with SEN.
The aim is to give the child an outlet – a chance to go out and have one-to-one time with someone who is there just for them. With the families, it’s not that they don’t want to provide this for their child, but they may have other commitments that need to take precedence; for example, they may have other children to look after. This is where the mentor steps in.
Mentoring should always be child led; the child is the focal point. The young person should not be told “we are going here, we are doing this”. They should be asked what they would like to do and where they would like to go, and be fully involved in all aspects of the relationship.
The main benefit of mentoring seen in the young people involved is the increase in their self-esteem. For them, it is something special to have someone spending their time taking them out to places they may never have seen and doing things they have never done before. But it is also about having someone just to talk with. What is important is that the children have someone – a responsible adult who they can trust – dedicated just for them. This really improves their self confidence.
There is no typical mentor. The main attributes needed are to be reliable, consistent and an active listener. If someone is being listened to, it makes a lot of things easier for them.
Being a mentor is a serious undertaking. Mentors may be asked to commit for up to two years, meeting their mentees several times a month on a weekend. Mentors need to be interviewed and DBS checked, before attending training sessions and being matched with a young person.
Mentors and mentees are best matched through their interests; this may be a particular sport, the arts or perhaps animals. A conversation about a shared interest is a great way to start things off.
Finishing her coffee, Jackie tells me how having a mentor has affected her boys:
“They are really together a lot. Every week they go bowling, have computer and sports club and on Saturdays go to an adventure playground for children with special needs. They mainly do the clubs together and at school they see each other at break time and for lunch. Although they are twins, as they are growing up, they don’t like to do the same things. It’s getting harder, the older they get.”
However, every Sunday, they spend the morning separately with their individual mentors James and Tamasin.
“Having their mentors means they can separately decide what they want to do – things that they individually like. Jake adores the cinema and Brett adores everything travel based. Doing what they want to do and having time away from each other really helps. They need that little bit of a break to bring their own personalities out.”
They also get to do things they wouldn’t usually have the chance to.
“I am terrified of heights. Their mentors have taken them up the Shard and on the London Eye. I could never have done that. The boys love doing things like this; it’s been really good for them.”
I ask Jackie if there had been any problems.
“No – we all get on really well and I like to think James and Tamasin can come and talk to me about anything. If the mentors are going to be away, they give me enough notice in advance so I can prepare the children that they are going to be away. There haven’t been any challenges, only positives.
“The children look forward to seeing their mentors every week and I can definitely see a lot of change in them. It has brought out their personalities and they have calmed down a lot. It really works and I’d tell anyone who is thinking about getting their children involved to ‘Go for it’.”
As we persuade the boys to finishing playing Top Trumps I ask them what they think about their mentors. Jake goes first: “We go to the cinema and I get to do stuff I don’t usually do. Tamasin is nice and caring; she does loads of hard work for me.”
Brett takes his turn: “James is funny; he cares about me. We do things I have never done before. I’ve even been up the Shard, which was excellent.”
He gives a big grin and finishes with: “You’re the best, James and when I leave you I miss you a lot”
James (Brett’s mentor)
I have a busy work life so I tended to just flake out at weekends. I felt that there had to be more than just either work or fun and thought that mentoring would be a meaningful thing to do. I enjoy being around my nieces and making them laugh, so I thought being a mentor might be a good “fit”.
It’s a commitment and this was drummed into us at the presentations and training sessions. I didn’t enter into it lightly. I think that if you are a solid, reliable sort, it will suit you. However, if you have doubts, it would be best not to adopt a “see how it goes” attitude. You are dealing with a child; if you quit, you are really letting them down, which may be difficult for them to understand. I know that for the minimum two years, I will meet Brett most Sundays which I have become accustomed to. He is very lively and cheerful. He has some special needs, but I just see him as a great kid with boundless energy and enthusiasm.
Being a mentor is akin to being a friend and acting as a role model. You are not there to chastise, educate or imbibe the child with your own values or views. You are there to listen, which is very important. For some children this may be the first time they have ever really been listened to by an adult in a one-to-one situation. For them and for you, it’s a rewarding position to be in.
Mentoring is, of course, also about fun. It’s not so much about the activities themselves; simple pleasures like a game of hangman and having a laugh over a hot chocolate can be meaningful and memorable.
Our big trip last year was a day out in Southend which was great fun. I know Brett enjoyed it because he tells me he often looks at the photos of the trip I sent him afterwards. Last summer we hired “Boris bikes” and cycled round the outer ring road of Regents Park. It was a glorious summer’s day and was a wonderful experience for both of us. I would never have done this myself so it’s turned out that mentoring a child has actually given me a chance to experience lots of things I would never normally do. We saw a really daft movie a few weeks ago and I laughed myself silly. I would never have gone to see that film, but because Brett wanted to see it, a new, daft world was opened up to me!
The best thing about being a mentor is you get an appreciation about watching a child grow up. I get great satisfaction through knowing that I always try to do the best thing for him. It’s nice that he’s always raring to go when I arrive. I also get to view the world through a child’s eyes again. I guess this makes one less cynical, which is a great thing.
The whole experience has worked so well. Brett and I were carefully matched which I think is the key to the friendship. The training weekend, initial meeting and supervision calls are handled well so you feel supported along each step of the way. The two year minimum commitment also makes sense for both sides and in the long term I would hope that I will keep in touch with Brett. I’m very fortunate in that Brett’s family is very organised and reliable. This makes things a lot easier.
It is a big commitment so you need to think hard about it. But, if you want the rewarding experience of helping a young person and if you are open-minded, non-judgemental, are a good listener and you are open to learning new things yourself, then I would recommend it.
Tamsin (Jake’s mentor)
I chose to be a mentor as I wanted to provide support to someone who needs it through my life experience. Life can be tough and being able to provide some respite to families, or a new experience for a child, might just help them to see other options or possibilities in life.
I saw Jake’s profile and it made me smile, especially as we have a shared love of films. As well as loving the cinema, Jake loves to walk. This is a key component of our relationship as it’s his opportunity to talk about his week or the latest film trailers. It makes Jake feel at ease and allows him to talk to me about lots of things. However, I’ve learnt not to push things as he will talk about things that are more sensitive when he is ready – not before. It took me a while to understand this. It’s very special that I’m someone that Jake can trust and talk to.
I also find it very rewarding when I see that he has taken on board something I said weeks ago and that he is pleased to see me. This, and when we have fun, makes me smile. I also really like doing more child orientated activities and seeing things through Jake’s eyes.
Being a mentor provides a fantastic opportunity for people like me to give their support and time to make a difference. As a female, I never considered mentoring a boy, but it’s been really fun.
You need to build it into your life and don’t think it will all be roses, but if you are open to different options and are prepared be to try something different it can be a really fulfilling experience.
Jane Elston is Media and Communications Manager at Family Action. The charity runs the Friendship Works mentoring programme in London: