If children are to have a voice and be heard they need to develop the confidence and advocacy skills to do so. A children’s group run by Kids – an independent organisation that works with children with special needs – in the East Riding of Yorkshire attempted through group activities and interaction to boost the self-esteem of young children with special educational needs. The recent report on the group, Listen to Me1, suggests that this is a successful approach to take.
The group activities were highly regarded by all the young people who were interviewed (20 plus), their families (30 responded to the survey) and staff involved from Kids.
The East Riding group enabled children and young people to develop the self-confidence and advocacy skills that would help them to express their needs at school and in the community. The group became a focus for family involvement, and achieved a real sense of progress for the young people through increased self-esteem and reassurance about their educational abilities.
For example, Alan (not his real name), who is 14 years old and whose former school “could do nothing for him”, spoke about vandalism within his home area: “They have special educational needs, but their parents don’t care. They are left to rot, they go around trashing everything.”
He was speaking of his former friends, reflecting on the fact that attending the children’s group helped increase his level of maturity and self-understanding.
Piers (not his real name), also 14, had difficulties at school. He said: “I have a lot of friends without problems. But sometimes it is nice just having someone who talks to you and knows about the problems.” Before attending the group Piers had difficulties making friends – he has now re-emerged as a sociable young man.
The East Riding group activities compared favourably with another Kids group based in London, which had an established number of core members who participated in similar project-based activities. The London group acted as a “control” for the research to establish whether or not the East Riding group’s experiences were shared elsewhere or were fundamentally different.
The research title was drawn from a quote from a girl, Jennifer (again 14 years old and not her real name), who was a member of the London-based group. She described her experience in the group: “The group gives you the chance to talk and for once someone will listen to me – that helps you live a bit.”
It seems a sad fact that before attending a support group, these young people were not particularly listened to about their needs, and many found difficulties in communicating these needs. Indeed, they may only ever have been told what to do, been shamed by their difficulties or punished in some way for not performing at a level prescribed by others.
Similar opportunities for all children should be provided as a right, and not just as a consequence of referral because of difficulties experienced at school or home or in their communities. Group activities reinforce self-identity and provide young people with a sense of purpose.
1 Peter Burke and Sue Montgomery, Listen to Me, University of Hull, 2003. It is available from the Social Work Department, University of Hull, Cottingham Road, Hull, HU6 7RX, price £3.
Peter Burke is a social work lecturerat the University of Hull.