(Pic: Ed Maynard)
Coventry University is enlisting teenage mothers to challenge practitioners’ attitudes and highlight the hostile attitudes they encounter from support services. Andrew Mickel reports
Many projects aim to overcome stereotypes and improve communication with users, but those messages are now so ubiquitous that some have lost their effectiveness.
That posed a real challenge for researchers at Coventry University’s Applied Research Centre in Sustained Regeneration, who were developing a training course for practitioners about young parents. How can you get to really think about the familiar message that teen mums are more than just a stereotype?
Geraldine Brown (pictured), a research fellow at the centre, started looking for a solution by asking teen mums what they thought about services. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about young parents,” says Brown. “They felt like they were being judged, and they were fearful and intimidated.”
Researchers decided to invite teen mums to run the training sessions and talk directly to practitioners about their own experiences. Young mother Lindsey Tonks signed up to become a trainer after taking part in an early consultation at a local mother and toddler group in Coalville, Leicestershire. Now 19 and with a 15-month-old daughter, she decided to join the project after having a bad experience with her health visitor. “My daughter was poorly, but I was told I was just a young mum who was panicking,” she says.
It was later found her daughter had a dairy intolerance that the health visitor had overlooked. But the way the experience stayed with Lindsey shows how easy it is to give young people the impression that services don’t think much of them.
“They can be really quite rude because they know you’re younger,” says Tonks. “On a day-to-day basis, they’re meeting other people in the same situation as you. But we all have different experiences.”
Coventry University has been researching teen pregnancy since 2001, and its decision to recruit teen mothers to deliver the course is just the last stage from that research.
Brown says: “We start with what we think of teenage pregnancy, looking at the negative stereotypes. Through the training we try to challenge these, because they stop people accessing services.
“We’re not saying everyone will totally rethink [their views], but they do leave questioning them.”
The course is run as a full day followed with a half day a month later to allow practitioners to test what they have discussed. It has been run in three locations and each time it was adapted to ensure relevancy.
The first sessions were run in Coventry and the second targeted health visitors and midwives in Leicester. The latest course, also in Leicestershire, targets a mix of practitioners from social work, housing and education.
Quick to assume
Katie Phillips, teenage pregnancy co-ordinator for Leicestershire, says it was necessary to include practitioners from outside health. “You might expect such practitioners to understand young parents, but it’s hard for those people to always do everything perfectly when their contact is minimal.”
Elaine Rowe is a senior social work practitioner for over-16s in Leicestershire who volunteered for the training. “We’re quick to assume we know why they wanted to get pregnant. There are stereotypical ideas that they want someone of their own to love, but that’s not a negative thing in every case. You need to look at things slightly differently.
“While I’m aware of my own judgements, I’m aware that there are positives to teenage parenthood too. For a lot of young people I’ve seen it bring real structure to their lives.
“Being a parent is the hardest job in the world, whatever age you are, and this course gives a personal slant on those issues.”
Rowe says it was the quality of the training, namely the university’s research and use of teenage mothers to deliver the message, that made her think again about what young parents need.
Brown says the evidence from Coventry shows the success of delivering that simple message. “That training led to stronger connections between young parents and professionals in supported housing, and they now have more support in accessing college courses,” she says. “And the fact we have multi-disciplinary training sessions lets them see if there are any other people they could develop something with.”
Bringing young parents and practitioners together has helped Tonks. “Doing this course has improved my confidence,” she says. “I decided to do an access course at university for youth work, but I couldn’t continue because my childcare hadn’t been arranged. One of the women on the course contacted the college, argued my case, and I can go back to college next year.
“So don’t judge a book by its cover. Get to know the young parent and the child that’s who you’re there for.”
● Consult young parents to find out what they think of local service provision.
● Finding time to think about a young parent’s specific needs can be hard, so revise systems to build that time in.
● Signpost young people to other services that could help them – they may not be aware of what is available.
● If you don’t work with young parents as standard, then consider how your services can be made more accessible.
The Moat House Centre for teenage mums in Stockport
Community Care stories on teenage pregnancy
This article is published in the 6 November 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline “Getting past the teen mum stereotype”