Unravel - Turning Young Lives Around

Andrea Chatten grew up expecting to be a hairdresser.

Born in Middlesbrough, she came from a family who aspired to hard work, but not to higher education.

She was just nine when her primary school teacher, having spotted her potential, told her parents that she would grow to be university material.

But no member of her family had been to university, so the idea was dismissed.

It took a hairdresser to force her to confront her abilities and aim higher than a job in his salon.

“I set my sights on being a stylist and did a six-week YTS scheme with a local salon -Saks in Middlesbrough. The boss was Louis… He changed my life,” says Andrea.

“I stayed at the salon as a Saturday girl and went on to get 10 GCSEs. When Louis learned that, he took me to one side and threatened to sack me if I didn’t leave and go off to do A levels. He said if I was his daughter he would really be pushing me.

“I took his advice and did my A levels, but I still studied hairdressing with him to support my studies. When I passed them, I knew I then had to go to university. I tell the kids I work with this story. It’s so important to realise your potential.”

Andrea came to Sheffield in 1989 to study education and technology for four years at Sheffield Hallam University.

After gaining her degree – a 2.2.BEd in education with technology, she set her sights on a teaching career.

But there was something really important she wanted to do first.

She joined Childline, the 24-hour telephone helpline set up by Esther Rantzen for children and young people in need, as a volunteer.

“I wanted to understand the life problems of the children I would be working with and learn how to really listen to them with compassion. Then I could understand their behaviour,” she explains.

She worked in Childline’s Sheffield office from 7-10pm several nights a week for two years, earning a living during the day with office temping roles.

There were heart-rending calls to deal with, many from children suffering sexual abuse.

Andrea recalls: “Some children rang me regularly. My phone would be ringing as I took my coat off. There were horrendous disclosures. I couldn’t cut them off when my shift ended - I often continued talking to them up to midnight.

In the first six months I would get home, get in the bath and just cry.

“It took some children weeks to reveal what was happening to them. One girl never spoke a word for two months. There were long calls where I would gently talk and she would remain silent. Eventually we worked out a way of communicating through a series of taps she could make.”

Childline had taught her how to build a caller’s confidence to the point where they felt able to speak to a teacher or a parent. But the experience also taught Andrea how to give her all when she was on duty, yet leave the distressing details behind when she let the office.

It has enabled her to spend 30 years of her life helping children and young people.

Andrea felt ready to become a teacher at the age of 25 back in Middlesbrough before returning to Sheffield where she worked in primary education until the birth of daughter Lily in 2002.

She went back to teaching a year later, then managed a learning support unit before taking a year’s maternity leave for her second child, Alfie.

On returning to work, she was approached by the Sheffield Pupil Referral Unit, which worked with children across the city who had been excluded.

For the next five years she worked at teaching these children how to be happy and amend their behaviour so they could go back into mainstream school. She became a team leader, her 12 staff looking after children with some of the most complex needs in the city.

“It was about empowering them, helping them to become assertive or manage their anger so they started to like themselves and feel proud.

“It is also about setting boundaries. Kids need to know that adults are in charge. It makes them feel safe and grounded and that’s how I ran that unit,” she says.

Her job fulfilled her until the death of her father in 2011 made her reassess her life at 40. A year later she left her job to study for a Masters in Developmental Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University.

She also began writing her Blinks children’s novels to help young readers deal with their emotions.

In 2014, she set up Unravel to develop a new model of psychology to sit between the current provisions, one that harnessed her expertise in recognising and dealing with the issues that sit behind children’s emotional responses.

She explains: “Unravel is passionate about helping children learn essential strategies to manage their brains and emotions at difficult times.

“Key themes are always present in children showing behavioural problems and need addressing so that children can move towards becoming more positive and happy.

“I set up my own service because I wanted to do more to help them than schools and the medical world are able to.

“We are filling the void between current services provided by Educational Psychology and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), which cannot meet demand. We also work within schools and with families privately to break through the numerous barriers to accessing such services.”

One of her first contracts was with Handsworth Grange in Sheffield. Unravel began working with children and young people on a weekly basis and negative behaviour at the school improved.

Four years on, Unravel has now helped pupils at schools in Doncaster, Rotherham, Leeds, Kirklees, Lincolnshire, and London.

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