Parent mentoring scheme giving a new start to education

Research on north Dublin project shows early intervention is key for kids to reach their schooling potential

Marion Dennis with her son Jamie  (3) at the Preparing for Life programme managed by the Northside Partnership.   Photograph: Alan Betson

Marion Dennis with her son Jamie (3) at the Preparing for Life programme managed by the Northside Partnership. Photograph: Alan Betson

Tue, Jun 3, 2014, 01:00

Marion Dennis was 14 when she dropped out of school but she says “I am not as laid back now about education”. Her 18-year- old daughter is doing the Leaving Cert this week and her son – aged just three – has started in a playgroup.

“They need their education; that’s one thing I’ve learnt,” says Dennis, a single parent living in Coolock, north Dublin.

Her own attitude to both schooling and parenting has changed dramatically since she came into contact with a pioneering community support scheme set up shortly before Jamie was born. “I was 42 when I became pregnant and it was a big shock. I was in the Rotunda and they told me about this programme,” she said.

The Northside Partnership scheme has just announced the start of its second phase, extending its service to up to 200 parents a year over the next three years. It follows impressive results from the pilot phase, which saw over 200 families being monitored since 2008 as they applied learnings from the project’s mentors, teachers and healthcare workers.

Significant improvements

Researchers at the UCD Geary Institute found that when children in the Preparing for Life scheme had reached the age of 24 months, they had shown significant improvements across 21 per cent of recorded outcome measures, from improved language and social skills to reduced incidence of asthma.

Dennis has no doubts about its efficacy. “Every two to three weeks my mentor would come out and show you things. They’d teach you how to chastise without smacking; how to do ‘time out’ and rewards systems . . . If Jamie is looking for a treat he asks for fruit or raisins. He doesn’t like sweets. And he doesn’t throw tantrums.

“It’s a totally different way of teaching right from wrong. I always go down to his level and give him eye-contact. He even says to me now if I’m talking to him: ‘Mammy, you have to kneel down’.”

Maggs Salmon, a mother of three from nearby Darndale, vouches for a similar experience, saying she feels “very lucky” to be on the programme. “It’s very different to my own upbringing. Instead of giving out to them you are trying to set an example for them to follow.

“It’s about turning negatives into positives – getting away from ‘don’t say that, don’t do that’.”

Schooldays, she admits “weren’t the best years of my life but I would completely encourage my kids in their education. I have turned into my mother.”

Speaking of which, Preparing for Life includes a training module for grandparents, and both women admit they have moments of tension with their mothers over babysitting and parenting practices. “Mam is old school,” says Dennis. “She is nearly 80, and you don’t give her cheek or back-chat. She’d say, ‘I’ll give you the back of my hand’. But it’s my rules, it’s my way, and she accepts that.”

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