Monday 22 January 2018

Talking the talk

In this modern world, good communication is essential. Christine Fenton tells how her sons are thriving thanks to an organisation that works hard to improve the language skills of kids from disadvantaged areas

Niamh Sheehan from the Happy Talk programme, with Connor and Cillian Fenton. Photo: Michael MacSweeney
Niamh Sheehan from the Happy Talk programme, with Connor and Cillian Fenton. Photo: Michael MacSweeney

Joy Orpen

When six-year-old twins Connor and Cillian Fenton spot Niamh Sheehan from Happy Talk, they come barrelling across to give her a high-five. An animated conversation then ensues. Niamh gives the boys her full attention; she jokes with them, pulls funny faces and she even sings to them. This is truly education in the round. But, sadly, it bears few similarities to their mother's experience of formal learning.

The boys' mum, Christine Fenton (36), who is currently a special needs assistant, says she struggled from the very first days of her schooling. "I had trouble with spelling and reading," she explains. "I was put in the remedial section of the class. We were often ignored, and were usually not included in the general questions."

However, when a young substitute teacher took the reins, she did get a glimpse of how things could be. "She didn't segregate the remedial kids from the other children; she even had Garfield speaking in Irish. That planted the seed in my mind that education could actually be fun."

In secondary school, Christine was in a class reserved exclusively for children with learning difficulties. "I was much happier because I was with other kids like me, and didn't feel I'd been singled out," she says. "The ethos at that school was very positive. For the first time in my life, I realised I was worthwhile."

Christine did get her Leaving Certificate, but it took determination and graft. She then went to college and did construction science, because some family members were in the building trade. She worked during the day and studied at night. In the midst of all this, she organised her wedding to her fiancee Ian Fenton, an IT engineer. And when she graduated, there was another major celebration. "Mum cried and cried," says Christine. "She'd seen how hard I had struggled to be educated."

Six years ago, Ian and Christine's boys, Connor and Cillian, were born.

Over time, Connor appeared to be developing similar learning problems to his mother. "He would shut down if you tried to teach him anything, and he had no interest in reading, writing or even colouring in," says Christine. "I could see all the symptoms that I had experienced; trying to memorise instead of actually reading the words on the page, for example."

So when it came to educating the boys, she and Ian thought long and very hard. "St John the Apostle in Mayfield stood out for me, because the classes are small and they have a good track record," says Christine of the Cork school. She explains that it is a Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (Deis) school, which caters for the educational needs of all children, including those from disadvantaged areas. And that, for her, was a big selling point. "There are a lot more opportunities at a school like this," she says. "I feel privileged to be able to send my kids here."

One of those opportunities is a programme called Happy Talk, which is conducted by a group of dedicated speech therapists. They concentrate on the ways in which children communicate, particularly in terms of language and self-expression. Most importantly, they do so in a playful, affirming and supportive way. The aim is to give the children additional tools so they can reach their full potential, whatever their circumstances.

The scheme was initiated by local philanthropist Tom Cavanagh of the Tomar Trust. He wanted to do something meaningful for disadvantaged children in the Cork area, and so he funded the development of this unique, specialised programme. "The core focus became language development," says Aoife O'Shea, one of the team leaders, who is both a qualified teacher as well as a speech-and-language therapist. "It has been running for four years, and has proved to be beneficial for most children, but in particular for those whose language is delayed. The scheme falls under the auspices of the Cork City Partnership, with support from Tusla, the HSE, Cork City Council, Cork Education and Training Board, Barnardos, Cork City Childcare Company, UCC and school principals."

Aoife adds, "Happy Talk is already operating in almost 30 settings, including schools, preschools, creches and public health clinics. One of the facets of this programme is that parents are encouraged to take part in the sessions."

"For the first half hour, it's just the parents," explains Christine. "Niamh will talk us through the work we are about to do. It creates a great camaraderie among the parents and school staff. Then we go into the kids' classroom; Niamh will be there with puppets, Nibbles and Twitch. We do arts and crafts, or maybe reading. Sometimes we act out scenarios or sing songs with actions."

She says that they may focus on a particular word - take 'butterfly', for example - and they will note that it is made up of two different words. They will also put the word into different contexts and see how that works. Then they will pretend to be butterflies and have a lot of fun, flitting about doing what butterflies do best.

"The kids love to see us adults being silly," says Christine. She says the children are learning, in a fun way, how to recognise words and how to use them, while expanding their vocabulary and their general speech.

Happy Talk is held during school hours. Christine says she has noticed a huge improvement in Connor's abilities and self-confidence since he began the programme. "He used to keep everything to a very basic level," she says. "Now he's flying."

She adds both boys are gaining enormously from the programme, and when she compares their level of conversation with those of other children of similar age, who do not attend the programme, she finds that her boys are more advanced.

"Their conversation has improved completely. They think about words and how to use them, all the time," Christine says.

Christine has been so inspired by what she has seen and learned from this programme, she has decided to go back to college to become an educator herself. A happy outcome indeed.

For more information, contact Aoife O'Shea, Happy Talk coordinator, tel: (021) 430-2310, or see Happy Talk's Facebook page

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