Engaging young marginalised mothers in play and learn sessions

Too often people make broad sweeping statements about single, teenage mothers and their inability to parent effectively.

Unhelpful assumptions

This assumption is unhelpful for children and their teenage mothers. In our work with ‘young mums’, there is unlimited evidence that each and every one is doing their best. There is no difference in the range of parenting ability of teenage mothers compared to mothers of any other age. From my experience, what determines a mother’s ability to parent effectively is her access to resources.

If a mother is healthy, literate, financially secure, not engaging in destructive behaviour, has support from family and friends and has access to a vocabulary that allows for her to negotiate, then parenting is an easier task. However, if a mother is illiterate, totally welfare dependent, lacks confidence and has a limited support system, then there is a high risk that her child will experience few opportunities to succeed at school, engage in positive relationships and live a healthy and productive life. Marginalised mothers are in this situation because they find themselves experiencing multiple barriers, and this may be exaggerated among teenage mothers. Therefore, promoting access to services requires a different way of working.

A unique approach

A traditional playgroup model does not meet the needs of marginalised mothers. Such models often operate from middle-class norms and values, making them unattractive and less accessible to marginalised families. To engage marginalised teenage mothers in a program on a regular basis, we have discovered a few core characteristics that are necessary for the service providers.

Service providers need to be non-judgemental, happy and comfortable to do regular home visits. They also need to be driven by really wanting to interact with young mothers and form trusting relationships. Further, they need to be ‘extreme listeners’-that is, they need to be alert and skilled in all the ways of listening, including reading facial and body language. Service providers need to be positive and creative in their responses to young mothers.

Empowering, fostering, integrating

Recently a ‘Young Mums Art Group’ (YMAG) started in our small rural town. This group was initiated by a skilful social inclusion community liaison officer with a background in youth work. She worked alongside four marginalised teenage mothers to design the program, allowing the young mothers to direct how the group would operate. They decided where the group would be based, who they would invite to attend, which artist they would work with and the duration of the program. The young mothers also determined the activities that they wished to complete. The intent of the group was to provide interesting activities that would engage the mothers, as well as providing quality early childhood care and education.

Instead of the care for children being an ‘add on’, it was seen as equally important as the art program for the mothers. Currently, children are not separated from their mothers, as the child care operates in the same space. A healthy lunch is also provided, as nutrition and modelling healthy eating were identified as key learning areas for the mothers. At all times the service providers reinforce that the mothers are their child’s first and most important teacher.

Working with young marginalised mothers means that initially they need to feel total control of what is happening. This is a group whose past experiences with authority may have been very negative and therefore they need to feel empowered for their ongoing beneficial inclusion in the group to occur.

The keys

The power of integrating services is really obvious. In this example, it allows for the range of disciplines-early childhood educator, artist and youth worker-to work alongside each other in a complementary way. It is the team approach that recognises the value of the input of young mothers and children, as well as that of the service providers. Creating a sense of ownership and providing opportunities for self-determination appear to be the keys to engaging marginalised teenage mothers.

Anna Jones
Launching into Learning Coordinator

Engaging marginalised mothers in play and learn sessions by Anna Jones was featured in Every Child Vol. 16 No. 3—Play and learning. Click here to purchase your copy today!