How Andrea Chatten has spent her life helping Sheffield children to Unravel their emotions

Andrea Chatten at work
Andrea Chatten at work

Andrea Chatten has spent her life working with children – whether encouraging them to reach their potential, or trying to keep them safe in harrowing circumstances.

After gaining her degree in education and technology at Sheffield Hallam University in the early 90s, Andrea set her sights on a teaching career.

“I’d grown up expecting I would be a hairdresser,” says the mother of two, who reveals she came from a family who aspired to hard work, but not to higher education. It was a hairdresser, in her hometown of Middlesbrough, that forced her to confront her abilities and aim higher than a job in his salon.

“I did a six-week YTS scheme with a local salon and it was the boss, Louis, that changed my life. I worked there as a Saturday girl while I was doing my GCSEs, and when he learned my results, 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 went to college. When I passed my A Levels, I knew I had to go to university.”
It is a story Andrea has since shared with children she works with.

“I tell them it’s so important to realise your potential.”

After university, Andrea joined Childline as a volunteer.

“Before I began my teacher training, 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 7pm-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 taught Andrea 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 her 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.

At 25, she began working in primary education. On returning to work from maternity leave, following the birth of her second child, 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.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for the ‘naughty kids’,” she admits.

“My pendulum has always just swung that way and I feel a synergy with them, like - if I don’t help them, who will? It’s about empowering them, helping them to become assertive or manage their anger so they started to like themselves and feel proud.

“It’s 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.”

At 40, she decided to leave her job to study for a Masters in Developmental Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University. Shortly after that, 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.”

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.

Andrea adds: “We are filling the void between current services, which cannot meet demand. We also work within schools and with families privately to break through the numerous barriers to accessing such services.”

Visit unravelsupport.co.uk for details on the Unravel service.