When Jackie Warren’s son was at school, she was constantly being called in for his supposed bad behaviour.
Some days, five-year-old Chris Warren would either be fiddling with his pen, swinging on his chair, or even helping others with their classwork – and that seemed to warrant a telling off and a school meeting with his mum.
Like many children – and especially boys – from across the UK, school was a struggle for Chris.
But at the age of 20, he and his mum Jackie revolutionised nursery school teaching in Waterlooville. Their project – Better Beginnings For Boys – helped the boys who were being misunderstood.
For Jackie, it all started when Chris was a young boy.
‘He was cheeky, challenging and he wanted to know the answer to everything. Like all kids, he was very inquisitive,’ says Jackie, 55, from Cosham.
‘I went into his school once and his teacher said: “He knows right from wrong, he’s five. He’s just being difficult.”
‘But he was intelligent – he was reading by the time he was three.
‘I left school feeling like the worst parent in the world.
‘I was a nursery nurse. I thought how could I have got this so wrong.’
Twenty-three years ago, Jackie set up a community nursery at Staunton Park School, Havant. She says she took a different approach to childcare by ensuring it was part of the community and it became successful.
Today, she is the CEO of Growing Places – a not-for-profit childcare organisation with nurseries in Havant, Waterlooville, Crookhorn, Cowplain and Fareham.
However, even with all her childcare experience, Chris was still struggling at school.
Jackie says it was a relief when he was finally diagnosed with ADHD.
She explains: ‘Before he got diagnosed with ADHD it was a horrible time. My head was getting lower and lower every time I walked into school. I was getting called in for silly things.
‘He was diagnosed with ADHD at eight years old when he was at St Paul’s Primary School, Paulsgrove.
‘I needed that diagnosis – I constantly felt like a bad parent. But, finally I knew his behaviour was because of something else.
‘But Chris hated the title.
‘We started to understand ADHD together. There were strategies and work for him to do.
‘He wasn’t given excuses – he had to work to properly understand facial expressions and social cues which are things we take for granted.
‘He had to work hard to fit into society,’ adds Jackie.
When Chris was 20, he was studying for a sport BTEC while working at his mum’s nurseries.
‘I asked him to do some hours in the nursery, running sports and games,’ says Jackie.
‘He came to me and said “I don’t think you’re giving some of these boys what they need”.
‘I was shocked. I had been working with children for 28 years so surely I would be the one who would know.
‘But my colleagues and I listened while Chris explained some of the negative and challenging behaviours from the boys.
‘We thought, “how does he know more than us?”.
‘Chris wanted to talk to the parents but we were really sceptical. We said that if this went ahead, he would have to get his childcare qualifications.’
Together, the mother-and-son team have pioneered their project Better Beginnings For Boys and helped many young lads achieve because of their specialist approach to nursery teaching.
Jackie says: ‘Chris could see their frustration in learning.
‘Those boys who were presenting challenging behaviours got labelled as difficult when they weren’t. And Chris knows what that was like because he was one of those boys.
‘In his head, he knew he would do it.’
Better Beginnings For Boys was established in 2010 and targeted those who were identified as needing additional opportunities to support their physical development or were falling behind in areas of communication, confidence and behaviour.
‘We established that if aspects of their social, language and physical learning changed, it would make a difference and the rest would come naturally,’ adds Jackie.
‘Chris started building relationships with the children by finding out what they were interested in and got to know them individually.
‘They would learn through games, football and problem-solving which would incorporate English and maths.’
In 2012/13, the national statistics showed only 43.9 per cent of boys were achieving a good level of expected development, compared to 59.9 per cent of girls.
At Growing Places, the boys chosen to be on the project had lower-than-average attainment at 13 per cent during October 2012, which increased to 56 per cent for the same group by July 2013.
In October 2018, 60 children on the project had combined levels of achievement at 18 per cent, which rose to 88 per cent by July 2019.
Jackie smiles and says: ‘We couldn’t question the project then – it had worked.
‘We brought a male teacher into the project who developed it with Chris and physically trained a teacher in each of our six nurseries to implement the project.
‘We also worked with the University of Portsmouth who supported the research and evaluation of the project.’
Today, Better Beginnings For Boys is still working with young boys across Hampshire and has inspired many other educational projects within Growing Places.
Chris, 32, is now a dad-of-three and one of his own sons has been enrolled on the project.
‘I’m amazingly proud,’ says Jackie.
‘The education system seems backwards to me.
‘The end goal is university when really you should focus on the education at each age.
‘You would never start building a house with the roof – you would start with the foundations and that’s what you should do with education.
‘We have six after-school clubs which Chris goes in to, to run the project and we would like to expand that.’
Chris adds: ‘I want boys to enjoy their time at school and know they are making a difference and are valued.’
For more information about Growing Places, go to growingplaces.org.uk.