MD of Unravel Andrea Chatten tells unLTD’s Jill Theobald how her specialist psychological intervention service for school-age children began – thanks to an inspirational hairdresser boss back when she herself was a teen ‘Saturday Girl’…

How many of us can say we got to where we are in our careers today by being threatened with the sack by their first proper boss?

Today a Sheffield-based emotional and behavioural psychologist, children’s book author, and MD Andrea Chatten grew up expecting to be a hairdresser – until the salon owner she worked for as a teenager did just that.

Middlesbrough-born Andrea, who says she was ‘from a family who aspired to hard work, but not to higher education’, was just nine when a primary school teacher told her parents she would grow up to be university material. But no member of her family had been to university, so the idea was dismissed.

That might have been that were it not for the aforementioned boss who forced her to confront her abilities and aim higher than a job in his salon.

“I set my sights on being a stylist and did a six-week YTS scheme with a local salon Saks in Middlesbrough. The boss was Louis…He changed my life,” says Andrea.

“I stayed at the salon as a Saturday girl and went on to get ten GCSEs. When Louis learned that, 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 did my A levels, but I still studied hairdressing with him to support my studies. When I passed them, I knew I then had to go to university.”

d it was Sheffield where she came in 1989 to study education and technology for four years at Sheffield Hallam University. And where she and her family are based today – the mum of two is married to Simon, director of ICT at Parkwood E-Act Academy in Sheffield.

The 48-year-old tells the school-age children she works with today her story because ‘it’s so important to realise your potential’.

And those children are part of Unravel, the service she is MD of which supports children’s mental health and wellbeing, and in particular school-age children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, for improved and happier lives.

Unravel provides bespoke support to children and young people, either in schools or through private sessions, guidance for parents, carers and families, and training packages to teachers.

The work of Andrea’s team of Unravel psychologists is based on her career dedicated to personal research and effective practice.

After gaining her degree, she set her sights on a teaching career. But there was something really important she wanted to do first.

She joined Childline, the 24-hour telephone helpline set up by Esther Rantzen for children and young people in need, as a volunteer.

“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 7-10pm 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 her 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 Andrea how to give her all when she was on duty – yet importantly leave the distressing details behind when she left the office. It may sound hard-hearted, she says, but being able to activate a mental ‘off-switch’ is a vital life skill for anyone who works with victims of abuse.

Andrea felt ready to become a teacher at the age of 25 back in Middlesbrough, after a spell of solo travelling to build her resilience and self-confidence.

When she returned to Sheffield, she started working at Coit Primary, but seeking a bigger challenge, moved to Mansel Primary in Parson Cross, and stayed in primary education until the birth of daughter Lily in 2002.

She went back to teaching a year later, then managed a learning support unit at Yewlands School, Parson Cross, before taking a year’s maternity leave for her second child, Alfie.

On returning to work, she was approached by the Sheffield Pupil Referral Unit, which worked with children across the city who had been excluded.

“My teaching career, by default, had steered me to specialise in helping children and young people who struggled emotionally,” she says.

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.

“It was about empowering them, helping them to become assertive or manage their anger so they started to like themselves and feel proud.

“It is 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,” she says.

Her job fulfilled her until the death of her father in 2011 made her reassess her life at 40. A year later she left her job to study for a Masters in Developmental Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University.

She also began writing her Blinks children’s novels to help young readers deal with their emotions.

“Since my teaching career began, almost 30 years ago, children’s emotional and behavioural expression has always been my fascination and the area that I feel most passionate about. I strongly believe that all children deserve to be accepted and happy regardless of the challenges they present.”

Of her studies, she says: “I felt a lot of doubt doing it – my inner Middlesbrough girl really came out. I had to use my own psychological tools on myself to get through. But afterwards I knew it had given me the confidence that what I had been doing was right and fired me with the courage to set up my own business.”

In 2014, when her children were aged nine and seven, 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.

“We are filling the void between current services provided by Educational Psychology and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), which cannot meet demand. We also work within schools and with families privately to break through the numerous barriers to accessing such services.”

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.

Sheffield City Council is particularly supportive of Unravel’s work with children who are being failed by the current system. And a number of parents pay privately to work with Unravel, having found out about Andrea’s skills from The Blinks books, or via her TV and radio appearances – she has become a go-to expert on children’s behavioural issues.

“I love being able to help children,” she says. “Parents and teachers call me in despair. Many have been struggling for years to get to the root of a problematic child’s issues.

“I have been doing this work so long I can swiftly identify what the underlying issue is – and unravel it.

“I see children change in front of my eyes. I have watched them go from being locked into their own worlds, or crying all the time, or living in fear of parents dying, to bounding out of their last Unravelled sessions feeling empowered and full of joy and hope.”