Setting a good example

13 May 2024

Life can be more difficult for some children than for others – which is precisely where the Balu und Du (Baloo and You) project comes in. Students of psychology and education can now also get involved in supporting these children.

Tanja Kretz-Bünese, who coordinates the project, with students

Tanja Kretz-Bünese, who coordinates the project, with students | © LMU / LC Production

When Magdalena Seidel first heard about Baloo and You, she couldn’t contain her excitement. Studying to become an educational psychologist and elementary school teacher, she is well aware that “every class has children who face bigger challenges than others”. One of these children is now “her Mowgli”. They go to the circus, visit the children’s theater or stop by at the playground together. “If the weather is bad, we like to sit down and crochet together,” she laughs. Those moments when her Mowgli opens up to her touch an especially deep chord in the 29-year-old, and it is not unusual for memories of her own childhood to surface. There are times when she has to be strict, obviously. But for those situations, she always stays in close consultation with the parents.

As things stand, a total of four LMU students are currently supporting two boys and two girls from a nearby elementary school, normally for one afternoon per week. “The project has been incorporated in the curriculum almost everywhere,” says Renate Graf, who works at Baloo and You in Munich. She herself studied at LMU and has developed the project at the Münchner Familienzentrum (Munich Family Center) since 2010. ECTS credits are often awarded for taking part. On request, LMU also recognizes participation as a practical project for students of education and psychology. That said, students can also take part simply because they want to. The project recently came second in the Gutes Beispiel 2024 (Good Example 2024) campaign run by regional radio broadcaster BR2.

The teachers decide who gets selected as a Mowgli in the elementary school classes. “They are mostly children whom the teacher is worried about,” Graf explains. Reasons can be that the child has not been well accepted by the class, does not yet speak good German, has parents who have to work a lot because money is tight, or because the child has lost a parent due to death or divorce.

Extra support for parents

Some parents initially feel offended if their child is selected. “They think we are telling them that they do not look after their child well enough,” Graf notes. Yet the intention is simply to give the child a source of support and inspiration through an extra contact person, in addition to their parents and the school.

At LMU, child and youth psychotherapist Tanja Kretz-Bünese at the university’s psychotherapeutic outpatient service for babies, children, adolescents and (expecting) parents took charge of coordinating Baloo and You in 2023. She now organizes information evenings for anyone who is interested at the start of each school year. While the feedback to date has been tremendous, binding commitments are few and far between. That does not surprise Kretz-Bünese: “The program is great,” she says. “But it means committing yourself for a year.” The weekly meetings cannot simply be suspended because of exams or internships. Magdalena and the three other LMU students decided that, for them, the program is time well spent. Though all four are women, participation is also open to men: At the University of the Armed Forces, for example, 20 percent of the student participants are men.

A reliable commitment pays dividends in many ways: “Even just the beautiful moment when, at the introductory event, the children, parents and teachers come face to face with their Baloos for the first time,” Kretz-Bünese recalls. A few question-and-answer games then help them to get to know each other a little better. Pairings are selected based on a variety of criteria such as age, the personal attributes of the Baloos and when they have time they can devote to the program.

Funded solely by donations

There is no financial remuneration for students who participate – at least not for their voluntary engagement. They do get 20 euros as pocket money each month to pay for tickets to the Deutsches Museum or the bouldering hall, for example. The project itself is funded solely by donations. “But you don’t always have to do things that are exciting and cost money,” Kretz-Bünese explains. Visits to playgrounds or the city library are just as good. That way, the pairings can save the money for a more major excursion. Kretz-Bünese believes it is perfectly normal for occasional conflicts to arise between the Baloos and their Mowglis. “They face exactly the same challenges as the parents,” she says. Some children need constant motivation, others repeatedly test their limits and boundaries. Special accompanying seminars and regular meetings for the students are therefore arranged to help participants deal with such issues. So far, there have been no serious problems between LMU Mowglis and Baloos. “Our students know what they are doing,” Kretz-Bünese smiles. Munich project leader Graf agrees: “99 percent of cases in Munich run smoothly.” From time to time, though, the chemistry just isn’t right. Also, on very rare occasions, the pairings have had to be dissolved due to unreliability or unrealistic expectations. Private school tuition, for example, is not part of the package.

What remain much more vividly in Graf’s mind over the past 14 years are the countless lovely stories. To take just one example: One pairing got on really well together, but contact broke off after several relocations and a defective smartphone. Six years later, however, the now-15-year-old Mowgli was suffering from severe lovesickness, and his mother was unable to help. “I need my Baloo,” he said. In an unprecedented feat, Renate Graf was able to track down the boy’s Baloo again, who did not hesitate to visit his Mowgli. “Stories like this one,” the Baloo and You leader says, “show me again and again the importance that the children attach to their Baloos.”

Project Balu und Du: Website (in German)

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