In the run-up to Christmas many classrooms were fully decked, with beautifully decorated trees standing in school halls, but for many children Christmas was a time of anxiety and uncertainty. As a primary teacher, I saw this first hand, even visiting homes with little or no evidence of the festive period. When I moved to my local authority’s behaviour support team, I became even more acutely aware of the problem.
There are many sources of anxiety and unhappiness. The festivities perhaps reminded them of lost loved ones, or loss as a result of separation, or having family members away, even sometimes in prison. It could have highlighted the differences between ideal media families and their own often complex and challenging realities. It was also a time of high emotions, and the celebrations may have spilled over into unpleasant scenes: several children have described to me incidents to which they should really never have been witness.
We hear a lot about loneliness and older people. Age UK suggests 3.6 million older people in the UK live alone and 1.9 million often feel ignored or invisible. But what about the challenges of loneliness affecting the young? As we reflect on this holiday season, teachers might consider how they might help their pupils as the school gates reopen. There are disturbing statistics about younger people and loneliness, too, with young adults being more likely to feel lonely than older age groups, according a study from the Office for National Statistics. Its research found that almost 10 per cent of people aged 16 to 24 were "always or often" lonely – a proportion more than three times higher than for people aged over 65.
Alone at school
So what can be done to alleviate the problem of loneliness for our children? For many, school and particularly teachers can provide a sanctuary. They can help them to feel safe and included, providing opportunities and the resources to learn and play in a secure environment, with practical steps that can be taken. This can be difficult, but a starting point might be broaching the subject with parents. If a positive relationship has been developed, it might be reasonably straightforward to open the discussion. But a conversation about the holidays needs to be handled sensitively.
It might begin with general conversation, perhaps leading to discussion about the new year, or any plans for the coming months. This might open the way to talking about how they managed during the holidays, acknowledging that this particular holiday can become challenging for everyone. Having spoken to many parents in this situation, I know it’s important to be sensitive and not to be too direct at first. They may well be doing their very best, and you are trying to build the relationship for the benefit of the child in the longer term.
It may well be that the parent is aware of the difficulty their child is facing, so be prepared to reassure them that you only have the child's and family’s best interests at heart. Once they are talking you don't even have to say too much – nods, sighs and short encouraging statements such as "really", or “tell me more about that” can be enough. Supportive comments about positive steps they are taking can be really helpful.
Further strategies could include encouraging parents to keep the child busy with a range of activities at home, including reading together or sharing games, art and craft activities. I have in my career provided some basic resources to facilitate this, giving some instruction for parents, too. This has led directly to some subsequently helping in class and in "Golden Time" activities. There may be financial challenges, so teachers could offer information on free activities for children that might be out there and we might encourage them to look for opportunities to meet other children through voluntary organisations or local community groups.
Tackling loneliness in the classroom
Back in the classroom, there are helpful practical steps teachers can take. They can reflect on their seating plans and group organisation to ensure that all children are included, for instance. They might pair a child with a "supportive other" and even consider getting older students to mentor younger children. I've seen the careful and sensitive installation of "friendship stops" or "buddy benches", where children could sit to make others aware that they are looking for friendship. From my own extensive experience as a behaviour and attendance consultant, this always worked better when accompanied by training for the children who were taking on the mentoring role.
Schools might also consider normalising the idea of children spending time on their own, providing outdoor seating areas for reading or offering relaxing places, such as a garden, for students to work in, celebrating individual activity. We should also remember to consider how powerful and potentially problematic discussions and stories that portray a "perfect life full of friendships and fun" can be, especially for all children who are vulnerable.
In the longer term, there is more schools can do to help pupils develop their communication and emotional literacy skills. It is important that schools develop a real and deep sense of belonging and empathy among all members of their communities. As with the adults, they should be encouraged to focus on developing quality relationships with those with whom they share similar interests, attitudes and values. You can't be with them, but you can "make a difference" – which is why most students I interview for teacher training say they want to join the profession.
Mark Heaton is a principal lecturer and recruitment lead for teacher education at the Sheffield Institute of Education and leads on all aspects of behaviour in early years and primary teacher training courses