The Issue - Students' troubles come out in the wash

When a child has unclean hair or dirty clothes, is it a one-off or a sign of deeper problems that need to be addressed?

Steve Smith

In a typical secondary school, you might teach a student for between one and four hours each week. In that time, the priority is to ensure that they have the best learning experience possible and that they are making good progress.

A close second, however, is assessing the condition of the student. It takes no more than 30 seconds to scan a class and pick out any child who has not washed that morning, or whose hair is untidy, or whose shoes and uniform are dirty. You then have to make a judgement: is this a one-off or part of a pattern caused by a deeper issue that requires intervention?

Your first port of call is to rule out the obvious. Students can be unclean for all manner of reasons: they might have been playing in the local park on the way to school, they might have had a sleepover at a friend's house or perhaps a parent left early for an appointment. If it is a one-off, it is likely that one of these reasons is the cause, but make a mental note of the occurrence nevertheless.

What you are looking for is a more regular lack of care in appearance. If a child arrives looking unkempt for a few lessons in a row, alarm bells should start ringing: the cause may be underlying issues such as being a child carer, poverty, neglect or physical abuse.

It can be illuminating to watch how other children react to that student. Children are incredibly observant and have few of the social graces of adults: if a classmate has consistently poor personal hygiene, it will be quickly pointed out to them. The student may be ignored, bullied or whispered about. Some children may even try the more "subtle" approach of leaving cans of deodorant on their desk.

You need to pick up on these things. Too often, teachers deal with the bad behaviour of the other children and fail to see what is driving that behaviour. If a lot of whispering and teasing is directed at one particular student, and that student is regularly unclean, then that is a smoking gun.

Compare the appearance of the child with their behaviour. If a child is repeatedly unclean then there will be other signs of the problem. They may skip physical education lessons or leave their kit at home, as the changing-room environment can expose poor hygiene. They may be late to lessons or their behaviour may decline at the end of the class, so that they have an excuse to walk out early. This is a sign that they are avoiding the confines of the school corridors, where being near to other students could highlight their hygiene issue or lead to confrontations with peers who may already have noticed the problem.

If, after making these observations, you have the slightest suspicion that a student has a persistent issue with cleanliness, or that a deeper issue is driving it, you should report it. Most schools have a variety of pastoral support systems, from form tutors to pastoral managers. Feeding your information into this network will provide you with you support and guidance as to what to do next. It may be that other teachers have identified similar patterns, and it is possible that some intervention may already be taking place, which could be disrupted by your direct involvement.

The action that you or the school decide to take depends on each student's situation. It may be as simple as asking someone the student trusts to start a quiet conversation, with the aim of getting to the root of the issue. Once the problem is established - and it could be as straightforward as parents not having the money for hygiene products or not having access to a bathroom - a solution can be found.

For simpler issues, it may be a case of providing the student with deodorant, offering them the opportunity to shower at school, or giving them a clean uniform and washing the one they already have. A discussion with their parents will likely need to take place, with the cooperation of the student.

For more serious problems, external agencies may need to be called in. Cleanliness can be only the tip of the iceberg, and simply providing a support network for the child while they work through their issues with professionals can be invaluable.

Steve Smith is a secondary school teacher in East Sussex, England

In short

Teachers have a responsibility to notice when a child is persistently unwashed and uncared for.

One-off incidents should be separated from persistent problems.

To do this, observe how the child behaves and how other children react to him or her.

Feed this information into the pastoral networks of your school.

Solutions can include providing hygiene products and a place to shower. In more serious situations, external services may need to be involved.

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Steve Smith

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