When the summer holidays are a prison sentence

22nd August 2014 at 01:00
For pupils with chaotic home lives, breaking up is hard to do

Anna's classmates spent the last days of the summer term excitedly discussing the imminent holiday. Anna, however, spent the last days of term swearing at teachers and lashing out at those same classmates.

"She'll be arguing with the teacher. Hitting other children. Wiping faeces over the toilet seat. Cutting her own hair. She'll do anything to get attention," says Simon Marshall, headteacher of the Sunderland primary in northern England where Anna is a pupil.

"The closer it gets to the holidays, the more extreme her behaviour becomes. It's just a massive cry for help."

For most children, the summer holidays are a time of glorious freedom and joyful abandonment. But for children like Anna (not her real name), freedom and abandonment are precisely the things that terrify them most.

"Not every child is happy about the holiday," says Fiona Pienaar, director of clinical services at Place2Be, which provides in-school counsellors for primaries around England.

"For many children, school is often the place where there's routine, there's support. They go to school knowing what's going to happen and they can trust that, whereas their home environment can be quite chaotic.

"I think it's important we don't assume that all children are thinking, `Yay, the holidays! Great!' "

Dawn Foster, of the NSPCC children's charity, says that school can often temper the worst effects of an unhappy home life. "These are children who've got issues 365 days of the year," she says. "But school is a protective factor against that."

In the past two years, the NSPCC's helpline has received more calls about neglected children during August than in any other month. Last year, for example, the average number of calls per month was 218. In August, however, there were 314 calls: an increase of 43 per cent.

For many children, Foster says, school is the only place where they know they will be fed. She has met several teachers who regularly wash students' clothes for them. Others ensure that children with chronic health conditions receive the medical care they need.

Less tangible, but no less important, are the clear boundaries provided at school. "Teachers are very good at setting boundaries and expectations: what's acceptable and what's not acceptable," Foster says. "You know what to expect after play, you know you're going to be fed, you know your teacher is always going to be there for you. If that's not there at home, it's always going to be very difficult."

Out of bounds

In fact, Foster says, it is not unknown for children who are very well-behaved at school to be completely uncontrollable at home, purely because no one sets boundaries for them.

Children's behaviour can be aggravated by a family history of drug abuse, violence and crime. Others face different problems: they might, for example, be the care-giver to an ill parent or to younger siblings. "School allows you to step out of that," Pienaar says. "But when the holidays come, there's nowhere for them to go. Imagine six weeks looming: no holiday, no going away, no camp."

Although a chaotic home life can affect children across the economic spectrum, problems are often exacerbated by poverty. "Some of our families will be dealing with five very difficult children," Marshall says. "There will be one mother on her own, with a very limited budget. If you're in low-income housing, you can be sharing three to a bedroom. If the weather's bad, you're all stuck inside."

And, while sunshine allows children to leave the house, it rarely offers much more. "Even going to the seaside for the day - which isn't far from here - when you have three, four, five kids, becomes very expensive," Marshall says.

Nowhere to go

Funding to youth services has been cut in recent years, forcing free holiday clubs to close. Highfield Community Primary, where Marshall is headteacher, previously ran a summer holiday music school attended by 60 children, but it was possible only because of a one-off grant.

Highfield offers counselling services through Place2Be. But this, too, shuts down over the summer. "We try and say, if you work with us, then we'll support you," Marshall says. "But then we say we won't be there for six weeks."

And when children spend their holidays desperate for boundaries and structure, Pienaar says, the clear rules and leadership structure of street gangs begin to appeal.

Marshall emphasises the importance of working with parents, helping them learn to communicate and enjoy time with their children. "Dipping in and teaching children how to cope doesn't change anything," he says. "It gives children strategies and resilience, but it doesn't change the situation in the family."

In addition, he works hard to avoid excluding students who act up before the holidays. In other circumstances, Anna's behaviour would have merited an exclusion.

"If we excluded her, a six-week break would turn into a seven-week break," he says. "Her behaviour becomes extreme because she doesn't want to be out of school. She wants to be in school more and more. The attendance of our most challenging children is always 90 to 100 per cent."

Instead, Marshall has already collected a team of teachers to discuss how to deal with the inevitable fallout from Anna's summer. "We're hoping nothing serious happens over the break, so we can get back and pick up the pieces next term," he says.

"Our children are extremely resilient and can cope with a lot. But six weeks is a long time."

Spotting the summertime blues

Teachers can support children whose holidays are an endurance test by:

  • being aware that some children will be returning from a challenging and unhappy six weeks
  • reminding the class that not everyone will have had a good holiday. This allows the children whose holidays have been difficult to feel included, while helping their peers to develop empathy skills
  • being discreet when asking individual children about their holidays
  • giving children space and opportunities to talk about anything they found difficult over the holidays
  • providing a specific time and place when a teacher or counsellor will be available to talk over any problems
  • being vigilant for any low moods among children or changes in behaviour since the holiday
  • discussing any concerns with teachers who knew the children last year.
    • Source: Place2Be

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