Christmas can be a difficult time of year. For some of us, the struggle comes from trying to think of something to buy Dad that isn’t another pair of socks. For others, it’s more serious. Disadvantaged pupils will often try to hide any apprehensive feelings they might have towards the holidays, so it’s important to consider issues which may be on the horizon for them in order to help.
Domestic violence spikes
School-Home Support practitioners have worked with disadvantaged children and their families for over thirty-five years, helping them to overcome educational barriers such as poverty, housing issues, and abuse. One of the biggest issues that we see rise around Christmas is domestic violence.
Incidents of domestic violence rates increase at Christmas for a few reasons. More alcohol is consumed, there’s a pressure to be around relatives for longer periods of time, financial issues often arise and people can be emotional. Children who live in abusive or emotionally turbulent households often dread Christmas and there can be noticeable after effects when they return to school after witnessing violent incidents.
It’s important that children feel that they can talk to school staff or dedicated mentors, like our practitioners, about issues like domestic violence. They both need to be given space to talk, and to have someone really listen. It also helps to look out for signs of domestic violence in both the lead up to and post-Christmas, such as children mimicking abusive behaviour or language, and parents showing signs of either displaying or experiencing abusive behaviour (such as visible bruises or fear of their partner).
It’s not just presents that can be unaffordable
Of course, the obvious challenge to vulnerable families is poverty, we’re all aware that one child will get an iPad from their parents while another will get nothing, and how important it is to discourage comparison amongst classmates. But what about gifts to teachers? Children can feel embarrassed if their classmates bring in gifts for the teacher that they can’t afford, and for teachers it can also be a difficult situation to navigate if they know some families are struggling. It may be easiest to encourage a cards-only policy or, at least, to ensure any gift-giving is done privately.
Sadly, it isn’t just extras like presents that can be unaffordable for parents. Essentials like heating can be an issue too, as children are at home for longer periods of time and need to be kept warm. If children are receiving free school meals, parents might also struggle to stretch their budgets to the additional food.
School-Home Support practitioners and other pastoral workers can help families to apply for any benefits they may be entitled to in order to help them manage. They can also help them to secure food vouchers or to get access to other emergency funds; our practitioners have access to the School-Home Support Welfare Fund, for example.
The pressure to keep children entertained
Every parent runs out of ideas for keeping their children entertained over the holidays, but if there are other serious issues such as threat of eviction or extreme poverty to worry about, this can be particularly tricky. Families living in overcrowded conditions may find it difficult to stay inside for long periods of time, but it can be hard to find free events over December. Quite often local authorities will do a great guide to free activities over summer but they rarely do one for Christmas, and if they do offer activities, they don’t tend to do so between Christmas and New Year.
An additional issue can be when children come back after the holidays and swap stories of what they got up to with their classmates. In addition to missing out on things like Santa’s Grottos and Winter Wonderlands, there could have been neglect issues or substance misuse issues, so they just aren’t able to relay Christmas stories in the same way as the other children.
In order to find free local activities and resources, practitioners will often have links with other workers in the area and will pass on information to each other. Other pastoral workers may have their own networks. It’s also worth considering whether the school can host anything, in addition to checking with the local library, any parks, shopping centres, etc to see what’s going on.
Work is at risk of being undone
After spending the term getting families into good practice, improving children’s attendance, attainment or behaviour, the last thing we want to do is watch all that work get undone over the holiday. While some of our practitioners work over Christmas to keep families on board, we’re aware that most pastoral workers can’t. Attendance and punctuality often dip after the holidays in general, as key messages about the importance of education and morning routines, etc can be lost. Boundaries put in place by teachers and practitioners can also be broken.
There are a few things our practitioners do to prevent improvements going backwards. They make sure parents are aware of the risks in letting bad habits come back during the holidays; they warn them that it’s common to let things slide but this will result in extra work in the new year. They help families to remember their key messages by making posters for them to stick up, focusing on things like morning routines and home rules. It’s important for education professionals to monitor families closely after the holidays, so that they can jump in fast if things have begun to slip.
What else do we work on?
Finally, lots of pupils will have exams approaching in the new year. It’s vital then that children achieve a balance between getting a good break before their exams start, maintaining good mental health and wellbeing, and incorporating revision over the holidays so that they’re not out of practice when they start back. It can be a difficult balance to achieve – there should be some pastoral support in place prior to the holidays so that they can put together a revision plan, for example.
It may seem like a lot of work, but putting the right preparation in place for Christmas can save a lot of time in the new year. It may also be the difference between a child having a terrible time and a wonderful Christmas. Let’s help all children get the holiday they deserve this year.