Why Christmas is hard for disadvantaged pupils (it’s not what you think…)

xmas-manchesterjaine-stannard-250Jaine Stannard, Interim Chief Executive and Safeguarding Lead, School-Home Support, writes…

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
I work for educational charity School-Home Support (SHS). Our school-based practitioners have worked with disadvantaged children and their families for over 30 years, helping them to overcome educational barriers such as poverty, housing issues, and abuse.

One of the biggest issues that we see rising around Christmas is domestic violence. Incidence of domestic violence increases at Christmas, for several reasons. More alcohol is consumed, there’s a pressure to be around relatives for longer periods of time, financial issues often arise… and so 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 you, or a specially dedicated staff member, about issues like domestic violence. They 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 Christmas and afterwards: 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).

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 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 among 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.

SHS 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; SHS practitioners have access to the SHS 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 you have 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 with their classmates of what they got up to. In addition to missing out on things like Santa’s Grottos and Winter Wonderlands, there could have been neglect or substance misuse issues, so they just aren’t able to relay Christmas stories in the same way as the other children. If you suspect this is the case with any of your pupils, again it can be best to discourage children from comparison or to offer distractions if anybody seems upset or unwilling to speak.

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. In addition to checking with the local library, any parks, shopping centres, etc to see what’s going on, it’s worth considering whether the school can host any suitable events.

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 you 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, are forgotten. Boundaries put in place by teachers and practitioners can also be broken.

There are a few things you can do to prevent improvements being lost. Make sure parents are aware of the risks in letting bad habits come back during the holidays; you can warn them that it’s common to let things slide, but that would result in extra work in the new year. You can 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 to monitor families closely after the holidays, so that you can jump in fast in things have begun to slip.

You can help families to remember their key messages by making posters for them to stick up, focusing on things like morning routines and home rules

What else can you do?
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 before 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.

Jaine Stannard is Interim Chief Executive and Safeguarding Lead at education charity School-Home Support (SHS). She has over 30 years’ experience in early intervention and community health services.

Read another SHS article – Preparing students for secondary school.

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