This article first appeared online and in print here at SecEd where I'm the resident mental health expert.
Young carers are pupils who provide regular care to a family member who is physically or mentally ill, disabled or misuses substances.
According to the Carers Trust, as many as one in 12 young people could be a young carer. Research findings show that:
Twenty-seven per cent of young carers (aged 11 to 15) miss school or experience educational difficulties (Dearden & Becker, 2004).Young carers have significantly lower educational attainment at GCSE level (Children’s Society, 2013).A quarter of young carers said they were bullied at schools because of their caring role (Carers Trust, 2013).
There are many small ways in which we can have a big impact on the wellbeing of young carers and improve their school experience. Here are five you could try.
1. Keep them in mind
It is amazing how far the occasional nod or a smile can go towards letting a young person know that they are cared for. This can be especially important for young carers as the shift in responsibilities and priorities in their household might mean that they are less aware than their peers that as well as caring for others, they are cared for too. Holding a child in mind and simply acknowledging them with a smile or a nod of the head each time you see them can help them to feel less alone and give them little boosts in their day.
2. Let them talk about the tough stuff
Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give to any young person in our care and it is the quality rather than the quantity of this listening that makes the biggest difference. Even five minutes of your undivided attention can have a real impact.
In the case of young carers it can be hugely helpful if you allow them to open up about issues that might be concerning them. It is common for young carers to bottle up their concerns rather than letting them out and they often do not want to upset others by talking about their fear of losing a loved one to illness, or the day-to-day reality of their caring duties.
Offering an non-judgemental ear and making it clear you are happy listen by asking open questions can help a young carer to get their worries off their chest. There may be little you can do to change the situation, but being able to explore their fears and experiences aloud can help young carers to feel less alone.
3. Enable them to support each other
Young carers often feel different to their peers and this can be quite isolating and even, sadly, a cause for bullying.
However, within any school there will be many young carers and they may find that being brought together to offer each other mutual support through shared experiences and ideas can help them each to feel less alone. This can be done formally through a facilitated support group or informally by introducing pupils to fellow young carers if they all like the idea.
4. Treat them like everyone else, most of the time... Young carers are often incredibly resilient and resourceful and are capable of achieving highly if we encourage them to do so, so we should not automatically adjust our expectations down if we become aware that a pupil has a caring role. However, we can make small adjustments to how we treat young carers compared to their peers that will make a huge difference to them – try to see the world through their eyes and imagine how best to help them. For example:
Not expecting them to explain in front of the class why they do not have their homework. They may not want to share the real reason in front of their peers.
Providing emotional as well as academic support if their caring responsibilities result in absence or lateness. Allowing them to access to their phones if they need to keep in touch with home.
Where possible, adjustments should be made in consultation with the pupil and efforts should be taken to try and ensure they are not seen to be treated very differently in front of peers as this can be a source of embarrassment, questioning and bullying. It is also important not to always assume that any problem a pupil faces is down to their caring role. Give them the time and space to tell their story and tailor your support dependent on what they tell you rather than any assumptions you might have otherwise made.
5. Give them space to be young One of the most valuable things we can do for young carers is to provide them with the space, time and permission they need to simply relax or have fun. This is often the thing that gets lost among their caring responsibilities – but everyone needs a chance to be a young person sometimes.
This can either be done alongside other young carers, or by encouraging a pupil to join in with extra-curricular activities they enjoy and reminding them of the importance of self-care and that by looking after themselves well, they are enabling themselves to be better carers too.
Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. Read her previous SecEd articles at http://bit.ly/2daU4zs.
Further information & resources
For more information about young carers and how to support them, visit the Carers Trust, which offers a range of resources, including Young Carers in Schools, an initiative making it easier for schools to support young carers: www.carers.org