At the start of each academic year, educators can often be heard asking their students the following question: ‘so, what did you get up to over the summer?’ Some students will respond with enthusiasm, telling you all about the places they’ve visited, the different family members and friends they met up with and the various events they attended; they’ve had a full on holiday. But there are those students who may not have anything to say. When the question is put to them they become visibly uncomfortable as if at that moment in time, they would rather be anywhere else but standing in front of the adult who is waiting expectantly for an answer.
The reason for this shift in mood could be for any number of reasons, but for some children and young people it’s simply because they haven’t done anything worth sharing. They’ve spent the entire time in their house, or flat or room and it’s been the same routine every day for the entire five weeks. They have nothing to gush about.
As we near the end of another long break I’m reminded of my own summer holidays when I was a child back in the late 70s, early 80s.
The primary school I attended held a summer scheme every summer and over the course of two years, when I was in what would now be year 4 and 5 (but don’t quote me, my memory for this type of thing is not that good), I attended that summer scheme from 9am – 3:30pm every weekday. I had a great time playing box hockey and four squares, precariously walking around the playground on wooden stilts and enjoying time with friends old and new. At the end of each day I would take the short walk back the estate I lived on and wait patiently in our two bedroom flat for my parents to return home from work.
By the time I was 11 or 12 it was just me and my dad in the flat and as he was classed as a single parent, I was entitled to a two week holiday courtesy of an organisation called the Children’s Country Holiday Fund (CCHF). One year I went to stay with a family in Bideford, Devon, which I recall I absolutely loved. Another year I went away with a load of other young people which I didn’t love so much, but I did learn how to make scrambled eggs.
Occasionally I also went to stay with family in Wolverhampton or Manchester, but if it hadn’t been for that summer scheme or the CCHF I would have spent the entire six week holiday on my own during the day, whilst my dad worked at The Royal Mail sorting office in Paddington.
That was over 35 years ago, but for many young people today, not much has changed.
The fact is many young people between the ages of 10 – 16 who are the only child to a single parent may have spent most of the summer on their own. Not because their parent is wilfully neglecting them, but because the parent feels they have no other choice. If a family want to eat, someone has to earn money, which in turn means someone needs to go out to work to earn that money.
Some single parents are very much on their own. They have no family around to support with childcare during the holiday. They don’t know or trust their neighbours enough to ask them to help look after their child whilst they go out to work and as we know all too well, these days there is a distinct lack of anything resembling a holiday scheme.
For long periods of time throughout the day, these young people would have been left on their own. Most, like I was, are probably very sensible. As a parent you could probably give them a list of dos and don’ts and the young person would follow them to the letter. Don’t open the door to anyone; if you’re going out to the shop make sure you have your phone on you and take your keys; don’t use the cooker for anything; make sure you wash up the breakfast things, don’t eat the cereal out of the packet. You know the kind of thing.
There are also those young people who find it a challenge to follow instructions and when parents come home at the end of a hard day’s work, they find themselves putting in another shift, this time supervising the young person to put right all the mess they’ve made throughout the course of the day.
These days there’s a lot more for young people to do if they’re stuck in doors than there was when I was a child. Back then we only had 3 television channels to choose from. But even with the advent of satellite TV, social media and online gaming, it can still get pretty lonely when you cooped up indoors on your own. It’s bad enough when you’re an adult, let alone when you’re a child.
It’s worse when you know your friends are going on holiday with their parents, or going on day trips to theme parks, or even the local park. You desperately want it to be you. You wish you could have the opportunity to have the kind of fun you know many of your peers are having, but you also understand that your parent has to work in order to ensure they can keep a roof over your head.
It’s these students that we need to be mindful of when we return to school in September and ask the question, “So, what did you do this summer?” It’s not about responding with, “Ahh, come on you must have done something.’ When they tell you they did nothing. Chances are, they’re telling you the truth.
Their behaviour may provide other clues to the way they’ve coped with the holiday period. They may be a bit more talkative than what’s deemed necessary, but that may be because they’ve finally got someone to talk to. They may not be in a rush to do anything or go anywhere, simply because that’s how it’s been over the past five weeks. They may seem withdrawn, unwilling to engage in any group activities, but that’s because they’ve been so used to doing things on their own. They may resent being told what to do and when to do it and argue constantly, perhaps because they’ve spent the past few weeks without any routine and being able to do what they want, when they want.
It’s important that we consider what the holiday period has been like for all the students in our care. Not all of them have had a good holiday and it’s for us as educators to ensure we understand the impact this can have on their mental health and wellbeing and put systems in place to support this.