THE needs of ‘Looked After Children’ aren’t as simple as focusing on festive gifts, writes Jonathan Wood
So, you’re standing in yet another endless queue carrying too many shopping bags printed with Santa, holly, choirboys and reindeers. The bags are full up with what you hope will be the heart’s desires of friends and family. You may even be filled up yourself – with warm feelings about this season of goodwill of course, but maybe also with a small sense of your own generosity and thoughtfulness. Still the queue is long, and as you wait the odd doubt creeps in about those gifts you’re buying.
You remember that last year your wife was less than enthusiastic about that CD of Led Zeppelin’s re-mastered hits. After all, she hadn’t really wanted it the year before either. And what about the way your children have been pleading for an X-Box or an iPhone 6. All you’ve been thinking is that a budget of £30 is three times more generous than anything you got as a child. Giving is fraught.
But how much more fraught for those children we see at Place2Be? For example, over the year a number of “Looked After Children” (i.e. those that are placed in foster care, placed with other family members or in residential care) are referred to us for one to one counselling in schools to help understand the issues they are facing and find ways to cope.
Ben – an eight year old boy we supported at Place2Be – was originally from a chaotic and neglectful home and already had four placements with different foster families. This latest was with warm loving foster parents, who already had two children a little older than him. His teachers knew his situation and they had thought about the Christmas celebrations carefully, involving Ben fully in school activities, and helping him to make cards and presents for his new family.
To everyone’s dismay, including Ben’s, this focus on his forthcoming Christmas turned into a disaster. Inexplicably, he kicked out – destroying his presents and cards and those of other children. His teachers could not have anticipated that celebrating Christmas might actually evoke all those experiences of awful or non-existent Christmases he had already suffered.
Place2Be’s role was to work with Ben and his teachers to help them repair this damage, and make sense of his behaviour in terms of Ben’s previous experience. Training in areas around emotional literacy, and its complexity would seem to be an essential for teachers.
A report published last month for the Scottish government, The Mental Health and Wellbeing among Adolescents in Scotland, found that the number of 15-year-old girls in Scotland experiencing emotional and mental health problems has increased.
With concern growing amongst teachers of the poor mental health of their pupils and an increasing recognition of the importance of children’s mental health alongside physical wellbeing, we must equip our teachers with the skills to understand and support children’s emotional issues, and support teachers’ own emotional wellbeing.
For instance, Place2Be’s training for teachers helps them to develop skills to support children’s emotional wellbeing, improve classroom management, reduce disruption, improve engagement in learning and, as a result, improve the overall effectiveness of their teaching – which in turn will allow more pupils to reach their potential both academically and socially and have a positive impact on their future wellbeing.
So my top tip for Christmas? Remind everyone around you that this is not a festival of consumerism. (Easier said than done, I know.)
I believe that Christmas should be all about building and valuing relationships. But we’re not always clear how to build relationships with children, particularly those who have more complex emotional needs; we need help and guidance to do this.
Perhaps Ben, our “looked after” child is telling us something about that as he kicks off. “This is not the right thing,” he’s saying. “We need to find another way to build relationships between us.”
Once teachers are armed with the knowledge to understand this behaviour, they can respond appropriately and find those other ways to build relationships. It is perhaps this fact that is a small example of light in the winter darkness.
• Jonathan Wood, national manager for Scotland, Place2Be