I was a teenager in the 1970s – I was placed in permanent foster care at 14 as my mother battled alcoholism. I was constantly skipping school, and my form tutors must have wept writing out my termly attendance figures.
People often say that teenagers from dysfunctional homes prefer the safety and routine of school. It’s partly why the government worried about the lockdown effects and kept schools open for vulnerable people. However, for many traumatised young people, their dysfunctional home is their normal. Education can seem irrelevant, especially if nobody at home prioritises their education either. Trauma can result in misbehaviour, and school becomes a daily reminder of failure, where detentions arrive like an unstoppable tide.
It’s worth thinking – if more privileged, secure students struggle to focus on chemistry homework and spelling practice, what hope is there for those in harmful home situations? Some teenagers don’t even perceive their need for routine. They kick against its unnatural restriction. That’s how I was as a teenager.
Living within the chaos
My mother had been drink-dependent since her teenage years and my dad left when I was eight. She replaced him with a petty criminal, who was a danger to her and her three daughters. Mum’s life resembled that Genesis description of the earth as formless and empty, with darkness over the surface of the deep. If I bunked off school, she had no energy to protest. I’d fetch her a sherry from the off-licence and keep my sisters supplied with sandwiches.
In a household of fights and arguments, addictions and abuses, there would be no physical or metaphorical space to complete a worksheet on Shakespeare. Mum received benefits for the family, but it stretched as far as an old elastic band and our fridge didn’t overflow with salad and fresh food to keep us healthy. (I’m not accusing my mother, who died shortly after we went into care. She was depressed and abused.)
Social workers and vital services have stuttered along in 2020, with Zoom and WhatsApp, and have done their best to mitigate the negative effect of lockdown with few resources. Things would likely not have been the same in 1975.
Despite all the chaos, though, I’d likely have welcomed school closure in a lockdown situation. No persuasion would’ve dragged me there, exactly as it hasn’t dragged the majority of vulnerable children in 2020. While poverty doesn’t always equal dysfunction or trauma or lack of love, and neither does wealth guarantee a safe home, we’re naïve to think that hunger and physical neglect don’t worsen the situation.
At the first opportunity, I’d have escaped the house for the park with other non-attenders, ignoring social distancing and social niceties alike, drinking cheap cider and proving a nuisance. It’s likely I would’ve been bored, as many teenagers have been. I’d have been more likely to accept invitations from older friends with dubious intentions, or from the group that suggested shoplifting the supermarkets as a hobby.
Similarly, today’s teenagers – if they have online access at all – may have minimised their online classroom and maximised other internet sites that are more dangerous, seeing them susceptible to grooming, radicalisation and the drugs trade. Just as I felt, sometimes the chaos feels safer and more normal.
Normality and the mundane
I was taken in by Christian foster parents, and they began praying like billy-oh for me once I crashed into their household carrying all my (mostly emotional) baggage. I found their lives mundane, if not stultifying. They had meals at regular times. They went to church on a Sunday. They read their Bibles and watched gentle sitcoms and laughed together. I was in a different, unfamiliar place – and I found it destabilising.
Where were the fights? Why was nobody threatening to leave and packing a suitcase? Where was the sherry and the cigarette butts? I wasn’t used to healthy routine and railed against them.
Nevertheless, my attendance figures leapt. I was kindly but firmly put on the school bus in the mornings. Someone always came to parents’ evening. I picked up fewer detentions for challenging, sometimes bullying behaviour. Foster care would’ve seen me planted at a desk at home attempting to work, with lunch arriving reliably at one o’clock, and unauthorised trips to the park a distant dream.
So, how can we help young people to cope?
Comparing my pre-fostered and post-fostered teenage self throws up observations, even more so combined with 18 years’ experience as an English teacher and all the children I have worked with. I’ve used my experience to reflect on how to best cater for children and young people during the continued lockdown (and on through the easing restrictions).
One observation is that consistency, while boring and restrictive to some adolescents, can pay off eventually. When British teenagers are gathered again in classrooms and youth and children’s groups from their living rooms, skate parks and playgrounds, they’ll need teachers who stick to their guns, apply fair rules and have routines. Pupils won’t all relish it and some may act up, some will be relieved yet afraid to admit it. Others will be ambivalent and unable to assess their feelings. Many will have benefited from time at home in a safe place, enjoying more family contact and a relaxed environment. For others, more family contact will have meant further distress. Consistency of standards and expectations, where possible, will help, even if resisted.
Significant, too, is understanding trauma and its effects. Increasingly, those working with children and young people (including schools and church groups) are becoming trauma-aware, receiving specialist training in the fallout from ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) and changing their approach to damaged, disruptive pupils. Some teenagers are trapped in patterns of behaviour they can’t control. Trauma in early childhood alters brain pathways, making emotional, social and physical disorders far more likely well into later life.
In my book Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?– a memoir of a typical year in my teaching life – I explore the effects of my own trauma: hampered confidence, unrealistic self-standards and an inability to receive kindness from others, or from God. Of course it helps to be a Christian. Certain big questions are answered. Other questions aren’t.
Thirdly, you need a sense of humour in their armoury, especially if you are a fellow teacher. Survival in the profession can depend on it. Plus, surveys of pupils about favoured teacher qualities invariably mention humour. They like teachers who will laugh at themselves and laugh with their class, but who won’t spitefully laugh at or humiliate pupils. It’s an important distinction.
We will have our work cut out. It’s impossible to tailor lessons or sessions to each child’s requirements, let alone address emotional and social needs. It piles on huge pressure. So ensure you have a strong pastoral team to help climb the post-lockdown mountain, where we feel we may only be equipped with sandals, Polo mints and a small carton of Ribena.
Let’s pray for those vulnerable children who will struggle to readjust – and also for us as we tackle it alongside them.
Fran Hill is a writer, blogger and tutor.