How to help vulnerable pupils prepare for the summer holidays

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
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A recent webinar hosted by mental health and wellbeing expert Dr Pooky Knightsmith focused on how we can help to prepare vulnerable children and young people for the school holidays

School holidays can be difficult for some young people, particularly those with mental health issues, but there are steps you can take to help them prepare.

What’s on their mind?

The first step is to get the young person talking and thinking about the holidays. Depending on the issues they are facing, they might have all sorts of different worries. Ask them to think about any specific concerns around the holidays. For example, we’re currently approaching the summer holidays and they may have particular concerns about events coming up. A family holiday, for instance, might be difficult for children with anxiety, for those who struggle meeting new people, or who worry about travelling, eating unfamiliar foods or engaging in new activities.

Other things they might be concerned about are homework or coursework, making the transition to the next school year, or a particular role at home they’re worried about fulfilling – for example, young carers may feel stressed if they are expected to take on more during the holidays.

Listening/problem-solving

In getting a young person to talk about their worries, our main role is to listen. It is also important not to dismiss anything they say – for instance, if a young person thinks they’re going to fail a piece of coursework and you know the chances of this are slim because they have worked hard, it is vital to recognise it is very real for them and can cause significant anxiety.

We need to understand how it feels from their perspective and work with them to problem-solve. For example, if their anxieties are about coursework, we might help them to think about how they both get enough rest and put the appropriate amount of time into their academic activities; when would be the best time, the most conducive setting and so on?

If they are worried about a caring role, we might help them think about what is expected of them, what is not expected, where the boundaries are and who can support them.

It is important to remember that this is about the two of you working in tandem: you can’t solve the problem for them but you can explore different suggestions, ideas and solutions together.

Support: People

The next thing to ask the young person is whether anyone is currently aware of their issues. For some, the circle of people who know may be small and it might be that their friends, or people at home, don’t know. It’s good to talk about who will know about their issues when they are at home in the holidays and to think about who can help. Bear in mind that these two groups may not be the same.

It is important to identify those people who fit into both groups as they will form the core of the young person’s support network. Think about who can move from the “who can help” category into the “who knows” category, to increase the support available.

It may help to do this visually, putting names on a Venn diagram. Once the people have been identified, write an action plan for letting them know: I need to tell my best friend, I’m going to do it by writing a letter and sharing it with him after school, I’m going to give him practical ideas on how he might help me, such as going for a walk and having a chat.

Support: Online

It is really important to discuss this with the young person and to highlight safe sources of online support. There is a lot of very good general support online, largely through charities, including the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust and Young Minds. There are also specialist charities dealing with specific issues.

It is important to look ahead when considering web-based support: if you just tell a young person that there’s lots of good support online, they may simply do an online search and end up in some difficult places.

Some sites may seem supportive at first because there are people who feel the way they do. However, they may find themselves drawn into sites which are pro their condition and then feel unable to stop their anorexia, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or obsessive exercise because others on the site value that behaviour.

Support: Helplines

These are particularly important as the young person needs to consider what they will do when none of their other support sources are available. It is always useful to ask what they would do if they suddenly felt unable to manage at 2am. The Samaritans, although not specifically marketed at young people, will always take a call from them and Childline will deal with calls from “older” young people as well as younger children.

It is a good idea for a young person to carry a helpline number with them. It is also good for them to talk in advance to those they live with – parents, carers, siblings – and let them know that they may need support at night time. It’s usually a relief for the person supporting to know that the young person will ask for support when it is needed.

Thinking about a routine

The next thing to think about is what a typical day is going to look like over the holidays. One of the key protective factors for positive mental health and against depression and anxiety is having a routine – one of the great things about school is that, even if the young person is really struggling with their mental health, they have somewhere they have to be every day, a reason to get up, get dressed and get out; it stops them falling into the non-routine of just spending their days in bed, which often feels like the safest, easiest thing to do.

Ideally, we want them to have some sort of process they are going through each day, to think about achievable goals, things they want to try and do on a daily basis. Making small commitments can be really significant and could include trying to get up by at least 10am, getting out for at least 10 minutes, and being in bed by 11pm.

The reason this is really important is because the less we do, the lower our mood becomes, so if we start to fall into the habit of not doing anything, our mood gets lower and lower and our world smaller and smaller. This, in turn, means that if a young person’s behaviour is left unchecked over the holiday and they are allowed to stop leaving the house, their confidence may diminish and they may have difficulty re-engaging with school.

Another thing to guard against is becoming nocturnal. Being around other people may feel really difficult and the young person may find themselves sleeping during the day and waking up at night, when they might behave relatively normally and get on with things they might usually have done during the day. However, this is not healthy and is something to highlight with young people for whom you feel this might happen.

Changes in diet or sleep are key warning signs to look out for that someone may be becoming depressed so, if possible, planning three healthy meals a day and sleeping at regular times is very important.

Wellbeing toolbox

It is good to get the young person thinking about their healthy coping mechanisms. What’s in their wellbeing toolbox? You might consider doing this in a very practical way and literally making a box full of things the young person can go through in times of crisis.

They might want to include photos of people they care about, favourite books, reminders to listen to a favourite playlist, walking the dog or watching something funny, a letter from themselves or someone else, scented candles, an adult colouring book – it’s good to draw on all five senses.

In helping a young person put together their toolbox, you might ask: what makes you feel happy? What stops you feeling bad? What helps you relax or feel calm? What can act as a distraction? What’s worked well before? What would you like to try? What have others suggested?

Writing a plan

The next, crucial, step is to put all these ideas and solutions into a written action plan. It is really important to think in advance about the issues that might arise, ideally at a time of calm, and to write something down. It is empowering and gives the young person something to fall back on when times are harder. Giving them something to take away that you’ve agreed together can be very helpful.

There are some really simple ways to do this. A visual daily plan which splits the day into clear chunks can be invaluable in helping a young person manage their day. Next, you could break each day of the week into morning, afternoon and evening periods. Another possibility would be to set daily aims – small achievable tasks that the young person can write down, with the aim of trying to achieve a minimum number each day.

Other resources, such as the Wellbeing Action Plan from the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, may also be helpful.

Look after yourself

Finally, even though you really care about your students, you need a break too. Help them plan, and talk to their care-givers too if necessary, but remember they cease to be your responsibility over the summer. You need to know you have done your best and then go and have a holiday.

  • This article has been adapted from a webinar hosted by Dr Pooky Knightsmith, director of the Children, Young People and Schools Programme at the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity that provides fully funded mental health training to schools. Visit www.inourhands.com/cwmt/ or email training@cwmt.org. For more information on the charity, visit www.cwmt.org.uk


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