Teaching key life-skills

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:

Recent headlines about schools having to meet pupils’ basic needs inspired Karen Sullivan to think of ways we could help to tackle the wider issues

You may have seen the survey by the National Association of Head teachers showing that schools are providing £43.5 million a year of unfunded support for students, more than half of that going to secondary-school pupils whose basic needs are not being met (See http://bit.ly/1JRTbJr).

For example, 24 per cent of respondents in the survey were frequently or occasionally providing clothes-washing facilities, 15 per cent showering facilities, and 34 per cent support with personal hygiene.

Three-quarters helped with school bags or stationery, 81 per cent with school uniform, and 75 per cent with food. The list of examples of support given includes hair cuts, providing toothbrushes and toothpaste. The need for this type of support is blamed on the recent cuts in social services and welfare funding.

Whatever the cause of this situation, there is no doubt that it puts pressure on already stretched teachers and budgets. Surely, however, the way to address this is not just to try and fill gaps, but to help students to look after themselves as well.

Much of what teachers and schools are supporting falls under the umbrella of “life-skills” and by secondary school, most students are capable of caring for themselves. PSHE is designed to cover at least some of this in school time and I believe that if there is a genuine societal need for this to be expanded within the curriculum and beyond, then we need to take this seriously and move in to address it in a creative manner.

First and foremost, make it clear to all students that not everyone has even the most basic needs met at home, and benevolence – an act that encourages the development of empathy, which is critical to good emotional health – should be undertaken as a school-wide project.

Provide opportunities for students to set-up “services” within the school and provide them with the tools both to educate themselves and others. Call in members of the outside community, too, to play a role in supporting the emotional and physical health of its citizens. It may sound like a lot of work but, frankly, every student and member of the community will benefit, as we work to set the next generation on the road to good health.

Here are just a few ideas. Dental hygiene is a fairly basic skill that everyone needs to know and the truth is that even the best-parented children can fail to take on board the implications of not looking after their teeth. Get a local dentist in to talk about the basics and provide some top tips and horror stories. I remember my sons performing a science experiment when they were about 12 – leaving a human tooth in a glass of cola overnight. It didn’t take them long to realise what a high-sugar diet can do.

This type of learning is interactive and fun, and the messages are unbeatable. Get some sponsorship for toothpaste and toothbrushes that can be made available from the school office; or fundraise to purchase these goods at a hefty discount from a chemist.

Encourage students to run a second-hand clothing stall, with donations from the parent community and lost property, to supply uniform and other essentials to kids who need it – or offer a swap shop where kids can trade outgrown items of clothing for something else.

I’ve long rued the day when home economics was removed from the curriculum. Far too many kids, regardless of their background, lack basic cooking skills and have no idea how to operate a washing machine. Set up a school laundrette, where the second-hand clothing can be washed, and students in need can throw in a load of laundry when necessary. Teach them how to use it, pick up a couple of machines from Freecycle, or ask for donations from local appliance shops.

Get washing powder supplied by a local supermarket and put the students in charge of that, too. While the vast majority of families will have washing facilities at home, there will be no harm in teaching kids that you can actually wash clothing in a sink, too.

Encourage the kids to find local businesses that will donate bread and sandwich fillings, and create a make-your-own breakfast/lunch station, run by student volunteers. Get in a local chef to teach some creative ways of making meals on a budget, and facilities for students to try them out.

Get the students fundraising in the school and community to create a benevolent fund to support these projects, and to provide money for school trips and travel for children who need it most.

Set up regular meetings where ideas can be exchanged and progress reported, and create a board of teachers and students to allocate funds to projects and individual cases. Not only will this take financial pressure off individual teachers and the school itself, but it will provide students with skills that will set them in good stead in the future.

There is good research to support teaching life-skills within the school environment, and the results can be hugely positive. For example, it can improve academic performance (Weissberg et al, 1989); create stronger, more positive teacher-pupil relationships (Parsons et al, 1988); improve attendance and reduce bullying and referrals to specialist support systems (Zabin et al, 1986).

There has long been a tradition of schools and community stepping in to support those in need – by teaching as well as giving, we empower. And ultimately that’s the most important result of all.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com
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Photo: iStock


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