Children who take on carer responsibilities for parents, siblings or for another extended family member are known as young carers. They can end up taking on this role for a range of reasons – perhaps because a parent/carer has physical or mental health needs or because they are reliant on substances.
Many young carers have trouble juggling school and home responsibilities. They may experience more stress, anxiety, low self-esteem/depression, eating/sleeping problems and self-harm than other children.
In one survey, nearly 40% of children said that no-one in the school knew about their responsibilities.
It is important that all staff members are aware of children with caring roles so that a whole-school approach to support and understanding is mobilised and that responsibility does not just sit with the senior leaders and/or class teacher.
Young carers have a right to have their needs assessed via:
A child’s local council must look at whether the young carer wishes to continue caring and if it is appropriate for them to do so. They also have to take into account any education or recreational activities that the child wants to participate in.
Spotting the signs
Children may not feel able to talk about difficulties linked to their role and may feel guilty about being unable to cope. Some signs that they might be struggling include:
- A child withdrawing into themselves and becoming anxious or frustrated.
- Sudden changes in concentration or educational performance.
- Changes in attendance patterns (linked to fear of leaving an unwell parent), school refusal, being late.
- Other behaviour changes – particularly longer-term challenging behaviour.
- A change in how organised and ready for school they are.
- Physical health problems.
- Frequent unexplained angry outbursts.
- Tiredness (often due to nightmares or anxiety or being woken by unwell parents).
Protective factors: what schools can do
- Create a safe, respectful, nurturing school and classroom environment.
- Many whole-school programmes and targeted, small group work are proven to help build children’s understanding of their own thoughts, emotions and feelings, build self-esteem, promote healthy relationships and develop resilience.
- Be approachable. Positive relationships in the classroom/school that are built on trust, kindness, safety and security promote pupil wellbeing and encourage children to open up and talk
- Be alert, watchful and questioning – particularly to what children might be trying to communicate via their play or behaviour.
- Teach children that mental health is a spectrum and normalise conversations about wellbeing and seeking help.
- Create an individual wellbeing plan with young carers – what do they need to thrive and cope well? This may include homework clubs, peer support groups/networks, or support from an older child in the same position.
- Some young carers may need a little extra help, either through school pastoral care/counselling support, school clubs, summer schemes or through referral to community-based support.
- Build good partnerships with families and understand their circumstances. Be alert to any changes in family health.
- Ensure school events and parents’ evenings are accessible to parents/carers with disabilities or who find it difficult to leave the house without support.
- Support children and families through signposting and getting an illness/condition diagnosed or a substance dependency recognised.
- Plan early to help young carers make transitions to secondary school or other schools.