On 12th September, the UK’s children returned to school. The past two years have been nothing less than extremely challenging for many of them; the health, climate and cost of living crises weigh heavy on the children in London’s community.
Statistically, over 5 children in each returning class of 30 are likely to be struggling with their mental health.1 Last year, 39.2% of 6 to 16-year-olds had experienced deterioration in mental health since 2017. Waiting list time for children and young people accessing mental health services via the NHS is at an all-time high and 34% of those referred are not accepted onto treatment.2 These figures can be expected to increase significantly over the next year: we as a community in the UK are facing a mental health emergency for children and young people.
Financial exclusion is a significant barrier for many children returning to the classroom this week. A new report from The Child Poverty Action Group details the barriers that children with experience of living in poverty face every day in school, from not having enough funds on free school meals to get both a snack at break and a lunch, missing out on music lessons and trips, and being unable to purchase the correct uniform and PE kit.3 When some of The Kids Network’s team met up with children in our community over the summer, they shared that, while they were looking forward to starting at secondary school, they felt worried for their caregivers about the cost of uniforms.
Living with experience of poverty is traumatic. Basic needs being unmet, carrying the anxiety and emotional burden of the cost of living crisis, struggling to access school – children are unable to be children in the way they deserve. And children and young people with these experiences are more likely to experience other traumatic events in addition to the sustained adverse experience of poverty.
The toxic stress experienced by the body as a result of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, hampers brain development and changes the structure of the brain; this can have long lasting implications including susceptibility to mental and physical health conditions. While in school, children who have experienced toxic stress can remain in a fight, flight, or freeze state: the brain is unable to regulate stress hormones and rationalise what it perceives as threat resulting in high levels of anxiety. It is then prevented from creating new structures: children find it much harder to learn, connect with others and develop emotional literacy. The current system which keeps families and communities in poverty means children are physiologically unable to live the lives they deserve. An adaptation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows what children need at school (credit: https://twitter.com/lucyrothpsych). This correlates directly to the brain’s capacity: only when it feels safe is it able to thrive.
97% of the children The Kids Network are honoured to work with have experienced adversity that may result in toxic stress. 75% of those children have no other services involved in their lives to provide support. They are strong, resilient, and inspiring.
When they’re introduced to The Kids Network, they share what they want in a mentor. We use this information to shape our mentor recruitment and the matches we make between local volunteers and children. Pairs meet for 1-3 hours per week for a year, and the child chooses how they fill their sessions including spending a budget. They get outside, engage in their local communities, try new things, explore their strengths and passions, carry out social action, create, and, most importantly, they have fun. Our trauma-informed programme is shaped to build resilience by restoring choice and control, enhancing existing strengths and encouraging deeper connection to the communities and world around them. These protective factors mean children’s brains are increasingly able to recover from toxic stress, regulate emotions, and rationalise experiences.
In 2021, we worked with 393 children across London aged 8-11. Of those:
- 98% felt they had a trusting relationship with their mentor.
- 90% of children reported an increase in their happiness over their mentoring journey.
- 85% increased their belief that good things would happen in their life.
The Kids Network is proud to be able to learn from children as they shape their futures. Demand for our programme has increased by 245% over the past 2 years and, as autumn and the new school year begins, we expect to hear from even more schools and families referring wonderful children into our community. In 2022-23 we will work with 600 children in London, providing spaces in which children can be children, share their experiences, and live the lives they deserve to live.
‘Mentoring really brings light into your life, you get to do things you haven’t done before. It helps people to get over fear, it’s someone you can talk to. Most children don’t get to do that as sometimes children have problems with things they can’t talk about’ – Mentee, Camden.
This is a stark and sobering situation. Are you over 18 and feeling like you want to help in an active way? 97% of mentors said that mentoring has increased their belief that they can make a positive change in society. Register to become a mentor here and be matched with a Little Londoner who will change your life.
Schools! Are there children in your community who will benefit from a holistic and trauma-informed intervention? We are active in Hackney, Islington, Brent, Camden, Hammersmith and Fulham, Southwark, Lambeth, and Lewisham – get in touch!
If you are a family in London and you’re worried about the cost of returning to school, your local council may provide grants to help with this. Click here to find out.