Young carers in schools
In the average Australian classroom there are two or three students who play a key role in the care of a relative or family member. The person they care for may have a disability, mental illness or a chronic condition, or they may be frail aged or have an alcohol or other drug-related problem. Some form of caring role can start as early as seven or eight years of age.
The role of a young carer goes well beyond the incidental help offered in the home by many children or teenagers. It is distinguished by the amount of time involved and by the absence of supervision and guidance from adults (Warren 2007, pp. 136–146). The young carer may assist personal operations such as showering; monitor their relative's safety and protect them from self-harm; and look after younger siblings. They are likely to undertake many forms of housework. Often they organise transport, manage household finances, and advocate for their relative when dealing with government or commercial agencies. As well as these practical tasks they provide emotional support to their relative.
The responsibilities of young carers can sometimes be very stressful. A study by Deakin University (2007) found that the health and wellbeing of carers is amongst the lowest of any social group. Earlier research described them as likely to suffer 'compassion fatigue and unresolved frustration, anger and anxiety' (Halpenny and Gilligan 2004). The amount of time that caring occupies can affect a young person's ability to participate in paid work. Financially their families are trying to cover the costs of health care, medication and social support with little earning power, and sometimes uncertain access to welfare payments. Young carers often lack sleep, and neglect their own health and well-being, due to anxiety and preoccupation with their duties. They may also feel unsafe, for example if the relative is prone to seizures or displays challenging behaviours. Some are concerned about their susceptibility to illnesses and conditions, or worry about the vulnerability of their future children (Moore et al 2006).
Despite these demands and stresses, their roles have benefits that frequently leave young carers very positive about what they do. They often build close and warm relationships with those they care for. They also tend to take great pride in their skills, aware that most of their peers at school would not be able to cook for a family, manage household budgets, or discuss medication with a doctor for example. Having dealt with adversity, they often report feeling well-equipped to manage future difficulties and challenges (Halpenny and Gilligan 2004; Moore et al 2006).
At the same time, they do not want to be defined by their caring role and are keen to be treated normally.
Friends are very valuable to young carers, but the caring role can make friendships harder to make and maintain. Caring duties limit the time available for social life and often prevent or discourage carers from having friends in their home. Often, too, carers feel little in common with children or teens their own age, or feel that they cannot convey the reality of their life experiences to peers.
The family’s vulnerability may also make the carers a target for bullying. In a large scale national survey conducted by the Institute of Child Protection Studies, 45% of young people providing care reported bullying and harassment of their family members (Moore et al 2006, p 47).
Barriers to support
There are many possible barriers discouraging young carers, or their older relatives, from seeking help from public agencies. The young carer may fear that government interventions will take decisions away from their family's hands.
In some cases neither the carer nor other family members understand that what the carer does is different in scale from other children and teens. This may be an issue for girls in particular, if there is a traditional expectation that they will shoulder a lot of the domestic chores. Families may also be simply unaware of the existence of relevant services, which are not extensively resourced.
Support available to young carers
Carer's Australia is a government-funded agency that offers various forms of help to young carers, and caring families through its state and territory Carer Associations. Services include free telephone and face-to-face counselling; newsletters and resource kits; a Young Carers website; and guided referrals to health professionals, government agencies and other services.
Commonwealth Respite and Carelink Centres offer direct respite support to young carers and families. This support can include time away from the caring situation, in home support, personal care for the person requiring care, fun activities, peer support programs and assistance to remain engaged at school.
Young carers and schools
For young carers school may offer relief and refuge from the strains of their role, and a place to mix and socialise. At the same time the caring role may hinder their school work. Attendance and punctuality are threatened by their relative's need for attention, and academically the carer can find it challenging to catch up after absences. Low income levels mean families are often unable to afford uniforms, text books and stationery, and public transport. The school is also a context in which the young carer can be exposed to bullying.
These problems are magnified if the school is unaware of the nature and scale of the carer's role. Absences may be misunderstood as simple disengagement. The school will lack context if the carer lashes out against bullying or teasing, or responds emotionally to sensitive personal issues.
Implications for schools
There are a number of ways in which schools can support young carers.
The first is simply to be aware that the school is likely to have one or two young carers in every classroom amongst its student population, and also that they may be reluctant to disclose this role. Schools can assist by identifying young carers in the school population. Indications that they may be carers include persistent lateness or absences, and low levels of attendance at out-of-school events; homework that is lost, incomplete, late or disorganised; untidy appearance; making frequent phone calls, back ache or neck ache, having no lunch money; reluctance to speak about home life; over-sensitivity, anxiety or depression; and a tendency to be bullied or to get into fights.
It is of tremendous value for the young carer to have even one teacher or support worker to whom they can go for support and understanding.
Addressing these issues in the curriculum can help greatly to de-stigmatise disabilities and conditions like mental illness. It is also important that teachers challenge derogatory references to people such as 'drug addicts' who might be the focus of care at home for a student in the class.
Carers benefit from having flexible deadlines for homework and as much advance notice as possible about forthcoming topics and timelines, especially since many of them have developed skills in long-term planning. However, carers do not benefit if they are given passes for inadequate or incomplete work.
School-wide policies should also allow for carers. For example, they should be recognised as a distinct category in policies covering bullying and harassment. They should also have permission to use a mobile phone through the day to monitor the one they care for, checking for example that they have taken medication on time.
A resource for primary and secondary school teachers with further information is also available from Carers Australia and state and territory Carer Associations.
Teachers and school welfare staff can also link young carers to suitable supports in the community, including Carers Australia and the state and territory Carers Associations
For further information, contact Carer's Australia via its website or telephone: 1800 242 636.
To access direct respite support programs for young carers and their families contact Commonwealth Respite and Carelink telephone: 1800 052 222.
This article is adapted largely from information available on the websites of Carers Australia and Carers Victoria, which includes references to a range of key research papers published elsewhere.
Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005, Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Caring in the Community, Tables 17 to 24, 2003.
Deakin University 2009, The Wellbeing of Australians: Carers Health and Wellbeing (access via Carer's Australia website), May 2009. A joint publication of The School of Psychology, Deakin University; The Australian Centre on Quality of Life, Deakin University; Australian Unity and Carers Australia.
Halpenny, AM & Gilligan, R 2004, Caring before their time?: Research and policy perspectives on young carers (access pdf), Barnardos & Children's Research Centre, Dublin.
Moore T, Morrow R, McArthur, M et al. 2006, Reading, writing and responsibility: Young Carers and Education (access pdf), ACU National for the ACT Department of Disability, Housing and Community Services.
Warren, J 2007 Young Carers: Conventional or Exaggerated Levels of Involvement in Domestic and Caring Tasks? Children & Society, Vol. 21, Issue 2, March 2007 pp 136–146.
Subject HeadingsSocially disadvantaged
Parent and child