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How to support a homesick child at boarding school

The benefits of boarding are endless. When children are living away from home, they gain a real sense of independence, develop organisational skills, form tight-knit friendships and make the most of every second of their time at school. 

But what if it doesn’t all go to plan? It’s completely normal for children to miss home, but how do you know if your child is just having a bad day – or if there’s a more serious problem? We quizzed the highly experienced matron team at Elstree School to find out what to do if your child is finding it difficult to settle into their new routine – and picked up a few tips for bereft parents too. 

Q. My child has never boarded before. How long should it take for them to adjust and settle in?  

A. In truth, there’s no ‘normal’ length of adjustment period, so it’s vital not to generalise or make assumptions. It really does vary; some children take to boarding like a duck to water, others need a little time to get the hang of being away from home. Boarding staff recognise that each child will need different support. We work really closely with parents too, which helps us understand any concerns, phobias or specific worries – and means we can do everything in our power to help a child settle in as quickly and seamlessly as possible. 

Schools work incredibly hard to make boarding a real home-from-home experience. Children are actively encouraged to decorate their dorms with photos, posters and teddies to create a little slice of home. At Elstree, we hold a dorm-decorating competition to encourage pupils to really get stuck in. Feeling cosy and comfortable counts for a lot.  

Q. Help! My child calls every day in tears. Should I avoid contact? How do I know if they’re just tired and emotional, or there’s a more serious problem? 

A. Being tired and emotional is part and parcel of starting a new regime. It’s normal to come across a few wobbles and tears when a child starts boarding. Children tend to start changing their normal behaviour when there’s a more serious issue to worry about, making it easier to spot. They might not be calmed so easily or may not settle down to sleep – which can impact their performance both in and outside the classroom. Children often pop up to the school surgery with a minor ailment – in reality, many just want to have a chat. That’s exactly what the matron team is here for.  

There’s no doubt that a quick call home will work wonders for some children – but for others, it might just reinforce feelings of homesickness. Boarding staff and matrons get to know their children very quickly – and swiftly work out whether contact is a help or a hindrance. Many schools limit mobile phone use, which helps: at Elstree, full boarders can only call home at the weekends or during lunchtimes twice a week; flexi boarders can call home on the nights they’re boarding, but their phone use is closely monitored by staff. Most are far too busy having fun to even think to call. 

Q. My child is flourishing and loving boarding – but as a parent, I’m left feeling bereft. What advice do you have for the parents left behind? 

A. It’s really important to be honest about how everyone is feeling. We’re constantly in communication with parents with updates about how their children are doing and what they’ve been up to – both directly through tutors, houseparents and teachers, and indirectly through social media, newsletters and the school website. Having good communication with parents is key: it means we’ll be able to provide reassurance when a child calls home upset – but then skips off happily with their friends five minutes later.  Make the most of exeats and holidays when your sons and daughters are home – remind yourself of the benefits and really celebrate their enjoyment of boarding: not only is it brilliant fun, it’s a great way to foster resilience and independence too.  

Q. How do matrons and boarding staff help keep spirits high? How do you keep pupils busy to ward off homesickness?  

A. Boarding teams are extremely experienced at raising morale. There’s a lovely family atmosphere in the boarding house here at Elstree; pupils are welcome to pop in for a chat with the housemaster and his wife anytime – and there’s always a mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows and a Rice Krispies cake available too. Listening to the children and giving them the time to chat is essential – and this relaxed and friendly approach helps children settle in and feel as comfortable as they would at home.  

Staff are always on hand to encourage children to get involved in activities and keep them busy. We have an open weekend at the start and end of every term, when all new boarders are encouraged to stay in. There’s usually a theme: we hold a headmaster’s barbecue in the autumn term; an Easter egg hunt at the end of the Lent term and plenty more – including a recent Ready Steady Cook-themed weekend where pupils rustled up a three-course meal. No weekend is complete, of course, without a huge fry-up on a Sunday morning. 

Prep schools like Elstree benefit from the sheer amount of space on campus, and children have access to a dizzying number of activities on site: sport, bushcraft, D&T, art, den building, cycling, kayaking, board games, pizza making…  plus trips out to water parks, an indoor ski centre and the cinema.  

Q. In your experience, does every child adapt to boarding eventually – or are there some children who just aren’t cut out for it and would be better at a day school?  

A. The ‘settling in’ period can require time and patience for some children – but they do almost all get there. We hold taster boarding nights for our Year 3 pupils who might be thinking about boarding (boarding at Elstree starts in Year 4) and put on ‘Big Weekends’ (jam-packed with activities including laser tag and making catapults for water balloons) for students in Year 6 to 8, which are open to all – regardless of whether they’re a day pupil or a flexi or full boarder. Both these initiatives are a great way to get a feel for boarding and to suss out whether it’s right. Girls sometimes mature faster, making them ready to board at an earlier age – but as long as there’s a sensitive induction, we find that boys and girls tend to adapt in the same way.  

Q. In the old days, boarding meant full boarding – with snatched visits home once or twice a term. Now, schools are so much more flexible and have adapted to suit the needs of the modern family. Does this flexibility make boarding easier?  

A. Flexi boarding is a much more modern approach to boarding – and definitely broadens the appeal. Children are reassured by the knowledge that their family is close by; parents can pop in to see their sons and daughters play in matches, watch them on stage or perform in a lunchtime concert.  

What’s more, the flexibility of modern-day boarding plays an important role in helping children prepare for the transition to their senior schools – especially for those heading for a full-boarding school.  

Q. And finally – it’s been a strange few weeks for schools as they adapt to the ‘new normal’. How are children settling into their new regimes? Are they more anxious than usual, or have they slotted happily back in? 

A. So far, so good. All of the boarding pupils at Elstree seem to have adapted extremely well and accepted the ‘new normal’. Parents were able to come into school the day before term started, with different timings for different year groups so they could help their children unpack and settle in. In many ways, they’ve had to become independent more quickly as parents can no longer come into the boarding house.