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Far From Home: Boarding School and Homesickness

This weekend I’m attending the thirty-year reunion of my boarding school year group. With that group of women, I stumbled through five years of adolescence. We went to school together, ate together, studied together, sang along to INXS and Wham together, even brushed our teeth and plucked our eyebrows into 80s style thin lines together. Those women were my friends and confidantes. They saw me at my happiest and my most vulnerable. My most vulnerable was probably when I was homesick.

Fast forward to 2016 and I find myself working in a college that has, at its very heart, boarders. I say its heart because boarders live here. Consequently, they are very involved in sport, drama, dance, service programs and every other co-curricular. They can be relied on to be part of whatever is going on. During school hours they provide a lot of the humour and joy in the College. They have a camaraderie that is infectious and fun. They add a special character to the every day.

At this time of the year, college communities should be acutely aware of boarders, particularly new boarders. The novelty of a new school and new friends is wearing off and the reality of spending so much time away from home has settled in. It’s inevitable that they are missing home, their families and their friends. They also miss the things we don’t think of, like pets and the routines of family life that eventually become ritual. Their families are also missing them, so every phone call, text or Skype contact is laden with meaning.

I spoke to Head of Boarding at Santa Maria College, Linda Bulloch, about homesickness and the role we all have to play.

What is a ‘normal’ amount of homesickness?

Linda Bulloch: There is no such thing as normal. Every child is different. It’s also not age related. People assume that the younger you are the more homesick you’ll feel, and the older you are the more you’ll be able to cope. That’s not necessarily true.

It is very normal for boarders to miss their parents and their homes. They often talk about what mum will cook for them when they get home, whom they will see, and what they will do. Those ‘anticipating conversations’ are very important. Because parents can travel and communicate so easily with today’s technology, we sometimes find that our girls miss their pets and the freedom of home even more than they miss their parents. They can talk to their parents anytime. Sometimes it’s riding their pony that they miss, or the space of the farm, or their cats and dogs. That can be confronting for parents.

Homesickness will always be there, but there comes a point when a child develops the capacity to recognise it and put it in its place. When they are busy with the daily life of school and boarding, they can put it in the background. It will come to the foreground occasionally though.

There are lots of triggers for homesickness. It can be a smell, like the smell of gum trees on the farm, or an image or an event. So, it’s possible that a child will ring home, unload their upset and then get off the phone feeling relieved and run off to join their friends. Parents, on the other hand, are left feeling anxious and worried.

How does the College help girls deal with homesickness?

Linda Bulloch:

  1. We try to provide a rich program for them to be a part of on the weekends so that they are busy and their homesickness can be in the background.
  2. We have expectations of them contributing to the boarding community with chores and responsibilities. It gives them some ownership. It also mimics the idea at home of giving and taking help from the members of your family. We give the older girls some responsibility for the younger girls (Eg. Teaching them to use their laptops), it engenders a nice atmosphere in the community. These things help them find their ‘place’ in boarding.
  3. Staff actively direct children who are struggling. We will gently push them towards a sport or an activity so that they are able to immerse themselves in some other feeling.
  4. We treat each child as an individual. When you know a child well, you know how to help them. Parents can, and do, help a great deal with this.

What can parents do to support their children?

Linda Bulloch: Of course parents should tell their children that they are missed. There should be a healthy acknowledgement of that fact. However, girls also need to be reminded of the positives of the situation, the opportunities and experiences they can now have.

We are not a parent to boarders and we don’t ever want to step into that role, so we strongly encourage contact between parents and their children. For all of their lives our girls have had their mum and dad for support. Why would that change at this most challenging step in their lives?

Parents can’t solve all problems from afar. They can empower their children to solve their own problems. Given the opportunity and support from parents, girls do amazing things. They should also be empowered to recognise when they need to get help and who to get help from. Parents do that in partnership with us.

When children ring home, sometimes they will provide a litany of things that are wrong because they are down. Listen with empathy and love, but recognise that everything isn’t bad. Listen for the good things and celebrate success.

It is often difficult, but if possible, parents should try to come to major school events and share them with their kids. They can also come to boarding and eat dinner with the girls, meet their friends and spend time in the place where their child lives.

Can parents of day students play a role with boarders?

Linda Bulloch: Boarders are encouraged to mix with day students and develop those friendships. Day students are welcome to have sleepovers in boarding with their boarder friends and join us in activities.  Going out with their day student friends and their families is always encouraged.

Parents of day students are in a position to be a significant adult in the lives of boarders. They usually meet through sports teams or other school activities. It’s lovely to see those relationships develop, to see Perth families keeping a special eye out for a boarder.

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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia. She has a Facebook page here.

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