Bereaved Children and Anger in the Primary School

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When a child is bereaved of a close family member or friend it is a very difficult time. Emotions can be very strong and change often. Sadness, anger, fear, worry, regret and confusion can emerge over the weeks and months following the death, while on other days the child may feel calm and enjoy happy experiences.

While not all bereaved children express anger in school, some will, and this can be challenging for the teacher especially if there are sudden outbursts. Sometimes anger will not emerge for weeks or months following the death. Some factors underpinning anger include the following:

  • In middle childhood children have a keen sense of fairness. A bereaved child may feel it is extremely unfair that this has happened to them.
  • A child may have a lot of rapidly changing moods. If they cannot express these or if there are insufficient opportunities to be heard, they can become frustrated and this can lead to angry outbursts.
  • Other members of the family are also struggling so regular routines and emotional supports may not be in place, leading to frustration.
  • The child is vulnerable, so daily irritations, which they might normally have taken in their stride in the past, may now be beyond their level of tolerance.
  • Concentration and conceptual work in school is harder, so they may experience frustration and a sense of failure in their work.

Anger is part of the process of grief and not willful misbehavior. Someone needs to listen to the child about what is causing the distress now. Sometimes this is the class teacher, sometimes a resource or support teacher, sometime an SNA, sometime the principal. Each school will allocate this responsibility in it’s own way depending on staffing. Until anger is heard and understood it may continue to manifest itself in ways that cause concern.

The day can be long for a child recently bereaved. If frustrations tend to occur at a particular time the child might be given a short break twenty minutes earlier to do something simple and pleasant and this may diffuse the tension. When a child is transferring from one teacher to another at the end of the school year, the support strategies, which have been found helpful, can be explained.

Sensory activities such as playing with clay or sand, listening to calm music, colouring mandalas or working in the school garden may be helpful to children when they are upset. Every child is different, so we need to observe what is soothing for each one.

If a serious angry outburst which raises safety concerns occurs in the classroom the teacher has a dual responsibility: to the child involved and the rest of the class. The teacher needs to act in a calm way. The bereaved child needs both support and a clear boundary. The other children need protection from witnessing too much distress. Both the Health and Safety Policy and Code of Behaviour of the school must be followed. Creating clear boundaries for a child who is very upset helps them adjust to a difficult situation.

In managing this situation, we must clearly distinguish between anger itself, which is normal following bereavement and the different manifestations of anger, which can either build or support relationships. In SPHE class children learn that we all feel anger at times, and we need to talk about it, but we cannot hurt other people. [See Walk Tall Fourth Class, Unit 8 Communication ]

A message we might give to a child is:

“I see that you are angry/ upset/ frustrated and I understand that things are difficult. We need to talk about it to see how we can make things better but we cannot hurt other people. “

When other children in the class hear the teacher speak in this way the rules of the school, the commitment to support children and the lessons in SPHE are all reinforced. The teacher acts as a powerful model.

When a bereaved child has a small number of outbursts these ideas may help us manage those incidents. When a teacher continues to be supportive, flexible and vigilant but angry outbursts are continuing the teacher may become more anxious. It is time then to talk to the Principal and if there is a Care Team in the school, they will be helpful. As a school staff you can work together with parents/guardians to explore whether additional supports outside the school might be needed.

See information sheet: Helping Teachers Understand when Professional Help is Required by a Grieving Child

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