Helping teachers understand when professional help is required by a grieving child

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Every child is a unique individual and will have different needs in adjusting to loss.  In general, most children will cope with a significant death provided they have a stable environment with the support of adults who are attuned to the child’s needs.

However, some children, for a variety of reasons, may require professional help to adjust to the situation.  All children struggle to adapt to their loss, but some children do have serious adjustment issues.  If children have other challenging situations in their lives at the time of the loss it can add to their distress.

It is important to acknowledge that children may exhibit different behaviours in the immediate aftermath of a death but if changed behavioural patterns and concerns for the child still exist several months later it may be helpful to discuss this with the Principal and a professional skilled in the area of childhood bereavement. Teachers needs to pay attention to their level of worry and trust their intuition about asking for advice.

Among these behaviours could be the following;

  • Anxiety, which is not relieved by reassurance and discussion:
  • Marked withdrawal from friends and social activities;
  • Anger and aggression which was not normal for this child in the past.
  • A marked inability to talk about the deceased person or obvious discomfort if the person is mentioned.
  • Somatic complaints – but it is important to check there is no physical cause for the complaint.
  • Continual feelings of guilt, which are disabling.
  • Evidence or suggestions of self-harm. In this case teachers must follow their Child Protection policy.

Very often children have exhibited behavioral patterns which include the above before the death and these patterns are exacerbated by the event.  It is important that the bereavement should not be seen as the sole cause of these behaviors.

It would be wise to seek professional advice if a child was showing concerning behaviour, which did not exist before the death, for several months after the event.

The Irish Childhood Bereavement Pyramid explains the levels of distress a child may experience following a bereavement and the appropriate level of support needed.

Childhood Bereavement Pyramid

A concerned teacher will talk to the Principal in the school.  The Principal will most likely be aware of how other siblings are coping.  Together you could consult this pyramid as a guide. One of you will talk to the parents or guardians to ask about their understanding about how the child is managing and to share your observations. If there is a Care Team in the school, they may be involved also.

If additional supports are deemed appropriate, parents/guardians should seek an accredited counsellor who has experience with children and with bereavement work.  The Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy [IACP] and the Irish Council for Psychotherapy [ICP] websites are a resource. You can ask your NEPS psychologist for a suggestion. A parent or guardian could approach their GP or public health nurse for a recommendation.  There may be counselling or family therapy services in the local area.  The Meitheal Coordinator in the area would be well placed to recommend services.

Professional help can be an enormous support to the child.  In addition, the professional will also liaise with the parent or guardian and in some cases may also be open to talking with the school staff. That person will have a pivotal role in supporting the child’s wellbeing over this critical time.

However, we must not underestimate the role of the family, community and the school staff, all of whom will contribute to the child’s support system in the long term.

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