Using Picture Books to Support Children

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A huge variety of books address the theme of loss. Because of the interplay of verbal and visual stimuli, such books can offer a powerful opening to discussion on challenging topics.

When a child is bereaved, adults – including teachers – sometimes go looking for a book to help them explain what is going on. However, this might not be the right time either for the bereaved child or his/her classmates. It can be confronting. It can increase self consciousness for the child. It can be very difficult to find the book that fits.

Using the curriculum 

Consider where loss is already part of the curriculum, and avoid shying away from it as part of the overall learning of the child. In SPHE (Social, Personal and Health Education) for example, when exploring feelings picture books are used to initiate a discussion about the effects of loss on a character. Younger children might read Gentle Willow [Mills 2004], and talk about the sadness of the animals when the willow tree dies and how they plan to remember her. Senior classes might discuss Her Mother’s Face [Doyle 2008], and talk about the struggles families experience as they grieve in different ways. In this way children explore the topic in a distance way and develop empathy and sensitivity, while no child is under pressure to share personal stories if they do not wish to.

In SESE (Social, Environmental and Scientific Education) children study life cycles, so death is part of the conversation. A book such as The Lonely Tree [Halliday 2006] offers young children a chance to look at the life and death of an oak tree and allows them to integrate both cognitively and emotionally.

History is another subject where death can be part of the discussion. Take the opportunity to explore the impact of historical events on individual lives and communities. The book Sadako [Coerr 1997] tells the story of a child in Hiroshima who develops cancer in the aftermath of the atom bomb. It is a story of loss but also of friendship, community, and ultimately hope. The book can offer an integration of English, History, SPHE and Visual Art.

Exploring loss in the classroom is best done when nobody is recently bereaved but in recognition that death is part of life. Giving children have a language for loss and an understanding of its effects means they can manage relationships with their peers with more sensitivity when a death occurs.

The book and resource lists on this site are offered with a word of advice: we suggest you become familiar with the materials think carefully and critically about when you might use them with a class, an individual child, or a parent.