Teachers and school staff are in a unique position to support children in their class or school community who have been bereaved. School and its routine provide stability, security, continuity, and above all a familiar structure and routine to a child whose world might be in turmoil and confusion due to significant change and loss in the family.
Most grieving pupils do not need a bereavement expert, simply need the support of people who care. Teachers can make a real difference to bereaved pupils, acknowledging their loss, by offering opportunities for them to talk about their experiences if they want to, and by listening and responding to the pupil’s spoken and unspoken messages.
As a teacher, and doing what you do every day as part of your professional role as a teacher or school staff member, you are the best and most effective resource to a bereaved child or young person.
- Acknowledge. Create a time to say… “I am sorry that ……has died.”
- Ask. “What if anything would you like me to do?” Some children want to slip back into a class without any undue notice or attention being focussed on them. Others may be relieved by a public acknowledgement. Others may want to know what if anything has been said to the class.
- Explain. Acknowledge that you are there to help at this difficult time, that you understand that they may need additional help to catch up with work or to get school work completed etc. Watch out for those children who go to the other extreme and over-work or over-study.
- Maintain. Remain flexible and understanding over the long term. Life has changed for the child, and adapting to loss will take considerable time. It is lifelong process as a child grows and develops through the developmental stages.
- Routine. Establish and maintain the class routine because it is an important part of life that has not changed.
- Support. Creating a supportive class/school environment is fundamental. Every child’s response will be different, so draw on your understanding of the child. By observing, you will know when to be there.
- Be watchful. Stay alert & sensitive to changes in behaviour, emotions or needs. Children and young people often don’t know or understand what is happening to them, or why they are feeling the way that they do. They may not have the language to express how they are feeling.
- Listen. You don’t always have to say anything, just listen patiently. Some children need to tell and retell their story, or may ask the same questions over and over. This is how they make sense of what has happened.
- Be mindful. Some children may not want to speak about their bereavement, and that is okay too.
- Watch out for isolation. At lunch or playtime, children can subconsciously exclude a child who has been bereaved as being different or can be fearful that the same thing may happen them. A bereaved child might also withdraw from interacting with their peers.
- Reassure. Bereaved children can lose their sense of trust and confidence, and may display heightened anxiety levels even in relation to very ordinary issues (break time, schoolwork, friends). Self-esteem can be diminished.
- Believe. You provide a key support structure in the process, so believe in and foster a child’s innate ability and resilience to cope and adapt.
- Remember. Be sensitive to allow and create opportunities to remember during different time of the school year and/or during the day-to-day classroom discussions or activities. Our Fact Sheet on Special Occasions is useful, as is the guidance offered in relation to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
- Learn. Inform and empower yourself of key aspects of children’s grief using our Fact Sheets and resources.
- Plan. Children dip in and out of grief and when they dip in it can be very intense and exhausting. Children and young people may need some space and relief for short periods, particularly at times of high emotions. (At all times adhering to school policy.)
- Share. It is really important that children and young people know that they do not have to be sad all the time that it is okay to play, share laughs and have fun.
Don’t forget the self-care!
- Teachers have grief and loss too.
- Childrens’ issues can trigger issues for teachers on a personal level.
- Be kind and understanding to your own needs.
- Don’t carry the emotions home; children and their issues can eat into the heart. Treat yourself to walks, the cinema, or a massage…
- Don’t let the dust settle.
- See the section on Self-Care for Teachers, and remember: if you are overwhelmed, please look for support.