Supporting bereaved pupils in school

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Working as school professionals, it is almost inevitable that, at some time, a pupil in our care will experience a bereavement. In this article, Dr Trisha Waters explains what schools can do to ensure that they are equipped to provide support.

Summary

  • It is beneficial for schools to have a school bereavement policy.
  • There can be changes in a pupil’s behaviour following a bereavement.
  • School-based interventions can help support them.

Every year 20,000 children under the age of 16 will be bereaved of a parent and many more will experience the loss of some-one else special in their life. Lee Scott’s SEND report last November for the Secretary of State for Education found that many schools were not meeting the needs of bereaved pupils as well as they might.

Scott’s research found a ‘general lack of knowledge that teaching staff, including SENCOs, have of child development and the impact of trauma, loss and separation.’

He went on to say that, where the child had experienced a death in the family, there was also a lack of knowledge of ‘how to support (these) children within a learning environment and within the school generally.’

When a bereavement occurs, particularly when it is unexpected, it is often difficult for those around the bereaved person to know how to respond.

In this article, we will look at how school professionals can improve their knowledge and understanding of pupil bereavement and identify some practical suggestions for ways in which schools can support these pupils.

School bereavement policy

One way to prepare staff for dealing with bereavement is to ensure that all staff are regularly involved in writing and updating the school bereavement policy. This should address how to support both adults and pupils in the school and will cover a wide range of circumstances, from the loss of a grandparent to how to respond to a crisis situation. Both Cruse and Winston’s Wishes pro-vide excellent guidance for writing a school bereavement policy (see Further Information below).

The policy should also ensure that the topic of death, and how this is dealt with in different cultural or religious contexts, is in-cluded in the PHSE and RE curriculum. There should be a named member of staff to coordinate support for bereaved pupils and they should have access to bereavement training which can then be cascaded to all staff.

Communication

Good communication is the most essential element in supporting a bereaved pupil. Once the school is aware of a death, the headteacher may want to consult one of the bereavement helplines available in order to get reassurance about the best way to proceed.

All members of staff should be informed about the death and a letter of condolence sent to the pupil and their family. When the pupil returns to school, an adult should be identified to support the pupil and an arrangement made for the pupil to be able to leave the class to access this support if he or she is feeling upset.

Adults can feel anxious about what to say to a bereaved child. When a child is upset we naturally want to make it better for them. Clearly in this situation we cannot. What we can do though is express empathy and let them know that it is alright to be upset and cry. Simple phrases such as, ‘I am really sorry to hear about X’s death’ can be helpful.

It’s difficult to imagine, but quite often an older pupil or young person will not mention in school that a parent has died, even to close friends, as they don’t want to stand out as different. Ensuring regular contact with all parents and explicitly inviting them to keep the school informed about anything affecting their child’s wellbeing can help avoid this.

How bereavement may affect a pupil’s behaviour

When a child experiences bereavement, behavioural changes are often evident. These can include:

  • mood swings
  • tiredness
  • alternating play and sadness
  • regression and loss of skills
  • anger and frustration
  • high-risk behaviours.

It is important that all staff are aware of the bereavement and that such changed behaviours can be seen in this context.

Some children may have a lack of response and act as if the death has not occurred. They may even throw themselves more enthusiastically into their studies or sport. Denial in such instances can serve as a protective mechanism, allowing the bereaved child or young person to delay the bereavement process until a time when they can better cope with it.

School-based interventions to support a bereaved pupil

In addition to the allocation of a named professional and a safe place for the pupil to go to when they need to, there are a num-ber of other interventions that schools can put in place if they observe changes in the pupil’s behaviour in the classroom.

For younger children symbolic play, where they can re-enact what has happened in their attempt to make sense of it, is invalua-ble. Reading stories in which characters experience loss can also help the child feel less different to others. For older children and young people, writing can be a powerful way of processing difficult feelings.

Possible interventions that schools might put in place to support a bereaved pupil include:

  • referral to a school counsellor or, if not available, an external counsellor, after discussion with the pupil’s family
  • attending a small emotional wellbeing group run by a learning mentor or emotional literacy support assistant (ELSA)
  • joining a nurture group for a limited period of time
  • arranging for the pupil to spend some time playing with, or helping, younger pupils if they show regression behaviour
  • making age-appropriate books available that deal with loss – Badger’s Parting Gifts is a lovely one for younger children
  • setting up a Circle of Friends if the pupil appears to be becoming isolated
  • joining a 10-week therapeutic story-writing group. In these emotionally-safe groups, pupils have the opportunity to write stories that address difficult feelings
  • setting up a 10-week Story Links intervention for the pupil and parent/carer. This intervention uses joint story-making to address difficult emotions within a safe and mutually enjoyable activity. It supports positive attachment between the pupil and parent/carer.

Final thoughts

Children spend a significant amount of their time in school and educational staff are an essential source of care and support for bereaved pupils. For some children, the school will be a secure haven away from the turmoil of emotions at home.

We need to remember that there is no one way for someone to grieve. It is important to allow the pupil to be the one to pace their own process. The best thing we can do as school professionals is to be alert to any changes in their behaviour and be ready to give support, as and when it is needed.

Further information

• L. Scott, Report to the Secretary of State for Education: ‘SEND: The schools and colleges experience’, 2016. See: http://bit.ly/2ewiZOJ

Organisations specialising in bereavement support:

Generic support interventions that may benefit bereaved pupils:

Published books dealing with loss and bereavement:

  • S. Varley, Badger’s Parting Gifts, Magi Publications, 1997.

See further book lists at:

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Dr Trisha Waters is the founding director of the Centre for Therapeutic Storywriting. She previously led the MA in SEN and Inclusion at the University of Chichester. Contact Trisha at:
trisha@TherapeuticStorywriting.co.uk

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Sarah Murdoch

Sarah Murdoch is Publisher for Attendance Matters Magazine. She is supported by an experienced team of commissing editors, editors, and designers.

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