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Teaching Bereaved Children

8 Ways Teachers Can Help a Bereaved Child

One of the toughest days of my teaching career came one morning when I received the terrible news that one of my pupil’s had lost a beloved parent over the weekend. The cause of death was arguably amongst the most unexpected, tragic and devastating: suicide.

Supporting pupils through bereavement can be tough for teachers. Through our blog, Songs for Teaching offers a range of ways teachers can help a bereaved child.

As you might imagine, my immediate thoughts were regarding the child’s wellbeing. How would the child’s life be changed as a result of this tragedy? Who’s looking after them now? When would they return to school? What the hell happened?

Needless to say, the news left me and the entire school community in shock. Only a couple of weeks earlier I had met with the parent to discuss their child’s progress at school. Having been one of the last member’s of school staff to see the parent, I irrationally began to ask myself if there was anything I could have said or done that might have made a difference. Of course, there wouldn’t have been anything I could have done to change things and I was simply wishing that the tragedy could have been averted.

As soon as the initial emotional response had subsided, I began thinking like a professional once again and sought advice about how best to support the child who returned to school the very next day.

Below are a few things that I learned from the experience that other teachers may be able to use under similar sad circumstances.

It is crucial to deal only in facts

The bereaved child along with their class mates will certainly have many questions. As a teacher, you must deal only in facts and put to bed any hearsay.

On the morning of finding out about the parent’s death, I was told that much of the community were already aware of what happened. Anticipating much discussion amongst the students, I decided to gather my class on the carpet to address the issue.

Questions abound, I spoke in calm, neutral tones and explained that I had heard much about the parent’s death but that I only wanted to deal in facts. I went on to say that the only thing we really know as fact is that a member of our class had lost a parent and that parent would not be coming back. I highlighted the need to ‘look after’ the pupil upon their return to school and this went some way towards nurturing a supportive classroom.

It’s okay to talk about it

Sometimes people avoid talking to the bereaved about their loss. Don’t avoid talking to a bereaved child about their feelings and instead make time to hear what they have to say about what they’re going through. Listen carefully to what they say and avoid passing judgements. Rather than saying ‘I know how you feel’ say ‘I know you feel sad’ and follow up with a question to get them to discuss their thoughts or ideas surrounding their loss.

Don’t mince your words and avoid imposing your beliefs on the child

When referring to the deceased, use words such as ‘died’ and ‘death’ rather than euphemisms such as ‘passed away’. Training I had taught me that this is useful for children in being able to understand the permanence of what has happened. It is also important that you don’t impose your own religious/spiritual beliefs on the child. One anecdote given to me in bereavement training told of a very young child who believed that their deceased grandparent had ‘gone to Devon’. This why it is important to ensure that you deal only in facts, avoid mincing your words and ensure that the child is afforded time to talk openly about their feelings.

Maintain high expectations of behaviour but remain sympathetic

Sometimes, bereaved children will understandably behave differently than they did before the loss. If the behaviour they exhibit upon returning to school after their loss contravenes class rules, then it is important that you as the teacher ensure that boundaries are enforced. This is hard to do. Make it easier for yourself by reminding the child (and you) that the best way you can look after them is by keeping school life as normal as possible. Parents/carers will no doubt back you here and the child will understand.

Find a way to get on with the business of teaching your class

Whilst it is crucial to offer a bereaved pupil sufficient TLC in the first days/weeks/months back at school after suffering the death of a loved one, don’t forget that you are not a grief counsellor! Your focus needs to remain on teaching your class whilst also allowing the bereaved time to grieve. There is no definitive way how to do this but what worked for me was to allow them time in a quiet area of the classroom whenever they felt it was needed. Initially, I afforded the pupil as much time as they liked. Gradually, I shortened this time so the pupil would know that they have time to reflect and grieve as well as have consistency in your expectations that class work must be done. Sounds harsh, but the reality is that bereaved children need consistency as much as any other pupil.

Know that death affects everyone differently

Everyone reacts differently to bereavements because the circumstances to each one is totally unique. Some children may understandably despair at the notion of never seeing a loved one again whilst others may battle feelings of guilt for enjoying some of the positives that can come from an agent of change such as death. That’s right…. Sometimes, children will find a silver lining to a sad experience and may not react as you might expect. For example, a child grieving for a loved one might also feel relieved that the loved one is no longer suffering or they might feel excitement as relatives rally around the family. Death brings about a very complex mixture of emotions that can be underestimated and this may be especially true for children.

Know that bereavement can encompass different kinds of loss

Bereavement is a term that refers to the process of adapting to a loss brought about by death. As teachers though, we might need to broaden the definition of bereavement loss comes in many forms. The death of a loved one or pet or a divorce or separation can bring about similar complex feelings. Whilst each type of bereavement is different yet similar in some ways, all should be treated with respect and sensitivity to the bereaved. Do not under any circumstances expect a person to get over it or to feel it’s less important because that’s how you perceive it.

Finally, remember that you are only human

As a teacher, you will want the best for your students and you will do all you can to help them often at a hefty emotional cost to you. However, it is important that you know your limits and remember that it’s okay to feel out of your depth with something especially where bereavement is concerned. Remember not to give up and to be kind to yourself when the going gets tough whilst supporting bereaved pupils. Seek advice and support and revisit this blog to remind yourself of ways you can help bereaved children at school.

By | 11 May, 2015 | Blog

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