Supporting a primary school child through a bereavement can be complex; at this age, a child will process and handle grief differently to an older child or adult. A young child does not yet have the words to express their grief, so may display their distress through changes in their behaviour. A primary school could easily misinterpret a young child’s behaviour, so it is vital that school staff and parents are aware of typical signs to look out for.
These can include:
Teachers can make a positive difference in helping pupils to cope with grief, without the need for extensive training. In the hours they spend with the child at school, teachers can do a lot to support the child and their family.
The first step is to acknowledge what has happened, as a teacher and as a class. To involve the whole class, you might want to make a card together to give to the child, especially if they are away from school for a while. The grieving child may not fully understand what being dead means yet, so keep your words simple and reassuring.
When talking to children about death, keep the language simple and age appropriate. For example, instead of using the words ‘lost’ or ‘gone away’, which can confuse a child, do not be afraid to use the word ‘died’.
Primary school teachers can provide opportunities for the class to learn about death and the importance of expressing feelings. These are important lessons for the whole class, so the child will not feel embarrassed or singled out. Crafting, painting and drawing are also therapeutic and can focus a child’s attention. To enable children to explore their natural interest in death and ageing, a teacher can lay out natural objects for the children to examine, such as leaves, bark and small animal skeletons.
Home and school offer two different worlds for a child, but if they are connected by good communication, then the child will receive holistic child bereavement support. Schools are uniquely placed to offer support to the family of a bereaved child due to the amount of time the staff will be spending with the child. There are a number of ways in which a family may need the support of a school:
There are also other issues which may arise due to a family bereavement, such as financial problems, changes in housing, safety or mental health worries. A teacher can guide the family in the right direction with regards to these consequences, whether that is to a charity, local authority or school support.
A bereavement policy is important to have in a primary school, because using a planned response will mean that nothing is forgotten or overlooked. Teachers are also very busy, so it will reduce a teacher’s stress and save their precious time if they can access a policy.
The school bereavement policy covers how the school will respond to different scenarios and which member of staff will be responsible for communicating with the family. It also includes how ongoing child bereavement support will be provided.
Story books, activity books and scrapbooks are interactive and help young children to process big ideas and concepts. Books are also an enjoyable way to learn — the class will enjoy a teacher reading to them. Here are some of our favourites:
The local council will be able to direct you to local counselling services and support groups specifically for primary school children. The following organisations can also support the bereaved child and the school:
The National Children’s Bureau (Childhood Bereavement Network)
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