Dr Poppy Gibson and Danielle Eglinton
Grief, defined as the emotional response to loss, is a process rather than an event. Children and young people still experience loss, they still grieve, but they may show it in different ways and not fully have the language toolkit to verbalise how they are feeling. As a result of suffering with grief, children’s behaviours may manifest in a range of ways, including an impact on their academic work, poor self-esteem and reduced confidence, and if left unmanaged, sadly includes a greater risk of suicide in later life. Some symptoms that may be observed in a grieving child include anger, being clingy, regression to past behaviours, sleep problems, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Research shows that children who lose a parent, therefore, are at risk for not only negative mental health issues, such as depression, PTSD or anxiety, but also due to their reduced self-esteem and lower academic outcomes may find solace in other risky behaviours. This article considers how grief can affect learning for children who have experienced bereavement in the family and how educators can support this in the classroom.
Strategies to support a child in school with grief and loss
Young children may feel confused about what death means, or think that death is temporary, therefore, they could believe that people are able to come back. Though it can be upsetting, it is important for children to feel comfortable, safe and encouraged to have these discussions with adults and be open with their thoughts and feelings. Bottling up these emotions may lead to difficulties in adult life so it is important that children feel supported and equipped to express their emotions and deal with grief in the future.
Talking to children who are bereaved, or are about to experience death, may be challenging and daunting, but this is the main strategy to support a child in school. In addition to family members and counselors, it can help a child to talk about the person who’s died to an educator. “Direct, honest and open communication is more helpful than trying to protect a child by hiding the truth”. Use vocabulary to make sure that the child understands exactly what has happened, without including too many traumatic details. It is important to use simple words that are suitable for their age. Make sure to use the word “dead” and make sure that the child understands what that means, and ask questions to check their understanding. Avoid using phrases such as “ loss,” “sleeping” and “gone to a better place”.
Some picture books that may be a useful talking stimulus include:
Lost in the Clouds: A gentle story to help children understand death and grief (Difficult Conversations for Children) by Tom Tinn-Disbury
The Dragonfly Story: Explaining the death of a loved one to children and families by Kelly Owen
Till We Meet Again: A children’s book about death and grieving by Julie Muller
Children of different ages may react differently so it is important to listen and not assume anything about how a child is feeling or thinking. Be prepared for children to move in and out of grief as they are likely to revisit their grief as they grow older. Like everyone, they want honesty, to be given choice, and opportunities to share their feelings. Allow children to feel included and let them ask questions, and answer them as best as you can, honestly. Lastly, it is important to reassure the child that it is not their fault.
Additional things an educator can do:
Make time in lesson planning to focus on children’s mental health and circle times. Circle times are a great strategy to role model talking and expressing feelings, or having ‘worry monsters’ cuddly toys, where the child can write their worry down and put in the monster’s zip mouth to ‘eat it’- or simply whisper their worry to the toy.
It is important for schools to have communication with families and be willing and open to making a referral to an outside agency.
Some further recommended reading:
We all deal with grief and loss in different ways. The most important thing you can do as an educator is encourage your pupils to speak up and speak out about how they are feeling. Ensure your classroom is a safe space for those difficult conversations to be brought up without fear. Role model talking about emotions, and the rest may follow.
Danielle’s bio: Danielle is currently on a pathway to become a primary school teacher. Her key research interests include mental health, focusing on children in care and adoption.