Bereavement in schools: When death happens

Written by: Alison Penny | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

To mark Children’s Grief Awareness Week – November 15 to 21 – Alison Penny considers how schools can be better prepared to support children who are coming to terms with the death of someone close

“I had to break the news to my form that a member of our class had died. I was devastated. They were too. I had little support to manage and was a new teacher. I have since fought for training, support and guidance but it’s still limited.”
Child Bereavement UK, 2018

Child Bereavement UK’s recent survey of more than 1,000 teachers (2018) found that while the majority had experienced a death within the school community, many felt ill-equipped to manage it.

Almost one in three respondents had experienced the death of a pupil at their school, and more than one in five had faced the death of a colleague. Almost three-quarters reported that pupils they taught had been affected by the death of someone important.

School is a key context for young people who are grieving the death of someone significant in their life. The death of a parent or sibling is often followed by many other changes at home, and school can provide support and continuity through these major upheavals and challenges.

But if bereavement goes unacknowledged and unsupported, school can worsen bereaved pupils’ feelings of isolation and unhappiness. Many of the adults bereaved as children interviewed recently by the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education for research commissioned by Winston’s Wish reported struggling with their own grief and others’ responses to it in school, and a lack of choice about how they were supported: “The children in the class didn’t know how to speak to me.” (McLaughlin et al, 2019a).

While many reported individual staff or peers who were kind and supportive, broader research highlighted a lack of a holistic, integrated responses from schools (McLaughlin et al, 2019b).

This is despite policy contexts across the UK that provide a strong underpinning for support for grieving pupils.

In Scotland, the Additional Support for Learning Act (2004) provides a statutory framework for providing pupils with the extra support they might need in the short or long-term to make the most of their school education.

In Northern Ireland, the draft Children and Young People’s Strategy places a specific emphasis on early intervention to support children and young people in difficulties. And in Wales, a joint Ministerial Task and Finish Group has been established to take forward a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing in schools.

In England, under Ofsted’s new Education Inspection Framework (2019), inspectors will evaluate the degree to which the curriculum and the school’s wider work support learners’ personal development – including their resilience, confidence and independence – and help them know how to keep physically and mentally healthy.

They will also make a judgement on leadership and management, including how the school culture promotes safeguarding arrangements which identify learners who may need early help.

While grief is a natural response to the death of someone close, and not a mental health problem in itself, it can be very disruptive to pupils’ experience at school and does increase the risk of mental health difficulties. All these policy frameworks highlight the importance of early support in responding when difficult events happen in pupils’ lives.

The Department for Education’s Mental health and behaviour in schools guidance (2018) states: “It is important that schools provide support to pupils at such times, including those who are not presenting any obvious issues. Providing early help is more effective in promoting the welfare of children than reacting later, and can also prevent further problems (including mental health problems) arising.”

Despite the policy focus, schools clearly struggle to meet the needs of many grieving pupils. Only a third of respondents to Child Bereavement UK’s survey felt that their school was equipped to manage a death when it happened in the school community. Almost half felt that training would help a school to prepare, but identified a number of barriers to accessing this, including budget (68 per cent), pressure on time (33 per cent), availability and awareness (10 per cent), and school priorities (seven per cent).

To help schools prioritise the holistic response recommended by research, the Childhood Bereavement Network is launching a resource during Children’s Grief Awareness Week, which runs from November 15 to 21. The theme for the week is “Lost for Words” – a phrase coined by educational psychologist Dr John Holland. The resource will support schools to think through how they would deal with bereavements in the school community, support grieving pupils and prepare young people to cope with loss and change.

It will signpost them to the excellent resources and training available to schools from local and national child bereavement organisations, and the additional support available to bereaved pupils and their families. Schools will be able to evidence how they are “Growing in Grief Awareness”, helping the whole school community to prepare for and manage the impact of death on their lives.

  • Alison Penny is coordinator of the Childhood Bereavement Network, which is part of the National Children’s Bureau.

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