Best Practice

Top 10 tips for... Supporting bereaved pupils

All primary schools will have to support children who have experienced loss and bereavement. Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers some ideas and advice


Many people express fear at the idea of supporting a child who has experienced a significant loss or bereavement and feel this should be the realm of the specialist.

While in some cases a child may need specialist input, in most cases death and grieving is a very natural and normal process and most adults are very capable of supporting children and young people at this difficult time. Here are a few pointers to help build your confidence and ideas.


1, Say it simply

When it comes to death and dying, as adults we seem to go to incredible lengths to avoid saying what we actually mean. The use of idioms and euphemisms can be confusing for children of all ages and abilities, but especially for those with SEN or younger children. It sends a strong message that death and dying is not something we talk about. This can make the topic seem off-limits at the very moment when a young person most needs to talk about it.

Get it right by: Using simple, concrete language such as the words “death”, “dead” and “dying”.


2, Make their world predictable

At a time when it feels like a lot has changed, considering what steps you can take to help a student’s world feel a little more predictable and within their control can be deeply reassuring for them. Familiar faces, spaces and routines will all bring comfort and listing out the things that have stayed the same can be a source of reassurance.

Get it right by: Identifying trigger moments in the student’s regular routine where the absence will be most keenly felt (“Dad always picked me up from football on Tuesdays”) and pre-emptively explore a “new normal” for these moments.


3, Validate ALL feelings

Grief is a perfectly natural process, and it is normal for children and young people to work through a whole range of different feelings as they grieve. You might observe that they seem happy one moment and down the next. This fluctuation is perfectly typical and noticing, acknowledging and providing a safe space for the young person to explore these feelings can support the grieving process.

Ways a young person might explore their feelings could include:

  • Making or listening to music.
  • Drawing how they feel.
  • Talking to a person or pet.
  • Noticing and naming their feelings.
  • Imagining how their favourite character would feel.
  • Making a playlist of songs that reflect how they feel.
  • Journaling (see further information for some grief and loss journal prompts).


4, Accept anger

Anger is among the feelings that we naturally work through when grieving. Like other emotions, we need to acknowledge and validate a young person’s anger and explore some safe ways to enable them to feel and explore these feelings. Anger needs to feel heard. If we ignore it, it will make itself heard at times we least want or expect it.


5, Tricky moments plan

Putting together a plan to support a young person at tricky moments can make them feel a lot more confident about returning to business as usual at school. You could work with the child to create a simple plan outlining:

  • Warning signs: What signs adults might notice if the child is feeling overwhelmed.
  • What helps: List the things that the young person finds helpful in tricky moments.
  • Please don’t: Be clear about what makes things worse. Many people will unwittingly do exactly the wrong things when trying to help unless they are explicitly told what to do and what not to do.
  • What next: Include a little guidance as to potential next steps if the ideas in the tricky moments plan aren’t enough to enable the young person to continue with their day.


6, Generate joy

Look for moments of joy and laughter and give the young person permission to laugh and smile. This can feel difficult if the adults around them are very sombre; but it is normal and healthy to feel a wide range of different feelings.

Get it right by: Leaning into laughter if it happens naturally or specifically exploring funny pictures or memories with the child.


7, Cathartic crying

It is also okay to cry. Some young people will feel that they need to be strong and not cry or show emotional “weakness”. They may have been praised for putting on a brave face. But it is normal and healthy to cry and crying can feel incredibly cathartic. Give them permission to cry by talking about your own experience of crying and when you have found it helpful and/or by providing a safe place where they can cry.


8, Work with worries

A bereaved child may be carrying a lot of worries around with them. In order for them to be able to engage with the day-to-day of school, these worries will need to be appropriately managed. My go-to here is my trusty old “share it, shelf it, shout it, shed it” technique which I hope you will find helpful too:

  • Share it: Talk, write or draw about your worries. Get them out of your head and into the world.
  • Shelf it: If now is not a good time for exploring a worry, shelf it for later – make an appointment with worry.
  • Shout it: Sometimes we need to run, jump, shout or scream to try and get rid of the fizzing, bubbling, worry feelings.
  • Shed it: Some worries are not a child’s to carry. Adult worries should be passed onto an adult to worry about – that’s our job.


9, What was left unsaid?

When someone has died, there can sometimes be a feeling that there is unfinished business and words that went unsaid. It can be helpful to explore ways to enable these loose ends to feel a little more tied up. This could include:

  • Writing a letter to the person who died sharing the things you wish you’d said (you could also write a letter back to yourself imagining how they might have responded).
  • Talk to their picture.
  • Play a song they liked and imagine having a conversation with them while it plays.


10, Keep and make memories

When someone has died, they always remain with us in our memories of them. It can be helpful, therefore, to find ways to record and treasure memories of someone we have lost. This could include:

  • Making a scrapbook.
  • Creating a jar full of memory notes.
  • Making a box of momentos.
  • Voice recording special moments.
  • Writing a journal using memory prompts (e.g. our best ever day, things that made us laugh, things that make me think of you…).
  • Painting pebbles with memories and putting them in special places.


Final thought

Hopefully, these ideas will have made you feel a little more able to support a child or young person through the process of grief. Remember; while you cannot make this journey for them, you can prevent them from having to make it alone. Good luck.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. Follow her on Twitter @PookyH, find her previous articles via or visit



Further information & resources

Grief and loss journal prompts: A pdf download resource from Dr Pooky Knightsmith: