Supporting bereaved students

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It thought that 22,000 children suffer the loss of a parent every year in the UK ― one every 22 minutes. Mother-of-two Linda Aitchison, whose husband died in May, reports on how secondary schools can best meet the needs of these pupils and families

Your daughter is letting herself down by not concentrating in class,” a teacher told me at parents’ evening and I was lost for words.

Coming weeks on from losing my husband – her dad – this was the last thing I expected to hear. I mumbled something about how I disagreed and we continued to the next teacher. 

Thankfully this brief exchange, from a teacher who has now moved on, has been the exception rather than the rule. School support for us as a bereaved family has been exemplary. Before that, as we struggled to cope with six months of incurable cancer, the school played a key role in being there for my girls. 

For the first time in her school life, my daughter found herself on report. She swore in a lesson and put her feet on the desk. I understood she needed to be disciplined and I was grateful for the opportunity to talk this through with her teachers.

Most of all I was thankful for direct help by form tutors and the head of year. Even as my husband stayed in hospital and our home life was in turmoil, school remained a constant. As we continue to meet the realities of grief day-to-day, the understanding displayed by teachers brings me peace of mind.

On their return to school, my daughters were enrolled in weekly outward bound sessions where they took on physical challenges. Despite their shock, sadness and anger, they relished the activities. I believe this helped them develop an inner strength. 

Importantly, a bereavement counsellor from our local hospice regularly comes to see them in school – a place that is neutral and safe, allowing them to relax and talk freely. They have also benefited from time with an adult mentor employed by the school to discuss challenges they face. 

Sadly not all schools are as savvy. Bereavement counsellor Ann Scanlon explained: “Some support is fantastic while other schools could really do with some direction. 

“There is a huge gap in information following the child through the school and a perception that within a couple of months the child should have worked through their grief. I’d like to see basic counselling or listening skills included in initial teacher training.”

According to the leading childhood bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, 22,000 children suffer the loss of a parent every year in the UK. Helen Mackinnon, clinical services development leader with the charity, agrees it would be good to see a more strategic approach across the country, with more training. 

Winston’s Wish has been working with teachers ever since the charity was founded 20 years ago, with around 1,500 teachers ringing its helpline each year and 1,500 attending tailored training sessions. Ms Mackinnon believes that the charity’s work with schools is “absolutely vital”.

She explained: “Schools report that help from Winston’s Wish makes a big difference to the help available for children.

“The biggest thing schools should take on board is that they should be prepared for pupils to be affected by death and to have a plan in place for when this happens rather than being solely reactive. Panic can set in when there’s no plan in place, but with so many children losing a parent, death is something that affects us all.

“Situations can be complicated and on-going, such as helping when there has been a suicide in the family or the family has been living with a parent’s life-limiting illness. Winston’s Wish staff are available by phone and email to help support teachers helping children.  

“When appropriate and called upon by staff, they can come and support children in the wider school community. It’s very important for children to have someone they trust to be there for them and to be available to talk to and support them. 

“Teachers can do this by being tuned into bereaved children’s needs, recognising they need sensitivity and that their behaviour may be affected, such as not being able to concentrate for as long as usual or they may feel sad, lonely or angry.”

With our counsellor’s help, I have begun to understand that sadness may not be expressed in conventional ways such as crying. Teachers need to make sure they appreciate that erratic or out of character behaviour can begin with grief. Pupils can undergo a deep-rooted change in personality. They may lose all interest in school work, sports or activities that they previously loved. I now grasp that my daughters may say that they feel scared, angry or bored – all of these are ways that the achy grip of grief in the pit of their stomach can show itself.

Pupils may also feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness, suffering from anxiety that someone else in the family is now also more likely to die. If they feel like this then they may be concerned for their own fate and that of those closest to them.

Little wonder then that they may not concentrate all the time or be capable of sitting an exam. It is absolutely key that teachers work with children with compassion and understanding to help their journey through grief to help minimise a potentially catastrophic effect on academic prospects.

Teenagers often take things very personally so it may feel deeply unfair that this thing has happened to them. Feeling hard done by can make people cross and aggressive. Acknowledging that it is not fair, that it is hard, will help. I have also learned that, as adults, we should not assume a young person is coping well because they are not showing any signs of distress. A child who is bubbly and outgoing could be trying to cover their feelings up.

Nicky Crookshank, headteacher at my daughters’ school, Cheslyn Hay Sports and Community High School in Walsall, said: “We ensure that those staff who will be in close contact with the bereaved child, such as the head of year and tutor, work closely with the child and communicate with home and other school staff to ensure that things are dealt with in a sensitive manner.  

“It’s important that all staff are aware of close family bereavement so that they can deal sensitively with the children if they come in contact with them. This could just be in the corridor, at lunchtime or on the coach park.

“Staff awareness and sensitivity is vital. We also have three members of non-teaching staff that are trained in dealing with bereavement and, maybe more importantly, how to help children who have a terminally ill member of their family, as often support is needed not just after the person has died but in the months and weeks before.

“All children react differently to bereavement and their reactions and responses change during the bereavement process. By listening and carefully monitoring each child we are able to adapt the support we put in. 

“What we do find is that remaining consistent in our approaches and expectations helps all children as there is a sense of security. School has to be a place where students feel safe and they must know where to go if things go wrong.”

Ms Mackinnon added: “Support should go way beyond three, six or 12 months (after the death). Communication between primary and secondary schools is also very important and may be lacking. It’s important to recognise that when a child has lost a parent in their early years, reaching adolescence can be a time when grief returns. Teachers can play an important role in being there for them.

“Schools should also be aware of important anniversaries or milestones in a child’s grief. They should be aware of the date of a parent’s death and recognise that an anniversary may be a trigger for certain feelings or behaviour. They should be sensitive around dates such as Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day to take into account how they may have an impact on the child. 

“Showing you understand they have a right to feel like that while still upholding discipline when their behaviour towards others can be challenging.” 

Ms Scanlon, who works with Staffordshire’s St Giles Hospice, has the following advice for school staff: “Listen, don’t be worried that you will say the wrong thing. Most of the time they just want a listening ear. It’s empathy they need. They don’t normally like to be treated any different to the other children in the class although allowances should be in place if needs-be.

“Those allowances may be ‘time out’ cards, a specific member of staff they can go and talk to, or exemption from certain topics in the curriculum that they may presently not be able to cope – for example if in RE they’d be looking at the meaning of death.

“Understanding and guidance should be in place if they are falling behind with their school work or homework with no extra pressure on them to hand pieces in on time. 

“Children who are grieving sometimes have little energy or focus. Pass information on throughout the school. Don’t think that if the child suffers a bereavement in one year that they will be over it in the next. There is no time limit on grief.”

  • Linda Aitchison, who was recently widowed, is a writer and journalist and mother to 13-year-old twins. Linda blogs about bereavement issues at http://halfafuture.blogspot.co.uk

Further information
  • The Childhood Bereavement Network includes accounts from bereaved young people about how they would like to be helped at school, plus details of the Grief Matters campaign. Visit www.childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk
  • Winston’s Wish has a National Helpline available Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm. Call 08452 030405. It also offers professional tailored training, information packs and strategy documents. Visit www.winstonswish.org.uk
  • Cruse Bereavement Care offers information for schools. Visit www.cruse.org.uk
 
 




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