How home and school can work together to provide tailored support to a grieving child

by Rachel Tegg, Bereavement Services Regional Lead - South, Child Bereavement UK

Just as with adults, no two children grieve in the same way and each needs a personalised approach to support.

It is frequently said that children and young people have different learning styles; teachers often differentiate the way they present a topic to meet the needs of all children in their class. Similarly, children and young people all have different ways of grieving - just as with adults, no two children grieve in the same way and each needs a personalised approach to support.

Tailoring support in school to the personality and needs of a child is about schools and families working together to give children what they need to effectively manage their grief in their own way. For instance, if a child isn’t a big talker, then asking them to talk about their grief for an hour can be daunting for them. However, by finding out what interests them and comforts them and giving them choices, it is possible to help a child find ways to express and manage their grief in a way that suits them, for instance through drawing or writing a story. 

For some bereaved children, school will be a constant in their life and a place of security and consistency. Before they return to school, it can be helpful for the child and their parent or carer to meet with someone within the school to talk about what support would look like for them in an ideal world, and to agree with the child and their family what school can make possible. 

A positive, ongoing dialogue between home and school can be really helpful as parents are likely to have a good understanding of what their child understands/has been told about what has happened and what they find comforting. Teachers can then explore how this can be transferred to the school setting in a way that meets the child’s needs, while also respecting school boundaries in terms of behaviour and safeguarding. The family may, for example, say that their child finds listening to music soothing. While having their phone in the playground or listening to music in class might not be appropriate, the school may be able to offer the child a designated place to listen to music if they feel stressed or upset.

It can be useful for the family, child and school to explore together ways to tailor their support, for instance looking at how a child can indicate to their teacher that they need time out from the classroom. For some children I have supported, the strategy of putting a 'time out' card on their teacher’s desk so that they can allow them to leave the class for a moment, works well. Other children however can worry that others will notice their card and be aware of them leaving the classroom. When supporting some children, we have devised a system whereby the teacher gives them three pens - red, amber and green - which the child can use to discreetly indicate how they are feeling and if they need to leave. 

What works for a child isn’t set in stone and their needs may change over time. It’s important for school staff to check in regularly with the child and their family to ensure that the school is offering what the child needs if they need additional support - is there anything that needs to change? Is there anything that has been tried but that isn’t working?

Equally if the child says they don’t want any support, just leave the door open and let them know that though they don’t want to talk now, you’re there for them, when and if they do want to. So much of tailoring support is about talking to the child and their family and, in some cases, waiting for the child to be ready.

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