Why education professionals have the skills to support bereaved pupils

By Tracey Boseley, Child Bereavement UK's Head of Education Sector Support

Education professionals are often surprised to learn they already have the main skills they need - compassion, listening skills and humanity

Education professionals who attend our training sessions frequently tell us they feel ill-equipped to support bereaved pupils in their school. Yet they’re often surprised to learn they already have the main skills they need - compassion, listening skills and humanity. Our job is simply to help them to recognise this and to understand the grieving process so that they can use these skills to best effect.

Many people fear saying the wrong thing to a bereaved pupil, or they blame themselves if their words cause an emotional reaction. Unfortunately, adults can therefore feel reluctant to say anything at all, and this can be misinterpreted by a grieving pupil thinking that nobody knows what has happened, or worse still, no one cares. 

For many bereaved pupils, simply being at school with its familiar surroundings and routines can be enough at a time when home life may be emotionally charged and difficult. Trusted adults such as teachers, teaching assistants and other professionals in school, are well placed to provide support that can really help young people to manage their grief. 

It can be difficult for a pupil to find the right words to speak about a person who has died. Many professionals prefer to wait until the pupil says something, but this places a lot more responsibility on the bereaved young person. It is important to acknowledge the death. Of course, a pupil may prefer not to talk about it, but can feel very reassured to have the option.  

Although it can be tempting to distract them from intense feelings, it is so much more supportive to allow them a safe space to express these emotions. It can help to let them know that everyone grieves differently, that there is no ‘right’ way to grieve. As children grow and mature, they may need to revisit their grief as their understanding of death develops. 

Put simply, supporting a bereaved pupil isn’t about grand gestures or staged interventions. Just offering little choices can help a grieving young person feel a sense of gaining some control in a life that feels very much out of control. Offering meaningful support can be as straightforward as checking in with a pupil regularly, giving time out when needed, listening to them and asking what they need, making space for a pupil to talk about their feelings, or helping them to organise their school day in a way that makes it a positive experience.  

Little acts of kindness can be significant to a bereaved young person. One pupil told us that a teacher making subtle eye contact in assembly to show they were thinking of them meant so much. Children and young people may not tell you directly that what you’re doing is helpful, but you will be making a difference.

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