Returning to school following a significant loss can bring up a range of feelings and emotions for bereaved children.
The absence of security from loved ones is a common fear. On the other hand, some children may find that the return to school feels like respite from the intensity of family grief.
No matter how they are feeling or what they are experiencing, returning to school is an adjustment that you can navigate together.
Notify the school
It is important that the school is aware of the circumstances prior to your child’s return to school, so they can help support your child during this time.
Informing the school that your child has experienced a significant loss may be a difficult task to do as a parent, and you may want to ask a close friend or family member to contact the school for you or join you during the conversation as a support person.
Involve the class teacher
The class teacher will often play a crucial role in supporting a bereaved child’s transition back into the school environment. Acknowledging to the child that they are aware of the death is a simple, although very supportive gesture.
Letting the child know that they’re available to talk or listen at any time will also make them feel more comfortable adjusting back to school.
Other strategies for teachers:
- Create an inclusive environment throughout the school year, but be particularly mindful on days such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Involve them in decision making, such as asking if they would like to participate in the craft activities and stalls related to these days, rather than assuming they would rather not attend. Use language that is sensitive and appropriate to all students, such as “a parent or caregiver”, rather than “mum” or “dad”.
- Make yourself available to have open and judgement free conversations.
- Be flexible with schoolwork and homework, as grieving children might have difficulties with their memory and concentration.
- normal school routines and classroom structures, as consistency in the child’s environment is crucial to maintaining their sense of psychological safety at school.
Access support from the school
If support from the school is available for your child, such as wellbeing or psychological support, it may be beneficial tuse these services.
The return to school following a significant loss is a daunting and overwhelming experience for many children. IIt is important to facilitate support for your child to express their thoughts, worries, and feelings with a qualified mental health professional. The school may also be involved in working on a plan with you to ensure your child’s return to school is as smooth and comfortable as possible.
Involve your child in a back-to-school plan
Including your child in a back-to-school plan will allow them to feel more comfortable and at ease with the transition. Examples of ideas for the back-to-school plan include:
- Taking some time out in a safe space when they are feeling overwhelmed, such as five minutes in the book corner or a drink of water.
- Going outside for some fresh air when they are feeling sad or upset, with a dedicated area they are allowed to go agreed in advance.
- Bringing a special toy or object to school or using a fidget item in the classroom.
- Academic modifications, such as reduced homework load or extra time to complete assignments.
Strategies for parents
Some children may not want to return to school, which will present various challenges for you as a parent. Here are some examples of strategies you could implement:
- Provide your child with something to look forward to at the end of each day. This is a simple and inexpensive way of praising them for being brave. Rewards may include playing their favourite game after school or a soothing back tickle before bed.
- It may be helpful for bereaved children to take a familiar or soothing object to school to hold when they feel sad or anxious. This could be something that helps them feel connected to their loved one who died.
- Use language that makes it clear you expect the child to go to school (e.g., ‘when you go to school today’ not ‘if you go to school today’).
- Try and explore why the child doesn’t want to go to school. There could be many reasons, such as feeling embarrassed, feeling like their friends will treat them differently, worries that they will be bullied, or fear about leaving the remaining parent alone. Uncovering the ‘why’ behind the behaviour is the first step to helping children address these concerns in healthy ways that don’t involve avoiding school.
Whilst returning to school following a significant loss is a major transition for bereaved children, there are also many other changes that children navigate following the death of a loved one.