Supporting Grieving Kids through the Back-to-School transition

By Isabella Simantov

Transitions for children and adolescents who have experienced a loss can present various challenges. Returning to school following a long school holiday can bring up a range of feelings and emotions for all students. Some students might be excited to return to school, whilst others might be apprehensive. In all the chaos at the start of the new school year, children who are grieving the loss of a parent or sibling may be overlooked. Grief is an ongoing experience and does not end at a fixed point. The challenges that a loss presents to a child are constantly changing and ordinary transitions may serve as a reminder of their loss.

The beginning of a new school year is a crucial time for both education professionals and parents to learn ways to help support grieving students through this period.

  • Grieving children may be more vulnerable at times of transition

At the start of the school year children are adjusting to new teachers, new classmates and a new classroom. The return to school may result in grief resurfacing until the student is able to find their feet in a new environment with potentially increasing academic pressure. Children who were bereaved during the holidays may find it particularly challenging being absent from the security of their loved ones who know and understand their experience. On the other hand, some children may find that school feels like respite from the intensity of family grief. Acknowledge feelings of isolation during this time and recognise that social isolation as a result of COVID-19 is likely to have exaggerated children’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

  • The importance of a caring adult

A grieving child’s class teacher and a parent/caregiver both play a crucial role in supporting their transition back into the school environment. The first step a parent/caregiver should take is notifying the school or class teacher that their child has experienced a major loss. It is likely that a child’s school experience and certain behaviours are affected by the loss they’ve experienced so it is important for their teacher to know certain details. Similarly, a teacher can show support by reaching out early in the year to the parent/caregiver to find out how to best support the student in their transition. Once school has begun, it may be helpful for the teacher to acknowledge to the student that they are aware of the circumstances. By showing the student that they’re available to talk or listen, this simple but very supportive gesture will make the student feel more comfortable.

  • Create an inclusive environment

As a teacher, it is important to allow children to take some time when they are overwhelmed. It is helpful to devise a plan with the child for when things become overwhelming, such as five minutes in the book corner, drink of water, touching a piece of the natural world (flower, leaf etc.). It is also important that teachers strive to create an inclusive environment by selecting language such as “an adult you know and trust”, rather than “mum” or “dad”. Some students do not have a parent to turn to for certain homework activities or tasks to complete.

  • Truth and honesty in communication

Make yourself available to have open, clear and judgement free conversations with your child or student, facilitating their expression of their thoughts and feelings about returning to school. It is important for a parent/caregiver to provide the child with age-related facts related to the death of a loved one no matter what the age of the child. If children do not have access to the truth, they will create their own or hear distorted versions. Furthermore, it may also be helpful to share with your child what information has been communicated with their teacher.

  • Rewards

Even though starting a new school year may be daunting for bereaved children, providing them with something to look forward to at the end of each day is a simple and inexpensive way of praising them for being brave. Rewards may include playing their favourite game, fun activities 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.

  • Supporting adolescents

Many grieving adolescents enter an environment where fewer people are likely to know about their loss. Some adolescents may feel relieved that they are able to “start over” without any label, whilst others may feel that they are lacking compassionate support. It is important to navigate together what they would find most helpful and how this can be achieved. As adolescents mature, they may also become more capable of understanding their loss and how this has impacted both them and their family. After a death, teens may hesitate to move forward with plans, and this may result in feelings of apprehension to start a new school year. The support of a trusted teacher or parent is invaluable as adolescents transition into their final years of school and begin to plan and consider their future.