Bereavement, grief and loss: supporting your school community

As schools prepare to welcome more young people back following the pandemic, Emma Pinnock, SEN Consultant, Essential Education Group, explains the importance of acknowledging their losses over the last few weeks and shares practical tips, strategies and resources for school leaders and teachers to consider

For the first time in this generation’s lifetime, the world is experiencing a collective loss which has taken many forms over the last couple of months. We have become familiar with the analogy of war and heard how this country – and others – have not experienced a change of this magnitude for a long time. This presents our schools with a unique challenge while offering an opportunity to understand the impact of loss in its broadest and deepest sense.

Throughout the history of education, there has been a variety of approaches to supporting the emotional experiences of pupils. From trauma-informed practice, to play therapy, to circle time; and yet there is still some way to go to support the mental health needs and experiences of our children. This is not to say that these approaches are ineffective, but is there an argument for a recovery curriculum (as suggested by Professor Barry Carpenter and Matthew Carpenter), a curriculum which engages in a journey to deep and lasting resilience in the face of sudden change and loss?

It is widely understood that grief and bereavement is a personal journey which requires a collective embrace of support; a complex learning curve which schools have often grappled with. However, to achieve a well measured and lasting response to bereavement, there needs to be an understanding of loss in its entirety; this collective loss should be understood from many angles.

The types of loss

Some people have experienced tangible and anticipatory losses, which include loss of loved ones, loss of income, or loss of experiences such as a family holiday. Some people have had a sense of loss: the loss of security, the loss of freedoms, the loss of normalcy. Others have experienced ambiguous loss (Pauline Boss 1978), the feeling of loss, which is not easily definable or understood, but it results in a grief response all the same.

How can schools start to prepare for the collective bereavement in their community?

With this complexity in mind, there are a few things to consider for leaders, teachers and children as schools start the journey into the new normal:

1. A willingness of leaders and teachers to embrace their own experiences and feelings of this time. Really asking yourself and each other, ‘How are you feeling?’

On a personal note, and as a leader in education, I have had to start the journey of understanding the impact of having a mild case of Covid-19 myself while also losing three loved ones to the virus. I feel that an honest reflection on how I am feeling is crucial for me as an individual, and in supporting the collective recovery of my school community.

Practically, this may require opportunities for a collective sharing of experiences and challenges. An enhanced or new culture of colleague-to-colleague support, asking the “How are you?“ question with an air of support and acceptance. Also, engaging with agencies such as the Education Support Partnership may provide the school community with the space and tools needed to approach such a sensitive subject.

Considerations for school leaders:

  • Is my school culture ready for a more open and honest personal dialogue?
  • If not, how can this be facilitated?
  • Who is best placed to support us in this journey?

2. How prepared do you need to be?

There is a case to be made for seeing how children return to school and another for being prepared for the very real impact of this time.

A multi-level response may be needed to ensure that the children who are showing obvious signs of distress, and those more reserved children, have equal, albeit differing support. It should also be recognised that many children will not have experienced any feeling of loss through this time and so knowledge of your school community and their individual experiences will ensure the right response level.

In my experience, play therapists can be a valuable resource to schools in these circumstances, skilfully working with the most impacted pupils and guiding play for the general school community. Access to services like Barnardo’s can also be a benefit to the school response.

Many schools have a nominated mental health lead or team who can co-ordinate the support needed. This may be led by the safeguarding lead or could be someone from the pastoral team, a senior leader or a member of the school community who has expertise in supporting young people through trauma.

Considerations for school leaders:

  • Who in my school community has the skills, training or aptitude to support the wellbeing of pupils and colleagues?
  • What may this role look like?
  • How can we incorporate this support in the short- and long-term vision of our school?

3. Be informed

Schools have been a hive of academic, social and emotional support to children for decades, but in the present circumstances, additional information and support is welcome. Child Bereavement UK – which offers training and resources to schools – highlights that being informed of the facts, acknowledging what has happened and offering a non-judgemental, open-minded ear can be key to supporting a bereaved pupil.

With this in mind, obtaining as much information about children’s experiences over the last few months, building a system of emotional check-ins, and ensuring that key staff are accessible to pupils will be a crucial step forward in recovering our nation’s schools.

Considerations for school leaders:

  • What information has been collected so far about pupils’ experiences?
  • Has consent to share the information been obtained?
  • How will this data be used to ensure a well-measured response?

With the limited time afforded to schools to reopen and implement the practical changes required to the school environment, it is safe to say that there will not be a perfect response to a recovery curriculum. However, a community centred, co-ordinated, reflective response of understanding, support and information can make all the difference to your school community and beyond.

Further information

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