As schools and colleges resume after the summer holiday, one issue is certain. With a child bereaved of a parent every 22 minutes in the UK, many teachers will be faced with supporting a grieving child or young person. The Child Bereavement UK report (2018) found that 90 per cent of teachers receive no training in this area, so it is hardly surprising that teachers report low confidence in dealing with death in the school community (McManus & Paul, 2019). Teachers at every level care about learning and know that loss and grief in children and young people have an impact on educational progress (Elsner et al., 2021). Equipping teachers with approaches to supporting grieving pupils is essential, not only to provide much-needed support at a challenging time, but also to ensure that children remain engaged with their learning over time. Drawing on my recent research, when faced with a grieving child or young person, there is a need to ‘just say something!’.
My research project involved close collaboration with the charity Child Bereavement UK. In total, 167 trainee teachers participated in bereavement awareness sessions alongside their intensive initial teacher education (ITE) programme, with 113 trainee teachers providing detailed and insightful feedback on the professional learning opportunity. Participants appreciated the high-quality bereavement awareness training, facilitated by expert practitioners in the field. As one participant commented:
‘I loved the deep dive into the questioning side of bereavement – not only figuring out the best way to ask and engage with the bereaved student, but also how to answer questions relating to death and bereavement from curious students.’
Participants welcomed the training session, targeted at their specific career stage, as well as the follow-up information which instilled confidence about ongoing support, including ‘where you could access resources … in the future’. The importance of expert and tailored professional development, complemented by support from ITE tutors, cannot be underestimated in this sensitive area. Indeed, 97 per cent of respondents agreed that such bereavement awareness training should be compulsory for trainee teachers.
Trainee teachers do not work in isolation and their comments echoed concerns about the need for schools to have a bereavement policy and training for teachers on how to support bereaved children and young people in the short- and longer term: ‘As well as providing important social networks and stability … (schools) are well placed to provide ongoing support through the emotional and practical challenges of a bereavement’ (UK Commission on Bereavement, 2022, p. 14). However, in spite of being well placed to offer valuable support, all too often schools develop a thorough policy only as a reactive response to a challenging bereavement situation (McManus & Paul, 2019; Rowling & Holland, 2000). Analysis of responses from a small group of school leaders highlighted the need to explore issues of death, bereavement and grief within school communities, both as a pastoral and curriculum issue, with the support of an informed and carefully structured policy. Remaining silent should not be an option – talking, learning and a whole-school approach to encountering bereavement is vital.
‘Remaining silent should not be an option – talking, learning and a whole-school approach to encountering bereavement is vital.’
And finally … ‘Just say something!’
‘Just say something!’ emerged as a key learning point from the bereavement awareness sessions, as the trainee teachers felt more equipped and empowered to respond to a grieving child or young person. This was emphasised by one of the participants who had been bereaved of a parent as a primary school pupil. Her honest and heartfelt testimony should encourage ITE providers, school leaders and policymakers to ensure that all teachers receive bereavement awareness training as part of their professional learning.
To support ITE providers, the outcomes of the research have led to a tailored 1.5-hour online session for trainee teachers, available via Child Bereavement UK from September 2023.
Anna Lise Gordon is planning a bereavement in schools symposium in 2024 with researchers, practitioners and policymakers. If you are interested in contributing to the event, please contact: email@example.com.
This is not just a UK concern. More research is needed, with colleagues internationally, to broaden the debate and share learning about how best to support schools in their work around death, grief and bereavement.
Child Bereavement UK. (2018). Improving bereavement support in schools. https://www.childbereavementuk.org/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=fa7a443b-636d-4238-af12-accedec84419
Elsner, T., Krysinska, K., & Andriessen, K. (2021). Bereavement and educational outcomes in children and young people: A systematic review. School Psychology International, 43(1), 55–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/01430343211057228
McManus, E., & Paul, S. (2019). Addressing the bereavement needs of children in school: An evaluation of bereavement training for school communities. Improving Schools, 22(1), 72–84. https://doi.org/10.1177/1365480219825540
Rowling, L., & Holland, J. (2000). Grief and school communities: The impact of social context, a comparison between Australia and England. Death Studies, 24(1), 35–50. https://doi.org/10.1080/074811800200685
UK Commission on Bereavement. (2022). Bereavement is everyone’s business. https://bereavementcommission.org.uk/ukcb-findings/