On pain of death

Steve Harris discusses how to manage unusually disruptive behaviour when a pupil is grieving
4th January 2013, 12:00am


On pain of death


When I run courses to help schools deal with pupil bereavement it’s never long before someone raises the question of behaviour.

Some are theoretical questions but other cases carry more urgency - such as the child who had spent a year in a downward and destructive cycle of behaviour. When challenged about his violent and disruptive actions he had been able to escape all sanctions by saying defiantly: “My dad died”.

No two people experience bereavement in the same way and there is no one perfect approach. But bereavement can affect a child’s behaviour, and understanding this can help you enormously in providing the right structure to support the child and their peers through turbulent times.

There are three types of behaviour to look out for: unacceptable, which includes disruption, violence or behaviour that contravenes normal school rules; regression, where the child retreats to behaviour from a younger age when they perceived life to be more secure; and childhood depression, where expert help may be needed.

Although potentially the most challenging, aggressive behaviour is the easiest to advise on.

Bereavement may give rise to powerful “out-of-character” feelings in pupils, which may lead to challenging behaviour. But it is not in anyone’s interest to move the boundaries and make allowances for them. The grieving child needs the security and stability provided by a clear set of expectations. Classmates need to see that fairness still applies, lest perceptions of special treatment lead to wider challenges to authority or even victimisation of the bereaved child. Staff also need to maintain their position of authority.

But what can, and often should, change is the manner in which unacceptable behaviour is dealt with. There should still be sanctions, but they can be applied with extra sensitivity.

Encourage the situation to cool down before trying to resolve it. Allow more time to have a calm conversation in which the pupil can express themselves fully. Be especially gentle with your tone of voice. Consider whether the sanction can be tweaked to be less harsh.

Allow the child to express how they feel and be clear with them that those feelings are natural. For example, a child may feel angry. Reassure them that this is understandable. What is not acceptable is taking this anger out on others.

If a child’s behaviour improves you may want to praise them for this, but be wary of encouraging them to repress their feelings. “You’re doing really well” is often not helpful as it carries the expectation of a linear improvement, consisting largely of feeling and behaving “normally”.

The second set of behaviour changes - regression - where a child reverts to thumb sucking, baby talk, bed-wetting or general immaturity is sometimes distressing to witness.

This is a natural response, with other normal reactions including tiredness, lack of concentration, becoming withdrawn or changeable and temporarily falling off in their schoolwork.

Grief is exhausting, and many children have short “breaks” from it. It is important not to interpret a few minutes of happy play as a sign that the child is “getting over it”. Grief can be a roller coaster and some children experience guilt after “time off”. If they express this you can help by reassuring them this is normal. Some children experience denial or numbness in the weeks after a bereavement. Again, it is important for them to understand that all these feelings are part of a range of normal reactions.

Regressive behaviours should be tolerated rather than corrected and in most cases will resolve themselves in time. They should never be treated as naughtiness.

The third category of behaviour, however, may require professional support. Depression can be a natural part of the grieving process but some people can become stuck in these emotions. If you have any concerns about the intensity or duration of any grief, seek professional advice or direct the family towards help.

There is a clear link between childhood bereavement and the increased risk of negative outcomes for pupils, and it may be many years later before some of the associated behaviours are displayed.

Finally, be aware that bereaved children are at greater risk of being bullied and of exhibiting bullying behaviour. Schools can help by providing guidance and support to the pupil’s peers and ensuring staff are vigilant and able to handle such behaviour sensitively. Playground staff in particular need to know about special circumstances.

As with many aspects of bereavement in school, a lack of confidence or fear of making it worse can lead to avoiding the simple, honest and direct approach that can stop many problems growing. Unaddressed, these issues can lead to a frightened child running amok and reiterating their central unresolved problem: “My dad died”.

Steve Harris runs courses throughout England to help schools prepare for times of bereavement. www.wellbeingeducation.co.uk steve@wellbeingeducation.co.uk.

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