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'Not enough teachers are trained to support a grieving child'

The loss of a loved one can truly damage a child and yet few schools have a bereavement policy, says Deborah Leek Bailey

Not enough teachers have had training in how to support bereaved pupils, says Deborah Leek-Bailey

The loss of a loved one can truly damage a child and yet few schools have a bereavement policy, says Deborah Leek Bailey

In recent years, the government has asked school leaders to pay particular attention to areas of deprivation or, as they call them, “cold spots”.

Teachers are predominantly compassionate, and those of us who have taught in challenging areas have always been acutely aware that our pupils might have an increased likelihood of unemployment, poorer educational outcomes, encounters with the youth justice system and, most worryingly of all, lower life expectancy.

We all fight daily to eradicate the perpetual inequality that results from being born in an area of high deprivation.

Add child bereavement into the mix and life becomes even more demanding for disadvantaged pupils. Yet many teachers still only have limited knowledge in how to support a pupil who is grieving.

Grief is normal and, with the right help and support, most children and young people will be changed, but not damaged, by what has happened. Bereavement is for life, and children will regrieve at different developmental stages as they grow older. Teachers must have an understanding of this, and adaptations should be made to how they plan and behave towards young people.

Cohesive systems and ongoing communication play a vital role in helping bereaved pupils feel supported and secure. Deprived areas are much less likely to have enough high-quality professional support and the services that do exist are often stretched financially. This means that bereaved children are more likely to remain trapped in a cycle of deprivation. This is unacceptable.

Research suggests that one in every 29 schoolchildren has been bereaved of a parent or sibling – that's a child in every class. In a sample of 11- to 16-year-olds, 78 per cent said they had lost a close relative or friend.

Yet a Child Bereavement UK (CBUK) survey indicated that fewer than 10 per cent of teachers had any bereavement training, with many noting their lack of confidence in addressing the subject of grief. Even fewer schools have a bereavement policy, despite death and grief being too emotive to address spontaneously.

Having been associated with CBUK as a trustee, I know that the way a school responds to bereaved young people has a lasting impact on them. Schools offer security, routine and respite from often emotionally charged home environments. Teachers recognise vulnerable pupils and, with the correct information, they can signpost other services to them.

Bereavement training for teachers

CBUK can offer support to schools through its schools’ training programme, national helpline and free online resources. They also intend to expand their offer of regional study days for staff”.

CBUK has long been perceived as a professional and ethical organisation, with a clear identity. The charity’s success in areas of deprivation has evolved from initial scoping exercises and analysis of the existing infrastructure. This is followed by sensitivity regarding supporting key stakeholders and acknowledging their values and expertise. CBUK also provides them with training and support. Undoubtedly, this makes schools' lives easier, when they need to refer a child, or family, for support. Being a collaborative charity is crucial, as it is often necessary to invest time over several years to fully integrate into the context of a locality.

Children and young people grieve just as deeply as adults, but they show it in different ways. How children grieve will depend on several factors, including their relationship with the person who died, the circumstances of the death, their developmental age and understanding of death, other experiences of loss, how others around them are grieving and the support they are offered.

Bereaved youngsters are reaching out for support. Last year CBUK received 6,276 calls to their helpline.

Just over 3,000 adults and children were supported by CBUK in the past financial year and 9,806 professionals received their bereavement training, with an additional 4,300-plus views of their films for school staff on the London Grid for Learning.

Whilst I recognise the demands currently placed on schools, it is vital that we continue to address the bereavement needs of all young people but especially those living in areas of deprivation, to avoid perpetuating inequality and limiting the potential of disadvantaged families.

Deborah Leek Bailey OBE is the director of DLB Leadership Associates Ltd

CBUK is the nominated Tes charity for the 2019 Independent School Awards. 

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