When death affects a school

15th May 2009 at 01:00
All secondary pupils should have access to a grief counsellor by 2011, government decides

Discussing death - even with young children - should not be a taboo subject in the classroom, a grief counsellor who works with schools said this week.

Valerie Taylor, who works for Carmarthenshire Youth and Children's Association, said it was healthy for teachers to talk to children about dying outside personal and social education (PSE) lessons.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, nearly every school in the UK has pupils who have lost a parent. And the recent very public death of TV reality star Jade Goody has been used by bereavement and cancer charities to show how cathartic it can be to discuss terminal illness and death.

Under the Assembly government's new strategy, by 2011 all secondary pupils will have access to a counsellor trained in grief management. Some counsellors will have extra training in specific issues, such as suicide, but there is no parallel scheme for primary schools.

Ms Taylor said it was not usually necessary to refer pupils to specialist counsellors, but teachers needed to be more aware of how they broached death and how to negotiate the boundaries when discussing the subject with young children.

In Wales, bereavement does not need to be tackled explicitly in PSE lessons or assemblies as part of the curriculum. But, according to Ms Taylor, most schools do provide collective mourning if there has been a death in their community.

"Emotional wellbeing is an important part of the curriculum," she said. "Teachers are supposed to be aware of these issues and the grief process, although it is difficult to know where to draw the line between what is their normal teaching job and counselling."

The new official guidance on emotional health, which is under consultation, says teachers should not be afraid to show their own grief if they have lost a loved one.

But Ms Taylor said teachers who had recently lost a close relative should be careful how they approached the subject, especially if it had an impact on their own grief.

"Trained counsellors are advised not to deal with traumatic issues when they have recently gone through that particular problem, but there is no such safety net for teachers," said Ms Taylor.

She said all teachers should be able to tell when bereaved pupils needed help: "The signs that it has become a serious problem may be that the child has become very reserved, or reluctant to come to school. There may be information that has come from the family - the child may not be sleeping well."

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