A Year 6 teacher in my school died suddenly

A Year 6 teacher in my school died suddenly. How can we best help distressed pupils to cope when a significant adult dies?

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email: dear.ted@tes.co.uk

Ted says

A bereavement is a terrible event for anyone, let alone young children. It is not just the loss of someone close, it is the reminder of people's own inescapable mortality.

This case has the additional trauma of sudden death, so the utmost care and sensitivity is essential. Even children from a religion which preaches eternal life, or death as a beginning not an end, will find it hard to bear.

Children need various kinds of help, depending on their age and personality. Some may conceal their fear or grief and suffer inside themselves, while others may cry openly, or look distressed. Letting them talk about the teacher in a way that expresses and eases their emotions, rather than heightens them, can be positive. If children are old enough, talking about death can help: emphasise that today's children will probably live to be 100, that many people believe death is not the end.

helplessness can often be overcome a little if children do something - create a memorial corner, put up a plaque, take part in a service of remembrance, write to the teacher's family, produce a book of memories, plant a tree. One of the regional winners of last year's Teaching Awards, a teacher new to the profession, was superb at finding positive ways of grieving for a secondary class that had lost one of its members.

For any children who find the event too traumatic, you could investigate bereavement counselling. One long-standing charity, Cruse Bereavement Care, has a special "helping children" section on its website, www.crusebereavementcare.org.uk. It also has a 24-hour telephone helpline: 0870 167 1677. The London Bereavement Centre's website (www.bereavement.org.uk) has contact details for the London area.

You say

Keep memories alive

Recognise the shock and grief by holding an early assembly. Light a candle, have a minute's silence. Later, plan a special assembly of remembrance with opportunities for pupils to contribute if they wish.

Give the children time to talk and answer questions honestly. Accept tears and acknowledge that you are upset too. It is not callous to be aware that this can be a valuable opportunity for learning and personal growth for the pupils. Do not be shocked if children act out scenes of death. This is part of the process of coming to terms with it. And do not be shocked if a pupil resents the attention the event is getting and behaves badly or expresses resentment.

Find opportunities to help parents understand that the shock to their children may not be immediate, and a pupil might need particular understanding or even professional help some time after. Acknowledge that parents can also be upset and will want to talk. Make it easy for pupils to attend the funeral if this is what the family wishes.

In the longer term, consider if there should be something permanent in the school - a tree, plaque, or other memorial appropriate to the interests of the person who has died.

Continue to talk about the dead person in a matter of fact way. ("Mrs Jones was very good at that," or "You would have done that when you were in Mr Smith's class.") If there are photos around the school, ensure that the dead person continues to be represented in them.

Keep in mind that it is the person's relatives who are primarily bereaved. Help the children to understand how they may gain comfort by finding ways to support the family through thoughts, prayers, messages. However sad we feel, not all the school community will feel the same. Our job is still to maintain a degree of detachment and provide a framework of routine and work, in a way which is supportive to all pupils.

Ruth Fawcett, email

Just get on with it

For God's sake, you'd think this generation had invented death. Significant adult? Lord help us. This mawkish preoccupation with the second most natural thing in the world is worrying. You do what everybody else does - buy some Kleenex, have a good cry and get on with your lives. Above all, don't pander to socially constructed neuroses.

Chris Haughton, email

Children will come to terms with loss

Children are extremely adaptable - often more so than we give them credit for. In such a sad situation, they will want to write about their memories of the teacher and may want to put on a special assembly in which they read their work to the school. They may want a small but permanent memorial.

By the time they reach Year 6, many children will have some knowledge or experience of situations involving death, but families tend to treat the subject in a variety of ways, some shielding their children from it and others being open and straightforward. It would be helpful for a senior member of staff to discuss the topic of death and perhaps the circumstances surrounding the loss of the teacher with the class. The children could well have questions, and a sensitive but straightforward approach could be beneficial. Having said this, the children will quickly accept a new teacher and adapt accordingly, and although the children should retain fond memories of their previous teacher, the loss shouldn't be dwelt upon unnecessarily.

Primary head, south London

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