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The unmet needs of childhood loss and bereavement in schools

Posted on: May 19, 2020

Amanda Seyderhelm shares the story behind her new book Helping Children Cope with Loss and Change.

Book Cover

Through several years of treating children in Primary Schools and in my own clinical practice, a pattern has emerged that brings everything children are experiencing into focus – loss is central to their emotional struggle.

The causes of loss are countless – whether it is the grief of bereavement, the strain of divorce or the uncertainty of a new home or school – the trauma of this sense of loss together with the deepest longing for belonging would always be at the center of their pain.

Childhood bereavement statistics from Child Bereavement UK show that 1 child in every classroom in the UK has experienced a loss of some sort. Grief for a child feels lonely, isolating and bewildering, so it’s no wonder that the impact of this loss often leads to challenging behaviour in and out of the classroom.

My work as a Play Therapist uses therapeutic play and story to give children a way of exploring their feelings. This method creates a safe space between the carer and child, without the need for asking direct questions. By engaging in a child’s natural language of play and metaphor, we allow them to “talk to us through their play” and help them make sense of events surrounding them in a gentle, non-threatening way.

In creating the resource Helping Children Cope with Loss and Change, I set out to bring together the benefits of symbolic play with a very practical guide for educational staff and parents who face the daunting task of supporting a grieving child. The book focuses on four existing unmet needs in the field of childhood loss.

Signposting childhood loss

Schools are frequently on the front line of children’s mental health but teaching professionals should not be expected to take on the role of a mental health expert.

The main aim for teachers should be that they are confident in signposting mental distress, have tools to enable them to help the child cope within the classroom environment and know when to refer on for more specialist care and inteventions.

Aside from the benefits of being able to recognise changes in a child’s behaviour and early intervention, being able to interpret that behaviour through an awareness of loss and change has a positive impact both on the child, who has their sense of loss validated, and the professional who builds a relationship with the child based on compassion.

The need for a creative and therapeutic storytelling resource

In Helping Children Cope with Loss and Change, I create a solution in the framework of, ‘The Cycle of Loss and Change’, a classroom based toolkit consisting of creative activities and tools to support children.

What does this mean in practice? A teacher may recognise when a pupil is distracted, finding it hard to concentrate and follow instructions or their emotions are getting triggered. The teacher can feel empowered with a backup of tools, such as a creative task or a therapeutic story that helps bring the child back to a calm, focused place.

The aim is that these activities feel like a natural extension of the classroom. Teachers are busy and need vital tools that are both simple to set up and don’t feel out of place to pupils when a teacher uses it to support them.

Dealing with our own unresolved adult grief

Beyond the training they need to support the child, educators often seriously underestimate the support a teacher needs themselves. For those teachers that have experienced a loss in their own past, dealing with the child’s emotions directly can be a trigger for traumatic emotions, leaving them vulnerable. If we haven’t dealt with our own struggles, how can we expect children to cope with theirs?

Building professional resilience and avoiding “compassion fatigue”

In cases where teacher training has been inadequate or there simply have not been enough mental health specialists available to help, teachers have inevitably felt compelled to help the child themselves.

Teachers are brilliant at caring for others but this in itself puts them at a higher risk of what we call “compassion fatigue”. Their strong instinct for empathy leads to a disconnection from their own feelings. Perhaps they are already under immense pressure to hit academic targets and this additional stress causes ‘burnout’.

Tension in the classroom is infectious and if teachers lack support, their subsequent mental and physical stress impacts how they communicate with the children, leading to increased stress on the children and a vicious cycle.

We urgently need a shift in mindset and core support for teachers to be able to provide sustained care for pupils over time. Too many children feel lonely and isolated in their grief. Their mental health and often their academic achievement, suffers due to a lack of solid support. By investing in helping teachers ‘skill-up’ in recognising loss, and giving them the right tools, they will be better able to support children.

In turn, they become more aware of their own wellness needs, building resilience and leading to more energized and focused professionals.