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  • Writer's pictureelmarfleet

A New Year Meeting with your Child's New Class Teacher

Teachers aren't trained in how to support bereaved children. Neither are Headteachers or SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) Co-ordinators. Some schools contact local hospices or child bereavement charities for support when someone in their school community dies, but it's not part of the national teacher training programme.

As an ex-deputy headteacher of a primary school, I didn't expect my children's school to know how to care for my three bereaved children after their daddy died when they were only 8, 6 and 3. I'm a huge supporter of our wonderful primary schools here in the UK because I know from first-hand experience that they are filled with the most brilliant of human beings who really do want the best for and from our young people, but supporting bereaved children is an area which currently needs more national support. With current statistics of one in 29 children under age 16 in the UK bereaved of a parent (ref. Child Bereavement UK and Winston's Wish charities' websites), this needs to be an area of focus for improvement. The impact of good support cannot be underestimated - to look after the good mental health and wellbeing of a child directly impacts the good mental health and wellbeing for the adult that child will one day become. So, with that in mind, I have written a list of specific areas a widowed parent can bring to a meeting with their child's new class teacher at the beginning of the new school year. It is different to the early days of grief discussion you will have had with your child's school and is designed to support ongoing and effective communication and support for your child throughout their time at primary school. I hope it helps.

1. Start with a little family history

Give as much or as little as you can cope with here. The adult you are talking to may also be affected by your story so take your time. Take tissues. Focus on your child and how they have reacted to significant moments in your family's experience. The class teacher doesn't need to know it all, so be kind to yourself here too. You could take notes with you to this meeting to help you to stay on track. You might want to include any support or counselling your child has or is receiving, when it is and how often. The teacher will then know when to keep an extra look out for how your child is at school around those times.

2. Move onto your child's specific grief

How has your child's grief presented itself to you? You might want to focus on the past six weeks of the summer holiday. Have they asked any questions about their parent who has died? Or about death itself? What has their play been like recently? Have they been sociable, or have they preferred to be by themselves? Are you concerned about anything in particular? You might also want to tell your child's teacher what words for death you currently use at home. Child bereavement charities recommend using direct words, but you and your child might not be comfortable with those words and the school should follow your wishes here.

3. Your child's attachment to others

How has your child been with you over the last 6 weeks? Who else is a significant adult in their world? How have they been with this significant adult? Does your child spend time regularly in another home or with another family (grandparents perhaps)? You might want to give permission for this adult to collect your child from school on a regular basis or when you just might need them to. How has your child been with their siblings? How have they been with their friends? Try to focus on any changes, that's what's important here.

3. Your child's hopes and fears

Tell your child's class teacher what your child is feeling ok about in school, e.g. being with friends, starting certain subjects/topics, other routine moments of the school day e.g. playtime or lunchtime. Then tell them any fears your child may have. These are specific moments when the school can put good support in for your child - they can ease those trigger moments for them. You could even ask your child which members of staff they feel especially comfortable with. Would you like these members of staff to find time to be with your child or to just check-in with them every now and again?

4. Overwhelming Moments

Can you and the class teacher create a plan for your child so that they can communicate to them when they are feeling overwhelmed? Some schools have a card system where your child can show the card to communicate that they need help or time out. The important part to discuss is what can happen next - can they leave the room? Who can they be with and where will they go? Primary schools have classroom assistants who are worth their weight in gold here. They can quietly and quickly support your child in these moments without an interruption to the lesson for the rest of the class (and without any unwanted attention on your child). You might want to share your child's emotional first aid kit with the class teacher if it's appropriate. There's a template on Winston's Wish's website for your child to complete. The focus is for things that your child can do for themselves when the hurt, bumps and pain are on the inside. Teachers and assistants can provide gentle reminders and caring support here if they know what your child finds helpful to do when their grief feels overwhelming.

5. Changes

Make sure the teacher knows that grief isn't linear and doesn't follow any specific stages to an end point. It's the changes that they need to look out for. Grief can affect every part of life and in school this might be a child's attention, concentration, engagement, known work ethic from previous years, behaviour, appetite and friendships. It doesn't necessarily go from good to bad, it can be the other way too as children try to correct this pattern of bad things happening to them by changing their behaviour. I find it useful to remind teachers of Winston's Wish's model of grief in children, they describe it as 'puddle jumping'. A child can be happy and laughing one minute and then overwhelmed by sadness in the next, and then back again. It's normal and they just need support to know that it is. I ask teachers to look out for triggers from my child's story and to gently guide them around those puddles.

6. Curriculum

Ask your child's teacher for anything coming up in the curriculum this term or year which might be about death (and illness if this is how your partner died). Specific subjects to ask about are:

  • English (ask them for the term's set texts. They will know them in detail, so you don't have to read them unless you want to. They should tell you the trigger points and ask how they can support your child for specific pages, chapters, events and character relationships). This can be in a follow up meeting or email nearer the time of that lesson.

  • Science

  • Religious Education

  • Personal Social and Health Education

  • Music, Art, Drama... all of the more creative subjects can offer the opportunity for your child to express how they feel. Is the class teacher ready for that? How will they react if your child wants to express their feelings on their bereavement, their mum/dad or death? What would you like them to do to support your child?

The class teacher can share specific lesson plans or presentation slides with you to help you prepare your child for those more triggering lessons. They can really benefit from your input too. Please don't underestimate how much you'll be helping not only your child, but the teacher and many other children too. I can't emphasise this enough!

7. Assemblies and Special Days

Ask for the themes of school assemblies alongside what the school plans to do for special days this term. For the autumn term this may be Remembrance Day in November. Mother's Day is usually in the spring term and Father's Day is in the summer. Schools might not mark these events, but it's good to tell them that you expect to be informed in advance so that you can prepare your child.

8. Calendar of Significant Dates

This helps your child's teacher know when certain days may be more difficult for them. It should include those moments when your family particularly remember your partner. Your child's memories may come most strongly on these days even if they are trying not to let them. The teacher can find time to speak to you and/or your child so as to know how best to support them at those times. If that means no homework that week or time with a trusted adult in school or in the Nurture Room if they need it, then that's ok. Your child may also benefit from talking at school about what's going on at home. Remind the class teacher that everything changes in grief too so a child who has previously expressed a wish to keep home and school separate may actually want to open up at school about what they are feeling at these times.

9. Open Communication

Discuss how you would like to communicate with your child's class teacher going forward this academic year. Check-ins with a class teacher may be easier if your child is in the infants as teachers are often at the gates at the start and end of a school day. For the junior years, you might agree a phone call, email or note put into your child's reading diary. Examples include if your child has had a specific worry emerge over the weekend that the teacher should know about, or your child has decided to take a special keepsake into school for the day. Schools can be sensitive to these matters and support your child at these times. They just need to know about them.

Thank you for reading! I hope these ideas are helpful.

Just a couple of final thoughts to hopefully reassure you. Many schools are incredibly nurturing and open to a culture of personal growth, learning and compassion for their teachers. I hope your child is in one of these schools! They will have an effective whole school approach to help develop their pupils' good mental health and wellbeing and want to find ways to incorporate many types of mental health support. Looking at your child's school website, you may find a Bereavement Policy to read through, and you may find specifically named teachers for bereavement care on their staff list, for example a Champion for Bereaved Children. These schools will have strong communication links with the parent community and will have no doubt have read, The Little Book of Bereavement for Schools by Ian Gilbert and his three bereaved children. They may have accessed training from either a local hospice or a child bereavement charity. Bereaved families will be in safe hands in these schools, but they won't know about the grief specific to your child. Please don't presume that everything is already thought of. Besides, your child and you deserve to tell your story in your way - your thoughts, views and feelings for your child are valid and should be heard.

Please also remember to hold your heart gently and only talk to members of staff with whom you feel comfortable with, even take a friend if you would like to. Schools may suggest you speak to a certain member of staff, but you can call the shots here. It is equally ok if you're happy talking to a group or to just one staff member, and it's also ok if you want to make many appointments depending on how many children you have in the school. I've done this in different ways over recent years. I very much wanted the Headteacher involved in my initial meetings when my husband was first diagnosed, and this was beneficial when his health began to go downhill. Now three years since he has died, I will meet with each of my children's class teachers within the first weeks of September for a one-to-one meeting. I am already in regular contact with the school's Family Support Worker and the Headteacher (who incidentally is named the Champion for Bereaved Children on their website) so will focus on where each of my boys are right now in their grief. I will have my list of questions to ask and areas to discuss with each teacher in my hand and I will carry my child's thoughts and feelings with me gently in my heart. I have every confidence that this will make a difference for my children, and I hope it does for you and yours too.

Wishing you so much luck and care,

Emma and boys

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