Bereavement can be a difficult subject to discuss in an educational setting and many teachers might feel that they are not adequately equipped to help pupils who are grieving the loss of a parent.
Of course, every situation is unique and no child’s situation will benefit from a "one-size-fits-all" approach. However, schools can put a dedicated network of bereavement support in place so that no pupil is left behind during an already incredibly tough time in their life.
Grief is a completely natural, healthy emotion, and, as such, should be normalised in schools. If the adults around pupils are comfortable expressing emotions and talking about grief, children will learn that it is OK to do the same.
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From nursery age, compassion for their fellow pupils can be imbued in children. At George Heriot’s School, we teach philosophy from the nursery to the final year of secondary school, which encourages pupils to express their feelings and listen to others.
At any age, talking about grief is important and we provide staff and pupils with vocabulary and strategies to enable these conversations. Most people want to talk about grief, but they can be scared to bring it up.
No one can cure a child’s grief, but schools can create an environment where pupils feel supported and comfortable talking about the feelings they are experiencing on their grief journey.
The Heriot’s Foundation plays a vital role in the school. It provides full fee remission to children who have lost a parent (who fit the qualifying criteria), together with a dedicated support network for pupils and families involved with the foundation.
Support might take the form of coping with loss itself (for example, memory work, expressing feelings); anxiety support (bereaved children can have worries, often stemming from the common feeling of needing to protect mum or dad by not telling them things); or enabling children to be more confident telling and owning their stories.
One girl pupil sadly lost her mother, having attended Heriot’s as a Foundation pupil since starting in P6. She lives with her grandmother, who says: “The level of support from George Heriot’s, and particularly in the last couple of years where things have been a bit more difficult for [my granddaughter] has been fantastic.” She describes Heather Staines, the Heriot’s Foundation coordinator, as “a constant throughout her time there alongside her guidance teacher. They chat weekly, even throughout lockdown, and I have also had a lot of support from the school”.
Alongside incorporating bereavement into the curriculum, schools need to have policies and guidelines in place for outlining the support they can provide to pupils and their families. This can be as simple as how the school can effectively communicate with the families of bereaved young people.
Training is also vital for staff to support their pupils, and dedicated support officers should be designated, too. Peer-support mechanisms are likewise integral to a strong support system, as are set aside "safe" spaces where pupils can retreat to if they are feeling overwhelmed.
Ultimately, schools can play a huge role in supporting pupils who have lost a parent. Children spend as much time at school as they do at home, so a robust system must be in place– one which helps them feel comfortable enough to grieve healthily and seek out advice when they need it.
If you know of a child who lives in or near Edinburgh who could benefit from the George Heriot’s Foundation, visit george-heriots.com