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Childhood bereavement: The role of school leadership in developing inclusive learning environments

7 min read
DR ALEXANDRA SEWELL, SENIOR LECTURER, UNIVERSITY OF WORCESTER, INSTITUTE OF EDUCATION
DANIEL THACKER-SMITH, HEADTEACHER, E-ACT SHENLEY ACADEMY

Bereavement, loss and grief

As with most common psychological experiences, bereavement is subject to varying socio-cultural and academic definitions. A critical distinction between competing definitions is that bereavement follows the death of a person with whom the bereaved had a close relationship.

Whilst some argue that bereavement occurs simply when a child has lost someone or something significant to them and is attempting to adapt (Worden, 1996), two of the leading reviews of childhood bereavement centralise the status of experiencing bereavement because there has been a death of someone close to the individual (Stroebe et al., 2008; McLaughlin et al., 2019). The death of an important person may be expected, such as after a critical illness, or unexpected, such as due to a fatal accident (McLaughlin et al., 2019).

Under this definition, childhood bereavement is common, with it being estimated that, in the UK, one child in every class has experienced the death of a parent or sibling (Fauth et al., 2009) and that an average of 127 children are bereaved of a parent daily (Child Bereavement Network, 2023). A wider definition that includes any form of significant loss and adjustment would mean that the experience is even more common. Given the prevalence of both definitions, school leaders need to understand this distinction prior to developing effective systemic, inclusive responses.

There is wider consensus regarding grief, which is the emotional component of loss that involves thoughts, social behaviour and somatic experiences (Stroebe et al., 2008). Grief arising from childhood bereavement or loss can occur for many reasons. Those viewed as more ‘significant’ by the academic community likely reflect socio-cultural biases. For example, parental loss is the most researched (McLaughlin et al., 2019), possibly reflecting a Western focus on the importance of parental/caregiver–child dynamics as the primary and most critical relationship for child development (Burman, 2017). Other types of family loss and associated grief are less understood. For example, with sibling loss, bereaved parents are the focus of any intervention, with the child’s grief being overlooked (Berman, 2009).

The experience and impact of grief arising from the loss of a grandparent is under-researched in comparison to other family losses, even though it is a more universal experience and increased during the COVID-19 pandemic (Livings et al., 2022). As with definitions of bereavement, understanding the nuances of loss and grief is an important starting point for leaders seeking to establish systemic school support. School bereavement support systems will need to avoid a blanket approach that assumes that the only valid forms of loss and grief are those that reflect prevailing socio-cultural perspectives. Establishing a criticality to approaching how loss and grief uniquely affect children will support a policy that is flexible.

Educational impact and support

Childhood bereavement and grief have long-term and short-term effects on children. In the short term, children can experience increased feelings of anxiety, sadness, apathy and anger, lowered self-esteem, insomnia and psychosomatic (physical) symptoms (McLaughlin et al., 2019). In the long term (from two years after bereavement), they are more likely to experience higher levels of anxiety and depression than peers and may have to manage co-occurring life stressors, such as family breakdown and financial hardship (Cerel et al., 2006).

These experiences in turn influence learning and attainment. Elsner et al. (2022) conducted a systematic review of research exploring educational outcomes of bereaved children, and found that they have lower academic grade profiles compared with non-bereaved peers, are at increased risk of long-term academic failure and can present with increasing disinterest in school over time. Factors mediating these outcomes are higher socio-economic status, absence of family breakdown, absence of mental ill health and financial security (Elsner et al., 2022).

Given the developmental and educational outcomes that bereaved children experience, there is a need to develop and improve systemic approaches in UK schools, entailing a leadership focus. Schools are a critical site for integrated intervention, as there is a lack of wider opportunity for children to gain support. There is no primary bereavement service for children in the UK, with CBT intervention available via CAMHS for those who meet a clinical threshold (Ricketts, 2021). Arguably, this does not respond to the needs of those who experience loss and grief impacting their education and development but do not present with a diagnosable mental illness. The gap in expanded bereavement care is currently provided by charitable organisations (Ridley and Frache, 2020). However, this does not offer UK-wide provision that ensures all children have equal access to support.

Abraham-Steele and Edmonds (2020) explored potential barriers to developing school responses to childhood bereavement. School staff reported that they felt that their current support was inconsistent, arising from the lack of a bereavement policy at their school. Developing a bereavement policy was seen to be hindered by time constraints, funding and the quality of existing teacher–child relationships. Abraham-Steele and Edmonds (2020) highlighted that a Department for Education (DfE) national bereavement policy would help schools to overcome these barriers to implementing policies and practices.

In summary, bereavement and grief can negatively affect developmental and educational outcomes.  Current UK provision for supporting bereaved children to mitigate these outcomes is limited, with schools reporting that they do not feel that they have an adequate bereavement policy and related practices. The following case study presents one secondary school’s development of a bereavement policy, integrated into existing high-quality pastoral provision. It is written by headteacher Daniel Thacker-Smith, demonstrating the critical role that leadership should play.

Case study

E-Act Shenley Academy is a school that was previously in special measures. The academy is based in Birmingham, with approximately 850 students on roll, and is significantly above the national average for students with pupil premium and SEND. I believe that we are a forward-thinking academy that places the mental health and wellbeing of staff and students at the heart of what we do. The school’s motto of: ‘Building futures, changing lives’ is exactly what happens here.

Post-COVID-19, we initiated an extensive community consultation, including comprehensive student and parent workshops, in which we reviewed all aspects of our personal development and PSHCE curriculum. Students’ and parents’ voices identified bereavement as a contextual area of need. The school sadly lost a member of staff during the pandemic and serves a community disproportionality hit by the pandemic, due to pre-existing socio-economic disadvantage. Our drive to abolish any stigma towards mental health also allowed open dialogue and honest feedback from all stakeholders. As explicit bereavement outcomes are not named as part of statutory RSE (relationships and sex education), these components were lacking from our curriculum. However, the voice of the school community provided a rationale and a mandate to adapt our curriculum.

This led us to:

  • develop bespoke resources informed by parent and student voice
  • adapt our long-term PSHCE plans – we ensured that all knowledge delivered was set into a knowledge-rich spiral curriculum model and was age-appropriate
  • identify students and staff who would require support for personal consultation before launch
  • give teaching staff CPD and carry out staff confidence audits to ensure successful delivery of the new curriculum, asking staff to reflect on their subject knowledge, pedagogy and confidence (we also ensured that teaching staff were aware that the new curriculum was not equivalent to mental health counselling) 
  • ensure that the knowledge and skills taught in the PSHCE curriculum, such as coping strategies and signposts for expert support, mirrored the due process and actions taken by our safeguarding team
  • map out cross-curricular links 
  • publish parent and carer literature that mirrors the work done in school
  • make sure that our pastoral team was vigilant during the delivery period, to spot any student who showed changes in behaviour.

 

Following the adoption of these measures, we can see from student reflection questionnaires and focus group discussions that students now feel confident to seek support and have reduced stigma attached to the discussion of bereavement. The percentage of students who said that they felt very secure or confident to discuss bereavement increased from 46 per cent to 88 per cent of those asked. One hundred per cent of students asked could name a mechanism of support, compared with 67 per cent before the curriculum was adapted.

Conclusion

Bereavement is an inevitable part of life and, whilst more common in adulthood, also significantly presents in childhood and adolescence (Fauth et al., 2009). Children who are bereaved have increased negative educational and developmental outcomes compared with non-bereaved peers. While some may reach clinical levels of emotional distress, warranting referral to CAMHS, there is larger number of those who require systemic support. This is of critical consideration for school leaders seeking to develop inclusive, responsive learning environments. At E-Act Shenley Academy, this was achieved through consultation with parents, carers and wider community members, and the development of resources, CPD, safeguarding policy and the PSHCE curriculum. Practice-based research is advisable to explore such processes in other educational settings. This was given external review through an excellence in personal development award recently accredited by the Shaw Trust. This external scrutiny and expert written framework will be further explored as we work towards the Optimus Education Wellbeing Award. However as with any work regarding personal developed in schools, caution is advised when making a causal link between actions and impact.

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    Author(s): Bill Lucas