Original article by:
Heath MA and Cole BV (2012) Strengthening classroom emotional support for children following a family member’s death. School Psychology International 33(3): 243-262. DOI: 10.1177/0143034311415800
Schools have been recognised by national and international organisations as having an unparalleled potential to provide supportive services for children’s mental health needs. The focus of the article by Heath and Cole (2012) is on school-based support for children who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling. The article summarises key strategies to meet children’s needs in classroom settings and includes recommended grief-themed resources and lesson plans. These strategies are designed to encourage students’ emotional expression, strengthen social connectedness and move grieving students from the role of passive victim to active survivor.
What is the research underpinning it?
Lindemann (1994) was instrumental in defining bereavement and grief, contrasting the course and intensity of normal grief reactions with morbid grief reactions, a distortion of normal grief. Lindemann’s work described the emotional, physiological and behavioural responses associated with grief and the timelines involved in grieving, noting that the type and intensity of grief may vary greatly between individuals. Strong emotional reactions often affect a person’s ability to resume their previous daily life, including work and social activities.
Focusing specifically on children’s grief, bereavement may be defined as the death of a loved one. Grief is the reaction to the death of a loved one and mourning is the outward expression of grief in accordance with a person’s spiritual beliefs, cultural traditions and social norms (Wolfelt, 2002). Wolfelt identified six ‘tasks’, or challenges, that children who are grieving may face. Unlike stages of grief, tasks do not occur in a linear sequence. Rather, they may arise simultaneously or independently of one another, and require revisiting as children mature. These six tasks are:
(1) acknowledging that death is a reality
(2) facing painful feelings of loss with the emotional support of others
(3) integrating memories of the deceased person in current and future thinking
(4) redefining oneself and relationships after the death
(5) defining new meaning in one’s life by coming to terms with and making sense of the death
(6) developing new relationships while strengthening ongoing supportive relationships (Wolfelt, 2002 p. 657).
Following Haine et al. (2008) it is recommended that educators should consider the following: that children typically may (a) experience varied emotions (such as anger, fear, anxiety); (b) think they are responsible for events leading to the death; (c) want to talk about the deceased; (d) dream about and/or believe they see the deceased; and (e) want to maintain relationships and stay connected with the deceased so that they don’t forget them.
Impact on practice
When children experience bereavement, supportive mental health services from parents or close relatives can help children grieve, but teachers also have an important role to play, especially when there is a lack of support elsewhere. Children imitate the behaviour and language of adults through observation, so children can learn how to express and manage their grief by observing their teachers’ emotional expressions. Teachers can set up specific areas in the classroom to provide opportunities for classmates to show support for the bereaved child, so that the child can feel supported and cared for by the teacher and classmates. Aligning school interventions with professional support may mean that cognitive behavioural therapy strategies can be implemented to support bereaved children. Reading therapy can also be used to promote communication about death in the classroom by sharing stories, thus reducing the isolation of bereaved children. The teacher can collate a short list of suggested books that address common grief-related challenges and are in line with classroom needs, cultural traditions and religious beliefs. The main ideas of the story can be discussed in class and the message extended to real-life situations.
The authors note that it is important that teachers are supported by school psychologists when implementing the strategies that they outline. However, the authors do not acknowledge the difficulties in accessing such support, or discuss the potential advantages and disadvantages of teachers implementing these strategies independently.
- Schools have an unparalleled potential to provide supportive services for children’s mental health needs.
- Specific strategies for supporting children who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling include making space for the child and their peers to express their emotions, class reading around death and grieving and linking children to further professional support where necessary.
- It is recommended that school psychologists assist teachers in addressing the needs of children following the death of a family member.
Want to know more?
Brown L and Brown M (n.d.) When Dinosaurs Die. New York: NY: Little, Brown Books.
Schwiebert P and DeKlyen C (2005) Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss. Portland, OR: Grief Watch.
Viorst J (1971) The Tenth Good Thing about Barney. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Varley S (1992) Badger’s Parting Gifts. New York, NY: Mulberry Books.