Helping bereaved children to return to school

Helping a bereaved child or young person to return to school

Going back to school after someone important has died can be difficult for a child or young person. Teachers and school staff have an important part to play in helping a bereaved child return to school and supporting a child or young person who is grieving.

School provides a familiar routine in a child’s life. Many children and young people who have been bereaved find returning to school comforting, even quite soon after someone has died, because it shows that some things are reliable and stay the same – even if so much else is changing.

Other children and young people may find it difficult to go back to school and will need a more gradual return. If a child stays away from school for a long time, it can be harder for them to go back to school and it may be harder for them to pick up their friendships. This in turn may make a child feel more isolated and alone.

Here are the ways both schools and family members can help a grieving child or young person to return to school.

How can teachers and schools help a grieving child go back to school?

When you first hear of a bereavement:
1. Contact the family and the child

When a school learns about a death, it may only be hours after the child knows. It is really helpful for someone in leadership and/or the child’s class teacher to contact the family directly. This could be by phone or in person and can be followed up with a card for the child. This is an opportunity to:

  • Express the school’s shock and sadness about what has happened
  • Communicate that the school will do all they can to support the child who has been bereaved
  • Plan how and when that child will return to school
2. Ask the family what information they want to be shared

Families often say it is important that they are asked how they would like the school community to be informed about the death. Some children who have been bereaved feel anxious about everyone knowing, and instead would just like their close friends to know.

There may also be some sensitive issues around how the person died, and what the family would like to be shared. Where possible, speak to the family directly and ask their views about this before telling the students.

On a bereaved child’s first day back at school:
1. Welcome them back

A simple way of helping a bereaved child return to school is if their class teacher and maybe a friend meet them outside the classroom. It can be daunting to walk back into a classroom on your own.

2. Speak to the rest of the class

It is also helpful if the child can be present when the class teacher simply reminds the class what has been happening and gives them a few prompts for action. For example:

“We have Alfie back with us today. As you know, Alfie’s mum died last week. She had been ill for a long time but it’s still a huge shock for Alfie and his dad. Alfie has asked me to say that he’s really grateful for all the kind messages people have been sending him but it’s still a bit hard for him to talk about it. So, do include him in stuff but also give him a bit of space to find his feet, ok?”

3. Be sensitive to changes in their behaviour

It is normal for bereaved children to find it difficult to concentrate after someone has died. They may also become overwhelmed and then ‘jump’ back to laughing with a friend. They may want everything to be as normal as possible. Or they may need people to acknowledge regularly that things have changed forever.

4. Be aware of any other bereaved children in your school

When a child is bereaved and the school community becomes aware, it can be difficult for other children who have previously been bereaved. It may re-awaken their own grief or prompt new questions. It is helpful if staff can be alert to all those who have been bereaved.

On-going support for a bereaved child in school

Some simple things can have a significant effect on how grieving children feel supported at school:

  1. Acknowledge what has happened – “I’m so sorry to hear that your mum has died”
  2. Nominate a particular person to be their lead supporter – this could be a class teacher, form tutor or another person with a welfare role
  3. Have a plan for when things may become overwhelming – you could use our First Aid Toolkit
  4. Have some ideas on how to support the child to separate from their parent or carer at the start of the day
  5. Be alert for any assumptions that the child is doing fine or understands what has happened – it’s always worth checking
  6. Recognise that their concentration and ability to focus on a task will be affected
  7. Keep alert for subjects in the school curriculum that may need some sensitive handling – for example finding ways to include the child comfortably in any Mother’s or Father’s Day activities; or thinking about how Egyptian ‘mummies’ are discussed
  8. Keep a calendar of important dates for this child – for example, the birthday or date of death of the person who died.
Help with transitions to secondary school or when they leave education

Teachers at the top of primary schools can make the transition to secondary school so much easier for children if they ensure that the new school is aware of any bereavements, along with any important dates for the children. They may also be able to play a role in any difficulties around allocations to secondary schools that may affect bereaved children.

Teachers in Year 11 and Year 13 also have an important role to play in recognising that the ‘goodbyes’ from education and from familiar surroundings and people maybe especially poignant for those who have been bereaved.

How can parents or carers help a grieving child go back to school?

1. Involve them in the decision about when to go back to school

Some children will want to return to school quickly while others will need a more gradual return to school. It’s important to include your child in any decisions about when they go back to school. Talk to them to understand how they feel about going back to school and what things might help them to return. You can then speak to the school to make sure any support needed is in place.

2. Help to feel less anxious about separating from you

When we are grieving, we often want to be close to those who we feel safe and secure with. For a child, this could mean that they are nervous about going to school and being separated from their family.

If your child is anxious about being separated from you, there are several ways you can help. You could plan some fun things to do together when you pick them up from school. Your child could take a small item with them to school which reminds them of home or is comforting to look at.

3. Think about how to answer difficult questions

Your child will probably have to answer questions about what has happened. Whether this is soon after they go back to school or maybe some time after if they move to a new school or get a new teacher or classmate. Questions could be ‘What happened to your mum?’, ‘How many siblings do you have?’ or ‘Is your dad picking you up from school?’. It can help to think about how to answer these, so they aren’t taken by surprise.

4. Plan how they can cope with bad days

It’s not just the first day back at school that can be difficult for children and young people. Their grief may surface at any time – it could be doing activities for Mother’s or Father’s Day, a science lesson covering cancer or an argument with their friends.

Helping your child to think in advance how they can manage school on a bad day can really help. Is there someone they can go and speak to, maybe a teacher or school nurse? Is there a supportive friend who they could turn to? Could they call or text you at lunchtime? You could use our First Aid Toolkit.

5. Help them manage moving to a new school or class

Changing school, going into a new year or moving from primary school to secondary school can all trigger your child’s grief. This is a milestone in their life and it can remind them that their important person isn’t there to see it. They might feel guilty about being excited about a new school or worried about whether their new teachers and classmates know about their bereavement and will support them.

You can help by speaking to their new school or teacher and letting them know about your child’s bereavement. You could try and find out who they could go to for support and let the school know about any significant dates that your child might struggle on.

Where to get bereavement support

Our Helpline team can help young people struggling with their grief as well as parents, family members and professionals who are support grieving children. Call us on 08088 020 021 (8am-8pm, weekdays), email or use our live chat (8am-8pm, weekdays).

We have a number of resources for schools, including a bereavement policy template, a guide to supporting grieving pupils, a strategy for schools and free online bereavement training.

Other resources you might find helpful

Bereavement support for schools
Support for schools

Resources for schools supporting grieving pupils, including a template bereavement policy, strategy and guide for schools and online training.

Publications and resources from Winston's Wish
Publications and resources

Our specialist books include advice on supporting children and young people or all ages after a death through suicide, homicide and illness.