Bereaved children are being let down as they try to cope after losing a parent or sibling because support in schools is patchy or non-existent, according to Winston’s Wish, the UK’s first childhood bereavement charity.
A study conducted for the charity by researchers at Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education, published on June 18, found a “random approach” among schools, with students reporting receiving “only little or no help at all” following bereavement.
Although schools recognise bereavement as a high priority, teachers say they feel ill-equipped to offer support to bereaved children, even avoiding intervention through fear of doing more harm than good.
The effects of losing a loved one are profound for children, the researchers found, with consequences for mental and physical health but also social and educational impacts, including an increased risk of under-achieving or even dropping out of school.
Yet evidence suggests that, in many cases, these effects can be mitigated by well-managed school support; crucially, support at a time when a child’s family, also coping with grief, may not be able to provide the consistent help required.
This report is a wake-up call. The support a child receives after the death of a close loved one can help define the rest of their lives
Winston’s Wish is calling on all schools in the UK to develop a bereavement plan as a matter of urgency. The charity also urges the schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted, to ensure that the revised inspection framework takes account of the impact of bereavement on children and young people’s lives, and proposes that all trainee teachers receive core bereavement training.
One parent dies in the UK every 22 minutes. These parents leave behind around 41,000 dependent children a year, equating to more than 100 newly bereaved children each day.
The review, Consequences of childhood bereavement in the context of the British school system, brings together a wealth of research about children who have lost a mother, father or sibling before the age of 18, with a specific focus on support from school.
Psychological reactions to bereavement include fear, helplessness, anxiety, anger, lower self-esteem and insomnia. While these are normal responses to such profound distress, the support available to children immediately after a death appears to have a strong impact on their mental health longer term, researchers found.
Bereavement can also make children particularly vulnerable socially, the study shows. Having someone to talk to is vital for children and adolescents following a loss, yet one fifth of bereaved participants studied reported not having talked to anyone – a trend that correlated with an increased risk of being bullied, or participating in bullying or assaults.
Strong social networks are key in reducing the negative effects of child bereavement, researchers found, and UK and international experts agree that schools are particularly well-suited to offer support. “Schools often already understand the needs of the individual student and are one of the arenas where children spend most of their waking hours,” says the study.
Exploring how the current British school system deals with bereavement, researchers found a lack of clarity on governmental and school policies on mental health and bereavement, leading to “both confusion and disagreement on the forms of support schools should offer and the extent of that support”. This had led to a “somewhat random approach”.
While a small number of schools have a “planned, managed and holistic response to bereavement”, most do not, and staff “often feel isolated when facing issues related to emotional wellbeing”.
The “highly pressured” climate in English schools, with a focus on academic outcomes eating up time and resources, made it harder to give time and attention to vulnerable pupils, researchers found. Yet the opportunity to “share difficult thoughts” with someone helped build children’s resilience, directly reducing the difficulties they would experience and the potential for high-risk behaviour.
Fergus Crow, Chief Executive of Winston’s Wish, said: “This report is a wake-up call. The support a child receives after the death of a close loved one can help define the rest of their lives. The better that support is, the better the chance that they can find a way to cope with the devastation of their loss. Schools are key.
“The good news is that most schools see supporting bereaved children as a priority. The bad news is that this is as far as most of them go. How can it be fair that a child whose mum dies gets all the help they need in one school, whilst a child going through exactly the same thing in a school down the road gets nothing at all?
“Until we get to a point when we can say with certainty that every school has a plan in place to help bereaved children in their classrooms then we are letting children down.
“A school bereavement policy is not a luxury, it is an absolute essential.”
Strong social networks are key in reducing the negative effects of child bereavement, researchers found
Winston’s Wish is urging schools to download its free guide to supporting bereaved children in education and strategy document to help them create a bereavement policy and a procedure for when there is a death in the school community. The charity’s freephone national helpline is also available for teachers to discuss and seek advice and guidance about specific cases.
Professor Colleen McLaughlin of the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, lead author of the report, said: “Our review of research reinforces that grief itself is not an illness. The path that a child takes after the death of a parent or sibling is dependent on the context and multiple aspects. Some pathways make young people very vulnerable, while others do not. Support in the environment is vital, and schools are key in this.
“Young people want schools to acknowledge the bereavement, but also to provide a safe space to continue as normally as possible or to have special attention – depending on the child. Teachers badly want to help, but space to discuss how to respond and to form a process is being pushed out. They, too, are asking for help.
“There is a need for a holistic integrated response from schools, and it’s very important that young people are listened to as part of that process.”
The university has also gathered the experiences of adults who lost parents and siblings as children. Their moving account, published in a separate report, Voices of adults bereaved as children, reinforces the message that meaningful support is important at this time and schools are a key site for providing such support.
The free guide for schools and the schools strategy document can be downloaded at winstonswish.org/schools