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Supporting children facing grief, anxiety and loss

A few points for teachers supporting children facing grief, separation and loss.

  • Inform children honestly and briefly. Give details appropriate to age. Use ‘very very very very old/sick’
  • Answer questions briefly and openly – be prepared for repetitive questioning and curiosity. Look for a need for reassurance in questioning.
  • Have a consistency in programmes and schedules. Children are soothed by predictability when their world has been overturned.
  • Be on the alert for signs of children not coping and are feeling overwhelmed. Have a quiet corner with drawing/ reading materials/ cuddle toys etc. Be sure to have some age appropriate books on death/grieving.
  • Use rituals – religious and social, (prayers, condolence cards and drawings, letters, planting trees).
  • Bear in mind that children grieve in ‘spurts’.
  • Be particularly aware of ‘at risk’ children – close friends/children who have also suffered bereavement etc.
  • Expect deterioration or regression in behaviour, concentration and attention. Have some ‘light’ activities at hand.
  • Children under stress may need to connect with one specific teacher at this time for comfort, if possible create circumstances that make this possible. It may be more helpful to get a second teacher into the room, which frees up the usual teacher to support the children, rather than a school counsellor whom they do not know.
  • Look after yourself and also the other adults involved in the situation. Be aware that our own ancient grief is ‘reactivated’ in these situations and that witnessing the sorrow of children is an arduous task.
A few points for teachers supporting anxious children.
  • Be aware that anxiety is debilitating, frightening experience for children, and extremely painful for parents to witness and to cope with. Parents should be encouraged to get professional advice.
  • Anxious children will often be quiet and compliant at school but will go home and explode – believe the parents!
  • Anxious children will take everything personally and will believe you are angry with them even if you were actually addressing a completely different child.
  • Walk the fine line between support and encouragement without allowing the child to always ‘escape’ from the challenging situation. The relief they feel may serve to reinforce the avoidant behaviour. The trick is engineering small steps in the right direction.
  • Remember that children cannot be bullied or ‘ordered’ out of anxiety. It will only work once with a massive increase in fear afterwards!
  • Praise brave and independent behaviour. Start small and set a ‘ladder’ of tasks.
  • Externalise the anxiety – e.g. ‘Let’s see if you can beat your worrywart today’.
  • Non-verbal assurances – a pat on the shoulder, smile or wink go a long way. Also expressing belief in the child that they could master the task, and generally behave as though you expect them to be able to cope.
  • When anxious children have accomplished something challenging praise them and remind them that they have ‘beaten’ their fears.

Some resources:

‘A teaspoon of courage for kids.’   Bradley Trevor Grieve

‘Helping children cope with the loss of a loved one.’   William C. Kroen

‘No worries! Strategies for understanding and managing stress at school.’  Frances A. Carter

‘Helping your anxious child: A step by step guide for parents’   Ron Rapee

‘When I’m feeling scared’   Tracy Moroney

Australian Psychological Society – Tip Sheets (www.psychology.org.au)

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