Tuesday, 20 February 2018


 Early in my teaching career I witnessed the devastating impact of a pupils death on that childs classmates and the school as a whole. I quickly realised that there was very little support and guidance on how best to support children with SEND (Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities) with grief. At times the grief of these children was either ignored or not fully acknowledged, with staff not knowing how to deal with the difficult situation.
Death is a certainty for us all and although we may not wish to think about it, we all experience death and we all experience other forms of loss (such as the loss from a close friend moving far away or the loss of a relationship through divorce or separation). Most children are fortunate in that their first experience of death doesnt normally occur until they are older, maybe as a teenager with the death of a grandparent. Children with SEND often experience death at a much younger age due to the nature of the medical conditions that some children in special education have.
When working in special schools severe learning difficulties, profound and multiple learning difficulties and complex needs I experienced (on average) the death of one pupil a year.
Consider for a moment that if a child joins a special school aged four, by the time s/he leaves aged 16, there could well have been as many as 12 children die in that school.
S/he may not have known all of those children well, but the impact of those deaths will be immense. How many of us experienced 12 deaths by the time we were 16? And this doesnt take into consideration any deaths that may occur outside of the school environment.
UK educational statistics show that up to 70 per cent of schools have at least one bereaved pupil on roll at any one time (Holland, 1993). In one survey 78 per cent of 1116-year-olds said that they had been bereaved of a close relative or friend (Harrison and Harrington, 2001). By the age of 16, 1 in 20 young people will have experienced the death of one or both of their parents (Parsons, 2011).
At the time of writing this book there was no specific data available that showed the number of bereaved pupils in special schools. My personal experiences and research indicate that all special schools will have at least one bereaved pupil on roll every day of every school year. This includes pupils who are bereaved due to the death of family members, as well as those who have experienced the death of a classmate or friend at school. Following the death of a pupil, there will often be periods of time where whole classes and even the entire school community are grieving.
I passionately believe that all children need to be well supported with their grief and although this support could be better for all young people, it most definitely needs to be improved for children with SEND. Children with SEND are more likely to be affected by grief at a younger age and in greater frequency than typically developing children. This, combined with the understanding and communication difficulties that SEND children have, only strengthens the importance of them having good bereavement education and support.
So, are death, bereavement, loss and grief part of your school curriculum and culture? If not, ask yourself why. Im sure it is not due to a lack of need. Is it instead more to do with a lack of training? Or a lack of awareness of its importance? Or do staff not want to acknowledge that children with SEND experience grief (because they dont truly understand and value the childrens emotions and loss)? Or could it be due to staff personally being unable to handle and discuss death and other forms of loss? 

A Special Kind of Grief by Sarah Helton 
The complete guide for supporting bereavement and loss in special schools (& other SEND settings)

Remembering Lucy by Sarah Helton 

A children's story book about grief and bereavement in a school

Both books are published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and are available from AmazonWaterstones and all other good book sellers.

Bereavement & Loss Widgit Resource Pack - A set of symbol resources designed for children, young people and their families to help them through the process of bereavement and loss.
Available from www.widgit.com

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