How to Help Grieving Children at School
As the school year begins, learn how to help grieving children who are at a loss as to how to cope with the death of a loved one or friend.
As summer winds down, the Florida tax-free weekend has come and gone and the streets we travel daily are about to get more congested, we realize it’s that time again — Back to School. Returning to the classroom, some children are excited to see friends they might have missed during the break. And then there are others who dread the first day and not because they fear piles of homework and academic stressors; they are grieving children who are at a loss as to how to cope with the death of a loved one or friend.
Understanding Grieving Children
There’s a saying that explains why grief can be so difficult: “As much as you love, it’s as hard to heal.” Grief is an internal process. There isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to handling grief, and invariably it will be different for different people — even within a family and no matter what the age.
After the death of a family member or friend, children are forced back into a daily routine all too quickly. “Normal life” is supposed to resume even if they are still in mourning. With educational demands, grieving children are required to move forward and often sooner than they might be ready.
Grief can affect every aspect of their lives. It can be difficult to:
- Feel joy from those activities that they previously enjoyed (called anhedonia)
- Sleep, which in turn can compromise their health
- Remember simple tasks
- Socialize and so they shy away from friends
- Let themselves cry
It is totally natural to flip flop across an array of emotions. It can even be cyclical and change depending on age. Nevertheless, grieving children have a natural ability to heal their psyche.
It is important to understand that grief is a life-long process. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and other events can prove difficult for grieving children throughout their lives.
Be on the Look Out
According to Corinne Gaertner, a child bereavement specialist at LifePath Hospice, following a loss, temporary academic issues are common, and pre-existing issues can be magnified. Additionally, the age of the child can have an effect of the coping mechanism.
“Pre-school children often experience regressive behaviors and may be less vocal or appear anxious,” said Ms. Gaertner. “Elementary middle and high school students may have difficulty concentrating and experience decreased attendance and academic performance. Older children can exhibit high-risk behaviors, depression, social withdrawal, guilt or anxiety.”
Other issues to keep a close watch on are:
- Difficulty in learning and remembering new concepts
- Experiencing irritability, disruptive behavior
- Issues sleeping
“Additionally, some children become hyper-focused on academics, and adults can miss their pain when they appear to be doing well,” added Ms. Gaertner.
Additionally, developmental milestones can impact reaction to grief years after a loss. For example, a child who lost a parent as an elementary student can develop new issues as he or she enters high school. Why? They understand the loss in a totally different way.
Tips to Help Grieving Children at School
If parents and guardians are aware of any of the described issues, they should talk with school personnel prior to the start of school. Teachers, social workers, guidance counselors and school psychologists are there to help when issues arise during the school day.
The following are some tips to help grieving children:
- Develop a plan to assist the child especially in providing support during emotional grief bursts
- Make sure teachers know the child may have difficulty listening and concentrating
- Modify, on a temporary basis, academic expectations, which would depend on the loss
- Don’t remove all expectations as this tactic would not be in the child’s best interest
- Establish a routine to provide a feeling of safety for the child, even if they resist them at times
Across Chapters Health System affiliates — Chapters Health Hospice, Good Shepherd Hospice, Hospice of Okeechobee, HPH Hospice and LifePath Hospice, all provide grief services to children and their families. In addition to these services, Good Shepherd Hospice, HPH Hospice and LifePath Hospice offer an annual weekend camp. If a student is in need of services, please contact us, and let the school know we are available to help.
Grieving Children Statistics
Every year statistics are gathered on how many children are affected by divorce but the same cannot be said about grief brought about by the death of a family member.
At the 22nd annual National Alliance for Grieving Children Symposium, Judi’s House released statistics from its Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model (CBEM). Located in Denver, the not-for-profit organization developed the CBEM tool by using population metrics to estimate the prevalence of children and youth in the United States who will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the time they reach adulthood.
According to the CBEM, one in 15 American children will experience the death of a parent or sibling before they reach the age of 18. What does this mean? There are approximately 4.8 million grieving children in the United States and the number more than doubles by age 25. Of interest to note is the fact this statistic does not take into consideration the loss of other important family members who died before the child finished high school.
In Florida, the following are the statistics for grieving children:
- One in 14 children will experience the death of a parent or sibling by 18 years of age.
- According to the CBEM, the Sunshine State ranks as number 25.
- Across the state, 6.3 percent of children live in a metro area, 8.3 percent in the suburbs and the data for rural areas was not available.
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