Following last week’s poll, I will try to share some thoughts and suggestions on this topic. I am very aware this is a highly sensitive area. I do not claim to be an expert, rather I am sharing from the experiences I have had. I hope some of it might be of help. One can seek to respond and support in a number of ways, so I am not claiming the following is the only, or indeed the best route, in any given situation.
As a Head (or the Deputy Head if the Head is perhaps away eg if during a school holiday – as was my first experience) the child/children and his/her parent need your support, so do other pupils, their parents and your staff. All will look to you for guidance and help. There are many things to consider: How soon do you contact the family? Should you encourage the child/children to be in school? What do you say or not say to the pupil’s classmates, other parents? What should the School do? Do you go to the funeral? What if you are invited to the reception too?
Depending when the tragedy has happened you need to gauge very carefully when to contact the family. The sensitivity of a few days, yet soon enough that the parent and child/children know the School is there for the family is very important. The parent is likely to be looking for advice on whether they send the child/children to school. There needs to be the balance between giving space and time for the family to grieve and be together, and the child/children having normal routine – being with their friends at school and continuing their education. There needs to be careful and sensitive discussion with the parent about how the child is coping with the situation and what is in the child’s/children’s best interest regarding the timing of their return to school. Sometimes pupils return before the funeral, others afterwards, each situation is unique and there must be sensitivity to this. It is important to agree with the parent what they are comfortable is said to other parents and classmates and when. My experience has been that the parent is grateful for the school communicating with other parents (or they nominate a friend or relative to do this).
Leading on from this, do find out how the parent has explain things to their child. Where is the parent who was died? In heaven or . . .? Especially with very young children, ensure you use the same terminology and seek to be sensitive to the family’s beliefs and or cultural traditions.
Following the initial conversation with the parent I recommend sending a card to the parent and a separate card to the child/children. In my experience the Form Teacher has sent a card too and this has been appreciated.
I have found sending the news to other parents in the class via the Class Rep. works well. Parents can then share the news at home with their child and comfort them and answer their questions. Children invariably are very upset for their classmate and worry that they might lose one of their parents too. Back at school the Form Teacher can then talk about it in circle time/form time and give the class an opportunity to ask questions. I visit the class too. If you have a School Chaplain, or link with a local religious leader, this can be a very real source of support for the children, parents and staff (I have known children ask if they can light candles or ask if a prayer can be said, others wish to send cards).
Regarding attendance at the funeral and or reception. I have taken the lead from the family. If they have invited me to both (which has always happened), I have taken it they would like me to be there. I have put aside other things and been there. To me, at that time, the family is my priority. I have found the family values this greatly. Other parents comment that they are comforted to see the School represented by the Head, Form Teacher and School Chaplain (if there is one). Not just for the bereaved family, but for other families, parents realise if they had a family tragedy the School would be there for them too. It is also significant for the relatives and friends of the family to see the School representatives there; it has always commented upon and appreciated.
Before the child/children return to school it is good to remind classmates not to ask questions, but rather to wait for the child to talk about things. Once the child/children return to school they may or may not wish to talk about the death of their parent and that’s ok. As and when they are ready they will decide who they feel comfortable to talk to about it. The Form Teacher needs to check with the child during the first day how they are doing and see if there is anything specific that might be needed. The Form Teacher can then keep an on-going careful eye on them, in a supportive way rather than excessively intense.
We have built up a resource of books that the child/children can borrow, or classmates. Also, we make sure that the child/children and their parent know they can talk to the Form Teacher, myself, or the School Chaplain at any time if they would like to. The support is there as long as the family need it.