The start of the new school year is fast approaching, and while some families are preparing by putting together new backpacks, gathering school supplies, and buying new clothes, those who have had a death in the family have additional things to prepare for as they get ready for a new school year. School can be filled with reminders and triggers that can be overwhelming for children trying to cope with the loss.
Here are some suggestions that could bring comfort to both children and parents:
Inform Your Child’s Teacher and School Support Personnel
There are many benefits in notifying teachers, principals, and school counselors about a death in the family. Teachers may not know your child’s typical behavior, so it is important to communicate when they are seeing behaviors such as difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity, withdrawal, loss of interest in activities and changes in grades.
Make sure to let your child know that you will be talking to the school about the death. This will help better prepare the student for ongoing support throughout the school year and help establish a plan for when they need more support.
Prepare Your Child for Inevitable Questions About the Absence of their Loved One
Classmates may be curious to know where their loved one is if they used to be present in school, or in their lives. Offer your children suggestions about ways to respond to these questions including being truthful and direct, or letting them know it is okay to tell their classmates they are not ready to talk about it.
Equip Your Child with Ways to Seek Support if Being Bullied or Teased
Unfortunately, grief can sometimes make children a target for bullies. Talk to your child about appropriate ways to respond in a bullying situation such as telling the bully to “stop” in a confidant voice and notifying an adult of the incident.
Identify Who They Can Talk to When a “Grief Wave” Hits
There is a good chance your child will have a new teacher and may or may not have an existing relationship with the school counselor. It is a good idea to identify adults they feel comfortable talking to when they are missing their loved one or having a hard time. This may be a former teacher, art teacher, PE teacher, or music teacher. Work with their current teacher to develop a plan that ensures they have someone they can talk.
Brainstorm Coping Strategies
In addition to talking to someone when they are having a rough day, spend some time talking to children about things they can do to cope when they are having a hard time at school. Below you will find one activity that our children at The WARM Place have found helpful.
Supplies: Transparent glass gemstones, colored paper cut in a small circle, scissors, fine point sharpies, glue sticks.
For this activity, children will make a special comfort stone that fits perfectly in the palm of their hand. They can take it with them wherever they go, including school, for tactile stimulation to help them when they are feeling stressed or anxious. They can trace the stone on the colored paper and cut into a circle to fit their comfort stone. Invite them to write the name of their loved one, the name of their surviving parent, or a calming or inspirational word on their small circle and glue it to the bottom of their stone. Other options include coloring the circle a calming color or drawing something small that brings them comfort and placing it on the bottom of their stone. This will give them something solid to hold on to when they’re going through challenges.
Give Children Permission to Enjoy Their New School Year
A new school year is exciting! It means a new grade, seeing old friends, making new ones, and all sorts of other new experiences. After a death, children may feel confused, guilty, or self-conscious about having fun. Make sure to remind them to enjoy school and that it is normal for them to be happy and enjoy the good times.