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Explaining death to children – free teacher guide

It's important to be honest and reassure pupils that you're there to support them, say University of Oxford experts

  • Explaining death to children – free teacher guide

In the era of Covid-19, with many families facing a bereavement, schools can provide children with a place to talk about things which they don’t want to bring up at home.

Even very young children under the age of two already perceive anxiety or a change in mood and may not want to ask questions which they worry could hurt their parents or other people they care about.

Helping children with grief

At the University of Oxford we have developed a free step-by-step guide for teachers on how to speak to pupils about bereavement or illness.

Children look up to their teachers: you are some of the most important role models for them as they grow up. It is natural, then, that they may turn to you for support.

The step-by-step guide will prepare you for that conversation.

Many of the steps seem obvious, but reminding a child of their support network at home and at school may bring comfort and relief.

Talking about death

If and when children bring up bereavements or other worries they have, it’s important to be ready to answer questions, even if they are ones you wouldn’t normally predict or happen at a time during the school day that you weren’t expecting.

Although it may feel daunting, it is important you speak as clearly as possible when discussing bereavement or illness with children.

Honesty is crucial. Otherwise, some youngsters may think the person who has died can be brought back.

Children may also try to make sense of the situation themselves if you are not clear enough or if they are not able to have a discussion with you.

This could lead to them thinking they are personally responsible for the illness.

There is no right way to go through these conversations and children will react in an infinite number of different ways, but the most important thing is that you are honest with them, and that you remind them that you and their families are there, ready to support them.

Download your free teacher guide for speaking to pupils about bereavement or illness here.

Dr Louise Dalton is a consultant clinical psychologist. She has over 20 years’ NHS experience, working clinically with children, young people and parents. Dr Elizabeth Rapa is a senior postdoctoral researcher and has worked on a wide range of projects investigating ways to improve outcomes for children and parents in situations of adversity. Both work in the department of psychiatry at the University of Oxford.

Find more resources for bereavement for children at Seesaw and Children’s Bereavement Centre.


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