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How to help bereaved children start a new school year

As children across the UK return to school, a number will be doing so without a mum, dad, brother or sister. By the age of 16 on average, one child in every classroom will have experienced the death of a parent or sibling.

This is the most fundamental loss a child will face and can impact a child’s physical and mental health. Bereaved children are likely to have a range of feelings, including sadness, anger, guilt and confusion.

A new school year can already bring a number of anxieties for children and young people. Will I make friends? Will I be stressed? How will I do in my studies?

Experiencing the death of someone close at this time can only add to the anxieties and difficulties a young person is feeling.

It is imperative that bereaved children and young people are given the support they need when starting a new school year. Some may have new teachers, who may not know about their circumstances. This can be particularly true in secondary or high school and can feel challenging for a child.

Winston’s Wish is a national charity that supports children and young people after the death of a parent or sibling. We also work with professionals, including those in the education sector, to ensure that those working with children and young people are best equipped to support them when needed.

Here are six things Winston’s Wish recommends that teachers and educational professionals can do to help young people who have been bereaved start a new school year:

Do your research

One of the most important things you can do as a school leader is to help your staff be aware of the students who will be joining their classes. By getting an understanding of their situation and experiences, you can ensure that your staff are best prepared to support them should they need it. It is also important to bear in mind other children in the school who have been bereaved in previous years.

Communication is key

How you communicate with the bereaved children and young people you work with is imperative. Make sure that you are open and honest with them at all times and give them a platform to express what would be helpful for them or to tell you how they are feeling.

By building that trust, you can manage the situation as best as you can should the child feel that they are struggling with their grief.

Let the child make choices

Whilst some bereaved children will be overwhelmed with their grief, try to encourage an atmosphere in which they can make choices. For example, encourage your staff to give them ownership of some of the tasks the class will be doing. Robert Kruze, a Primary School teacher in the North West, told us:

“In class, you may be making a card for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day and the child asks if they can write it to the person they have lost or they might say they don’t know who to write it to. At this point in time, let the child take ownership of the situation, do not push them but instead, offer advice and talk through what the child would like to do. Be the mediator. It is important to let the child express themselves in order for them to better understand how they are feeling.”

Ensure you have the training needed in your school

By introducing specialist bereavement training, you can make sure that professionals in your school have an understanding of how to support bereaved students. We offer training days across the UK which help teachers be best equipped to offer support when the child needs it. More information can be found at

Understand that every child is different

There is no single plan or session that can help every single bereaved child. In the same way that every student will learn differently, every single child will grieve differently. It is important to gain an understanding of what will help them.

For example, some students will feel more comfortable telling their classmates what has happened, while others may not want to talk about it with their peers. Communicate with the student and family to understand what works for them.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Help is available for bereaved children, their families and professionals like you. Our Freephone National Helpline is available on 08088 020 021 (weekdays, 9am – 5pm) for anyone who has any questions or concerns about supporting a bereaved child.

Our experienced team can offer support and guidance, as well as information about face-to-face support available for the child.

For more information, you can visit the Winston’s Wish website at

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Di Stubbs is a helpline practitioner at Winston's Wish and has over 20 years’ experience in the bereavement sector. She regularly supports families on our helpline, as well as professionals in the education sector. 
First published 10 September 2018