Do you talk about death in your school?

Written by: Alison Penny | Published:
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It is perhaps the one issue that many children will experience but which schools don’t talk about. Alison Penny gives five reasons for making death and dying part of your curriculum

Reflecting on how bereavement is tackled in schools, a young person commented: “It’s kind of ironic because it’s the one thing that’s guaranteed in life, but they won’t teach you about it!”

Talking about death to children is common sense, but all too often we avoid it until it strikes. The proposed new curricula for relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education present an ideal opportunity for schools to help pupils to think about what happens when someone important to them dies. Here are five good reasons why schools should adopt this more proactive approach.

1, Young people are curious about death

Young people are naturally curious about death and bereavement and often raise questions about it. Research with young people has shown that many – including those who haven’t been bereaved – would welcome learning about coping with this major life change, although they are clear that this needs to be handled in a sensitive manner.

2, Before it happens

Given the number of children who will experience bereavement during their childhood (some estimates indicate that nearly 80 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds have been bereaved of a close relative or friend), there is a strong case for them to learn about some of the common feelings and reactions associated with loss, ideally before it happens to them.

One SEND teacher told us emphatically: “Crucial! All children will experience it at some point and they need opportunities to start to explore what it means before they are emotionally bound up in it.”

3, Tackle taboos, isolation and bullying

Providing education about loss and bereavement for all pupils can help to dispel notions that death is a taboo subject. As one parent told us, it can “help children know what they are experiencing is ‘normal’ or to help them understand what a bereaved class mate is experiencing”.

Bereaved children often report a sense of isolation which can be exacerbated by peers and even teachers having no idea how to talk to them about their loss. In some cases bereavement leads to a particularly painful opening for bullying to occur. Education can help prevent both, showing death and grieving to be part of ordinary experience rather than something which can’t be spoken about.

However, only one in 10 British adults bereaved as children said their school was supportive (according to the Child Bereavement UK YouGov poll in 2016). While practice has improved in some areas, there is much more to do. As one secondary teacher told us: “I taught this as part of social education and my teenage students found it amazingly helpful. It led to better understanding of their peers who had suffered loss.”

4, Be better prepared as a school

As well as preparing individual pupils for an experience which will almost inevitably happen to them at some point in life, a school which teaches these topics is also likely to be better prepared if there is a death in the school community (e.g. a pupil, parent or staff member).

5, Ability to cope

The Childhood Bereavement Network advocates a spiral curriculum, with children getting a foundation in primary school on topics such as differences and changes in families, life-cycles and understanding death, and understanding and managing feelings and seeking help.

As they get older, the likelihood that they have themselves experienced bereavement grows. At secondary school, the curriculum should allow pupils to explore issues in increasing depth, and with more likelihood of reflection on their own personal experiences.

They are likely to have questions about fairness and justice, different beliefs around death and bereavement, supporting themselves and others with overwhelming feelings, and finding appropriate support including outside the family.

With some elaboration, the draft RSE and health education curricula will provide an important framework for this content.

Of course, meeting the needs of all learners on a topic such as bereavement goes beyond the content of the programme of study. Many young people’s first experience of death and bereavement will be a personal one: the death of a pet, family member or friend, and so lessons on these topics will speak directly to their own experience. For this reason, curriculum development must be part of a whole school approach, involving proactive and flexible pastoral support, a system for managing and communicating important information about bereavements, staff training and support, and policy development.

Learn from special schools

Pupils in special schools are more likely than others to experience the death of a peer, and mainstream schools can learn from the expertise developed by special schools in supporting their communities.

Sarah Helton, an assistant headteacher at a special school in Dorset and a consultant and trainer, is currently researching best practice in Denmark, Norway and the US in supporting children with SEND with bereavement and grief (see further information).

Learning from young people

Young people’s suggestions about what could help to make school a good place to learn about death and bereavement are particularly helpful. They include that teachers check with young people who have recently been bereaved whether they are happy to join in the lesson and that no pressure is put on them to talk about personal experiences.

Young people also suggest providing somewhere quiet to go or someone to talk to after the lesson if they are feeling upset, and clear signposting for additional help and support.
However, schools can go further, and we recommend that schools get in touch with their local child bereavement service to make sure that a clear referral pathway is in place for when bereaved pupils need extra support.

  • Alison Penny is director of the Childhood Bereavement Network.

Further information


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