Through several years of treating children in Primary Schools and in my own clinical practice, a pattern has emerged that brings everything the Early Years children are experiencing into focus – loss is central to their emotional struggle.
The causes of loss are countless – whether it is the grief of bereavement, the strain of divorce or the uncertainty of a new home or school – the trauma of this sense of loss together with the deepest longing for belonging would always be at the center of their pain.
Childhood bereavement statistics from Child Bereavement UK show that 1 child in every classroom in the UK has experienced a loss of some sort. Inevitably, this loss manifests into challenging behaviour both in and out of the classroom.
This frequently puts teachers on the front line of children’s mental health, being the first responders for children who are coping with horrible experiences.
Teaching professionals are expected to provide emotional support, yet are not trained to deliver a provision that provides children with the space and framework to learn how to cope with their loss.
In a recent survey by the National Education Union, more than 8 out of 10 teachers said mental health among pupils in England had deteriorated in the past two years. Some teachers had been given training, though much of it had been inadequate or there had simply not been enough mental health specialists available to help, leading the teachers to feel compelled to help the child themselves.
The outcome from this is clear. The effect of loss on a pupil leads to escalated behaviour, which leads to increased stress on the teacher, compassion fatigue and burnout.
Beyond the training they need to support the child, educators often seriously underestimate the support a teacher needs themselves, to cope with the emotional impact of the child’s trauma and loss. Teachers are brilliant at caring for others but this in itself puts them at a higher risk of what we call “compassion fatigue”. Their strong instinct for empathy leads to a disconnection from their own feelings. Perhaps they are already under immense pressure to hit academic targets and this additional stress causes ‘burnout’.
For those teachers that have experienced a loss in their own past, dealing with the child’s emotions directly can be a trigger for traumatic emotions, leaving them vulnerable. If we haven’t dealt with our own struggles, how can we expect children to cope with theirs?
Tension in the classroom is infectious and if teachers lack support, their subsequent mental and physical stress impacts how they communicate with the children, leading to increased stress on the children and a vicious cycle.
Ultimately, we know that in order to “do well” we need to “feel well” but it’s critical that we distinguish between the facts that teachers are there to support their pupils to be successful; they are not the mental health experts.
The pathway towards resolution is to look towards a model of not just awareness of being trauma informed in school, but by providing a support system for teachers that builds resilience and empowerment.
The first step is to educate professionals about signposting bereavement.
Teachers can learn to recognise changes in behaviour such as clinginess, distance and lack of concentration. Aside from the benefits of early intervention, being able to interpret a child’s behaviour through an awareness of loss and change has a positive impact both on the child, who has their sense of loss validated, and the professional who builds rapport with the child.
In my book “Helping Children Cope with Loss and Change”, I offer a further solution in the framework of, ‘The Cycle of Loss and Change’, a classroom based toolkit which consists of creative activities and tools to support children. What does this mean in practice? A teacher may recognise when a pupil is distracted, finding it hard to concentrate and follow instructions or their emotions are getting triggered. The teacher can feel empowered with a backup of tools, such as a creative task or a therapeutic story that helps bring the child back to a calm, focused place.
It’s essential that these activities feel like a natural extension of the classroom. Teachers are busy and need vital tools that are both simple to set up and don’t feel out of place to pupils when a teacher uses it to support them.
Building loss informed education in schools is a journey, not a quick fix. What is urgently needed is a shift in mindset and core support for teachers to be able to provide sustained care for pupils over time.
Too many children feel lonely and isolated in their grief. Their mental health and often their academic achievement, suffers due to a lack of solid support. By investing in helping teachers ‘skill-up’ in recognising loss, and giving them the right tools, they will be better able to support children through the daunting challenges posed by dealing with loss and grief.
In turn, they become more aware of their own wellness needs, building resilience and leading to more energized and focused professionals.
This article was written to support Early Years Wellbeing Week, running 7th-13th October 2019, which shines a spotlight on the mental wellbeing of all staff, children and families.
Amanda Seyderhelm is a Play Therapist and Author in private practice and, a Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children Ambassador. Her latest publication, ‘Helping Children Cope with Loss and Change: A Guide for Professionals and Parents’ is out now published by Routledge Education. Visit https://amandaseyderhelm.com/books/ for more information.