As you are going through the motions of planning carpools, packing new book bags, and laying out first-day of school outfits, we know that a peek inside your head may reveal a tornado of racing thoughts and anxieties about your child going back to school after a death over the summer. The freedom of summer schedules may have provided a lot of time with family for support after a death. It can be panic-inducing when that has to change. You may be worrying whether your children will struggle in school. You may be worrying if behavior problems will emerge. You may be worrying their grades will slip or other kids will say hurtful things. You may be worrying that your kids are worrying but are not telling you that they are worrying.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH!
It is normal to be nervous about sending your children back to school after a death. This is a big transition, for you and for them. After a death, when our children are grieving, it is our nature to want to protect them. If you lost someone this summer there is a good chance you have been watching your child’s every move for signs they are not adapting well. You may have been spending a lot of extra time together. You may have been spoiling them a bit, trying to make the pain just a little bit easier. The extra time can’t (and shouldn’t) last forever, so think of back to school as a helpful transition back into a regular schedule and regular pattern of interactions with friends, teachers, and school counselors. For many children, the routine, social interaction, support, and structure will be helpful. For some kids, a little extra help will be needed to readjust to school.
Remember, kids just want to feel ‘normal’ and a death can make them feel very abnormal. There are certain things it will be helpful to do to support this transition, but each step of the way keep in mind that your child will not want to feel ‘different’ or singled out from other children. Do your best to respect that, while still ensuring your child is prepared and supported.
So how can you prepare for a smooth transition?
1) Notify your child’s teacher and school administrators. You want your child’s teacher, principal, and other administrators to be aware of the death. As it is a new school year their teacher likely will not know your child’s typical behavior. This will make it more difficult for them to notice behavioral changes. Let your child’s teacher know about your child’s normal habits, behaviors, and personality. Encourage them to talk to your child’s teacher from last year, if possible, to get a sense of how your child typically behaved and interacted in the classroom. Don’t forget that your child may have multiple teachers and they should all be aware. Art, gym, music teachers, and librarians should all be updated, even if the time they spend with your child is far more limited. Make sure to let your child know that you will be talking to the school about the death. Discuss with them what they are comfortable having shared so they feel included in the process. You don’t want a child to be caught off guard that someone was aware of the death when they assumed the person was unaware.
2) Speak with your child’s school counselor. After a death, children may start exhibiting anger, trouble concentrating, isolation from other students, hyperactivity, withdraw, loss of interest in activities, depression, and slipping grades. These changes can be part of normal grief and adjustment, but at a certain point, they can be a sign that your child needs additional professional support in adapting. A school counselor is an important resource to work together with you, your child, and your child’s teachers to determine if behaviors and symptoms seem excessively prolonged or severe. These could be signs that a mental health evaluation and individual counseling should be sought. Again, make sure your child knows that the school counselor is aware of the death and will be in communication with them, you, and their teacher.
3) Make a communication plan. It will be important that you, your child’s teacher, and your child’s school counselor stay in communication in a way that will work for all parties. Determine how often and through what medium you will communicate (a weekly email, a call every few weeks, etc). If you have any concerns at home don’t hesitate to update your child’s teacher and counselor, so they can be aware and request they do the same.
4) Seek an evaluation and counseling if appropriate. We have said it 1,000 times before and we will say it 1,000 more times: everyone could benefit from a little therapy – kids included!! If your child’s teacher, principal, or counselor expresses any concern about how your child is adapting and recommend counseling, don’t hesitate. I know I know, you may meet some initial resistance from your child. You may have family and friends telling you just to give it time and that kids are resilient. Keep in mind, this is a better safe than sorry situation. How your child readjusts to school can be an indicator of how they are coping and adjusting overall, so go ahead and make the appointment if it is recommended. It can’t hurt!! Some schools now offer school-based mental health programs and counselors, so ask if this is an option. Not sure what is normal for grieving kids of different ages? Fear not, we have a post about that here.
5) Prepare your child for other kids. If other students are aware of the death and haven’t seen your child they may ask questions about the death. Prepare your child that this may occur and let them know that it is their choice what they share with other children. If your child does not want to discuss the death with other kids, you may wish to practice with them something they can say to other kids if questions arise. Discuss with them how and when to talk to their teacher if other kids keep asking them questions they are uncomfortable about.
That being said, it can be problematic if a child wants to hide a death from other students. Do not force them to share this information with other students if they are adamantly unwilling, If a child wants to hide the death, work with them over time to feel comfortable openly and honestly discussing the death. If this is an issue you are working through share it with your child’s teacher and school counselor so they are aware and can also work with your child toward an open acknowledgment of the loss.
Depending on their age, other kids may make hurtful, ill-informed, or inappropriate comments, whether intentional or unintentional. Prepare your child that other kids may not understand death and they may say things that are inappropriate. Again, make sure they are prepared with how to respond to another child that says something that makes them uncomfortable. It may be helpful to remind children who are hesitant to honestly share information about the death that other kids may be more likely to unintentionally say harmful things if they are unaware of the death.
6) Brainstorm some coping tools for when things are tough. Your child will inevitably have some tough days or moments at school. Spend some time talking to them about things they can do to cope when they are having a hard time. This may mean talking to a specific friend who they feel especially safe with, talking to a teacher or other trusted adult at the school, carrying something with them that helps them feel comforted or safe, asking for time to go the guidance counselor or any number of other things that you and your child could come up with together. Looking for some ideas and activities for supporting kids? We have those here.
7) Prepare your child for work with a school counselor. If your child has not had much contact with the school guidance counselor in the past, let them know who the counselor is, what their job is, and make a plan for you and your child to meet the guidance counselor together in advance of school if your child is nervous. The goal is for your child to feel comfortable being open and honest with the school counselor, so helping them know what to expect is important to get the relationship off to a good start.
8) Identify adults your child trusts. There is a good chance your child will have a brand new teacher and may or may not have a relationship with the school counselor. If your child doesn’t have an existing relationship with these people, it may be good to identify any adults in the school they do trust and feel comfortable talking to. This may be a teacher from a previous grade, a music/art/gym/library teacher, a principle, teacher’s aide, or office secretary. If there is someone your child trusts, let your child’s teacher, guidance counselor, and that individual know. Ideally, the school will allow some flexibility for your child to speak with that person if they are having a difficult day.
9) Give your child permission to enjoy school. A new school year is exciting! It means a new grade, seeing old friends and making new friends, a new teacher, and all sorts of other new and exciting experiences. After a death, a child may still be feeling confused, guilty, or self-conscious about having fun and being happy when something terrible has happened. Make sure to remind your child that you want them to enjoy school and that it is normal for them to be happy and have fun.
Prefer to listen to your grief support? Check out our podcast on supporting children who are returning to school after a death.
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