Family & School Partnership: A Note to Parents
by Helen Simonowitz, 6th year, NCSP © 1994
reprinted with permission.
About four and a half years ago, I became acquainted with the Mihalko family after the death of their daughter, Meg. I was a school psychologist working in the elementary school that their older sons, Jay and Jon, attended. I had had little formalized training in helping children cope with death and knew some basic information about SIDS. We worked and learned together.
I would like to share some ways in which parents and the school can join together to help siblings cope. The process begins initially with sharing information, informing the school that a death has occurred in the family. It is helpful to convey information about when the siblings will return to school, what the family's belief system is, plans for funerals or memorial services. Each family is unique as will be their response.
Some children, after a loss, find comfort in the routines of school. They may want to return to school as soon as possible. I have found it helpful to meet with the student sometimes before they reenter the classroom. They can provide suggestions for what they want their classmates to know and ways that their peers can be helpful to them. They can describe what they would like their classmates to say to them about their brother or sister who has died and how they should act. I ask for their permission to share this information with their classmates.
Classmates need to be informed, if they don't already know, before the child returns. This can be done in a brief classroom meeting. After giving basic information, we discuss what they can do to make their peer feel more comfortable. Perhaps its inviting them to play at recess, sitting next to them at lunch. Often in the discussion, children will bring up their own losses, be it cats or birds, or grandparents. Questions about the death can be asked in a supportive climate.
Teachers play a pivotal role in the partnership. Often they provide outside support such as visiting you and your child at home, attending the memorial service, and maintaining contact with you through notes and phone calls.
Teachers help to provide stability for the child in the school setting. They can convey to the child that while schoolwork is important, s/he may have trouble focusing. Modifications in work may need to be made. Initially, tests may be postponed. In addition, work might be shortened. Homework may not be able to be completed. Long term assignments might be put off.
As a parent, you may need to become an advocate for your child. In the best scenario, the teacher is knowledgeable of the stages of children's grieving, makes needed modifications, and is in contact with you. Parents can provide the school with information about SIDS, children's bereavement, etc. They may need to help teachers become more knowledgeable. Recognize that you may request a meeting with your child's teacher at any time. Don't be afraid to ask for modifications if they have not been forthcoming.
Parents should also ask what counseling services are available in the school setting. It may be helpful to talk to the school psychologist or social worker to discuss ways in which they might support your child. S/he might meet with your child on a short term basis, monitor your child's functioning in school, get feedback from the teacher, suggest modifications, provide follow up, etc.
The school nurse frequently becomes involved. Her office may provide a brief respite when a break is needed in the classroom. A system needs to be worked out between the teacher and nurse for this to take place. Somatic complaints may increase such as headaches, stomachaches. Children who are having trouble sleeping or whose routines have been disrupted may become tired at school and need a short rest.
Children's responses to their loss vary as you know. The work of grieving can not be hurried. Parents and schools need to join together to support children through this process, however long it takes. Throughout we need to let the child know that it is O.K. to still have fun or laugh or be a child without feeling guilty. Their brother or sister will always be in their hearts.