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Preparing Your Grieving Child for Back to School

It’s that time of year. Stores are stocked with folders and pencils, commercials are advertising the newest back to school gear, and the public pool is preparing to close. Returning to school after a long summer can be either a daunting task or a welcomed change for a grieving child. For some children, returning to school brings back a sense of familiarity, comfort, and routine that is much needed. For others, returning to school may feel overwhelming, especially after the loss of a loved one.

Here are a few things to consider when sending your grieving child back to school:

Ask your child how much they feel comfortable sharing about their loss with classmates and teaching staff. You may find your child worrying about who at school knows the details of the death. Some children may first want to keep the death to themselves because they worry that others will treat them differently. However, keeping the death a secret can prohibit your child from receiving support from teachers, friends, and staff. Help your child know that they can have the power to tell their own story, rather than having classmates and teachers find out in other ways. Once you have talked with your child about who they want to tell, you can help them by having a conversation with their teacher or other staff.

Make a plan for the harder days. While any day can feel hard for a grieving child, there may be certain days in the school year that feel especially hard. Whether it’s opening night of their school play, their first football game of the season, or their loved one’s birthday, these challenging days may require extra support. You may want to include their teachers and counselors in a plan for difficult days. Your child and teacher may come up with a code word or sign that indicates that they may need to step out of the classroom and go to the counselor. Knowing that a safety plan is in place can be comforting for your child.

Acknowledge challenges with concentration and school work.  Grief can impact a child’s ability to focus on classwork for extended periods of time. This can have an impact on your child’s grades if left unchecked. It may be smart to talk with your child’s teacher to have a plan in place if your child is unable to focus on assigned work due to their ongoing grief reactions. One idea is to have a fellow classmate who checks in at the end of each day to make sure they remember to bring home their homework. Another is to assign a tutor to your child in certain subjects where they may be struggling.

Rethink drop-offs and after school care. If the person who died was involved in dropping off or picking your child up from school, you may need to adjust while staying as true to your usual routine as possible. Work together with your child to come up with an after school plan that both of you are comfortable with. You may need to recruit other family or friends into this new routine.

Make time for play and self-care. At the end of the day, children still have a desire to play and have fun with friends even while grieving. It is important to allow time for this, which can be hard to find in our busy schedules. It is also important for you as a parent to spend time caring for yourself, so that you can feel up to supporting your child in their grief. Finding time to care for your own emotional, psychological, spiritual, physical, and social needs is an important component of supporting your family.