It is estimated that more than one million children in the United Kingdom have a form of speech language and communication need. (Source - I Can Charity)
It is also estimated that 78% of 11 to 16-year olds have been bereaved of a close relative or friend. (Source - Harrison & Harrington, 2001)
What happens when these two groups merge? How can we best support bereaved children who have a speech language or communication need?
It’s immensely difficult for adults to come to terms with the death of someone close to them. For children bereavement is even more complex due to their lack of experience and understanding of what life and death means and the fact that death is final. Children who are bereaved will therefore need careful support and guidance from the adults around them. If a child with a SLCN experiences a significant death they will need an even greater level of support to understand and process the death.
How can we support bereaved children with SLCN?
Don’t rely on words
When talking to the child about the death don’t just rely on words to explain the death and the emotions around grieving. Make sure that you use a range of resources and approaches to help the child understand what is going. For example: always have a photograph of the person who has died, objects related to the deceased or a few of their belongings and try and make sure that these are as multi-sensory as possible (e.g. a bottle of their after-shave, recordings of their favourite songs, some of their favourite food etc.). Use symbols and social stories, facilitate activities associated with the person that has died - by being actively involved in a task related to the decease makes it easier for the child to start talking about the person who has died and how the they are feeling about the loss.
Ensure that there is plenty of processing time
The child will need time to understand the information that is given to them and this will probably be longer than you think.
Don’t inundate the child with information about the death or have long conversations about how they are feeling, instead have short frequent chats with them and make sure that they know that they can talk to you at any time.
Give them space
Just as we need to give bereaved children with SLCN time we also need to give them space. Don’t think you always need to be right on top of them. They will need their own space to think about what is going on and also space to not think about the death and at times they will need respite from their emotions and have some fun playing and just be a child.
Take a jigsaw approach
Give the child a piece of information at a time so that they gradually build up the details about the death, rather than overwhelming them with all of the details at once.
Show your emotions
We teach children about the emotions of happiness, sadness, anger etc. and we need to do the same with the emotions of grief. Part of this is about showing children how we are feeling when we experience a bereavement.
Make sure the child knows that they can ask any questions, at any time. These questions don’t always have to be verbal, the child can write their questions down and place them in a special place, or send a text message, draw a picture, record a message on the answerphone etc.
Answer all children's questions honestly, never lie or tell a half-truth, this will only make things more difficult.
Say their name
When someone close to us dies we want to keep the person alive. Although we cannot bring them back, we can keep memories of the person alive. Make sure you keep saying the person’s name, talking about things they did, liked etc. This allows the child to know it’s ok for them to do the same.
Trust your instincts
We all worry about doing and saying the right thing with people who are bereaved, you may be even more worried about this if the bereaved child has SLCN but trust your instincts, they will invariably be correct. What all bereaved people want is to know that they are not alone and that there are still people around who love and care for them - children with SLCN are exactly the same.
Sarah Helton is a Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Consultant and Trainer who specialises in bereavement, grief and loss.
Sarah provides training and advice to both special and mainstream schools on how to support bereaved children who have special educational needs and or disabilities (including those who are profoundly disabled, non-verbal or have autism). She also provides training for staff on how they can look after themselves following professional bereavements.
Sarah has over 20 years’ experience in the field of education and an outstanding track record in a diverse range of roles (Deputy Head, Assistant Head, Teacher, Local Authority Education Officer and Educational Publisher). She now works exclusively as a SEND trainer, consultant and author.
Sarah’s books include -
A Special Kind of Grief The complete guide for supporting bereavement and loss in special schools (& other SEND settings)
Remembering Lucy (A children's story book about grief and bereavement in a school).
Both books are published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
In association with Widgit Symbols Sarah has developed a Bereavement & Loss Symbol Resource Set. A set of resources designed for children, young people and their families to help them through the process of bereavement and loss.
Sarah is a 2018 Churchill Fellow - researching best practice in supporting bereaved children who have SEND
Specialising in bereavement, grief & loss