Advice and support for primary school teachers

Normal reactions to a traumatic event

Following any distressing event it is quite normal to experience a range of reactions. Each person will respond in her/his own way. Students may show some of the following:

  • Not being able to concentrate or want to do school work or make decisions
  • Avoiding places, people or objects which remind them of the incident
  • Physical effects such as feeling unwell, headaches, listlessness or over activity
  • Nightmares, irritability
  • Feelings of guilt and/or responsibility
  • Difficulty in accepting the events of how they have been affected by them e.g. appearing over brave
  • Changes in personality e.g. feeling depressed or isolated, becoming irritable or angry
  • Needing to go over and over the incident which can test the patience of those closest
  • Seeing or hearing the person who has died.

These reactions are all common responses and are usually short-lived, e.g. Up to four weeks. The majority of people will get over the experience with the support of family, friends and school

How to help your pupils

A traumatic event often leaves people feeling confused and unsettled, it is therefore very important to consider the following strategies:

  • Listen to and try to understand your pupil’s views of the event
  • Give attention, reassurance and say things simply
  • Allow pupils to talk about the event and express feelings – give reassurance and permission to feel upset
  • Check children’s understanding of the event
  • Answer pupil’s questions as truthfully as possible
  • Maintain daily routines both at home and at school
  • Encourage healthy eating, exercise and rest
  • Encourage resumption of social activities e.g. clubs
  • Let children know that their reactions are as might be expected
  • It can help to recall happy memories

Children aged 5-9:

  • Are beginning to understand that death is permanent
  • Can differentiate between living and non-living
  • Believe death only happens to others
  • Can be outspoken and ask direct questions
  • May be curious and confused
  • May talk of wanting to die and join the other person in heaven
  • Might display 'magical thinking' i.e. they caused the death
  • Can feel 'different' to peers
  • Perceive death and something spooky, scary or fascinating
  • Could have strong feelings about loss but lack vocabulary to express these
  • May experience separation anxiety (temporarily)

Whilst children aged 9-11 may experience some of the above, they may also:

  • Fear other losses
  • Feel a need to participate in rituals
  • Feel that they need to be brave and not upset their parent(s)
  • Have intense reactions

Durant, A. (2004). Always and Forever. London: Picture Corgi.

Gilbert, I. (2010). The Little Book of Bereavement for Schools. London: Crown publishing Ltd.

Ironside, V. (1996). The Huge Bag of Worries. London: Hodder.

Stokes, J. & Crossley, D. (2008). A Child’s Grief: Supporting a child when someone in their family has died. Winston's Wish.


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