Schools "failing bereaved pupils," says study by UCB graduate

October 2014

Grieving children are being failed by schools because teachers are not trained to deal with bereavement, according to research by a UCB graduate. 

Seven out of 10 schools are likely to have a bereaved child on roll at any one time, but staff often lack the professional skills to help the pupils, creating a potential time bomb of mental health problems later in life. 

The findings have been made by Ellie Stokes, who researched the “taboo” of childhood bereavement for her final-year degree dissertation for Early Childhood Studies. Her research, titled “Helping Children To Say Goodbye,” has just been published and is already attracting the attention of senior education officers. 

Ellie, who graduated with a First Class BA (Hons) in September, discovered a gulf between the emotional and psychological needs of bereaved pupils and the ability of teachers to deal with this complex issue. 

Ellie decided to research the subject because “questions may be raised over the ethical issues that surround leaving potentially unqualified staff in the care of bereaved pupils.” Moreover, the situation could be exacerbated by proposals to extend the school day, leaving children facing nine-hour days at school. 

According to some estimates, a child becomes parentally bereaved every 22 minutes in the UK, leading to annual incidence figures ranging from 20,000 to 24,000 children. 

Ellie said: “I have learnt that children probably don’t get the support they need because teachers don’t have the understanding they need, possibly through no fault of their own.” 

She described the issue of bereaved children as a “social taboo, a closed book.” Primary school pupils who failed to get proper help dealing with their grief were vulnerable to psychological problems and depression. 

In her dissertation conclusions, Ellie says: “Conclusive findings from research suggest that despite it being compulsory for teachers to have a clear understanding of how to support pupils’ well-being, very little evidence exists to suggest that teachers are adequately trained to manage the impact of specific life events, such as a parental bereavement, on a child.

“The reasoning behind this may be… that teachers naturally shy away from approaching the subject of bereavement out of fear that they may cause distress or embarrassment. 

“From research findings, it has been demonstrated that in fact such negative emotional experiences can be considerably reduced as a result of professionals such as teachers actively promoting open discussion of topics such as death with children. 

“What’s more, by promoting effective death education, children are less likely to repress their feelings and… experience complicated grief in later life.” 

Ellie, from Coventry, is now training as a healthcare play specialist and her dissertation’s findings are being considered by education chiefs in Birmingham and Coventry with a view to informing future practice.


  • Ellie’s research project, “Helping Children To Say Goodbye: an evaluation of the training needs of teachers in supporting parentally bereaved children in mainstream primary schools” is published by Lambert Academic Publishing.