Pediatrics
Can you suggest resources for school staff supporting an ill student in the classroom?

The illness or death of a student has a significant emotional impact on other students and teachers in the school or classroom. Providing opportunities to talk about the situation is part of the grieving and healing process for everyone. The information below provides some strategies for coping with a student’s illness or death.

When a student is ill:

  • Help create a care plan. While usually developed by the family and health care providers, a care plan that includes the participation of school staff can greatly benefit an ill student. Build in time for updates so you can discuss concerns or questions as they arise. Be sure to adjust the plan as the student’s health status changes.
  • Develop an action plan for situations in which a student becomes ill or whose condition worsens. Make sure you have procedures for handling medical emergencies, a sudden deterioration in the student’s condition, the student’s pain or other symptoms.

When a student is dying:

  • Recognize and acknowledge the emotional impact a life-limiting illness can have on school staff and students. Include time in every staff meeting to discuss how people are coping and encourage your colleagues to access resources such as counselling.
  • Enlist the help of the family to determine what information needs to be shared (and when) with other students. Information delivered at the right time can help students prepare for changes in the dying student’s condition, and encourage them to talk and behave appropriately around the student. Openly acknowledging the illness and being honest about what is known will likely make dealing with the student’s death less traumatic for the entire school. Health care providers are often available to speak to a class or the student body about what to expect as the student’s illness continues to progress.
  • Consider how information about the death of the student will be shared with the other students and their parents. Consider a plan for providing support should the death of a student occur. Organize the resources that would need to be accessed, how students will be told, and what will be communicated.

When a student dies:

  • Take action as soon as the death occurs. The impact of a death is more significant if it happens at school and is witnessed by other students or staff. Immediately bring in professional counselling teams to debrief with students and staff. Make sure that students and staff have access to counselors and psychologists.
  • Recognize the value of the student who died. Conduct a formal or informal memorial service. Some ideas include:
    • planting a memorial tree;
    • building a play structure in honour of the student;
    • sending the family a memory book developed by the students (parents have found this particularly touching);
    • organizing a memorial service on the anniversary of the death;
    • planning a fundraiser to support a charity (such as an organization meaningful to the student, such as one that supports a particular disease or provides specific equipment or services used by the student);
    • developing a scholarship in the student’s name.


You will find additional resources developed specifically for schools in the Books, Links and More section of our website. Some examples include:

  • Loss, Grief and Growth - Educational Project Inc. is an online resource prepared by Dr. John Morgan, Milton Orris and Richard J. Paul. It is intended to help educators support students in the classroom when they experience the loss and grief associated with death. This free resource includes information, strategies and suggestions presented in specific grade clusters. It is available in English and French.
  • Good Grief - A Teacher's Resource Guide for Bereaved Students was created by Hospice Calgary as a resource for classroom teachers. This book offers practical suggestions for supporting bereaved students and effectively communicating with their parents. The book outlines teaching interventions and classroom activities related to grief and loss.
  • A Child's View of Grief: A Guide for Parents, Teachers, and Counselors, by Alan D. Wolfelt, explains how children and adolescents grieve after a loved one dies and offers helpful guidelines for adults.

Reference

Jellinek MS, Uchenwa DO. When a student dies: Organizing the school’s response. Child Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 2012; 21:57-67.