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Supporting children & young people with special educational needs

Grief responses vary from person to person and this is no different in children and young people with additional needs. Even children with profound needs will recognise the absence of the person who has died, and will feel the impact of the changes this brings.

All children can struggle to understand the concept of death and may need support in understanding that death is permanent and irreversible. Children with additional needs, may find this particularly difficult to grasp. They may have difficulty comprehending abstract ideas and may require extra support in processing their grief.

Children may not always have the words to say when they are struggling, but significant changes in behaviour could be an indication that they may need some extra support. Changes may include; withdrawal, aggression, or regression.

Preparing for a death

It is natural to want to protect children from difficult news, however children can often sense when something isn’t quite right, and therefore being honest and communicating with them can help them understand what is going on, and be more prepared for changes that may happen as a consequence of a loved one being unwell. For some children with additional needs, communicating with words is not always the most effective way and therefore being more creative in your approach might be needed.

It may be helpful to visit or look at pictures of hospitals or hospices when explaining what is happening, and explain some of the changes that they might notice about their loved one, as they become more unwell. Try to stick to routines as much as possible, and let them know in advance when there is a change to their routine. Liaise with others supporting the child, so that they can reinforce messages that are being given, and offer support when needed.

Support into bereavement:

Here are some things to consider when supporting a child with special educational needs:

  • Attending the funeral can help with understanding and offers an opportunity to say goodbye. Children can be prepared by visiting the location beforehand, or looking at pictures. It might be useful to create a story board to facilitate discussion about what will happen during the funeral and explore a plan if things become too overwhelming for them. Explain that it is normal for people to get upset at funerals, and they may witness others around them becoming tearful.
  • When offering bereavement support, provide a safe and calm space away from any sensory distractions as this can help reduce anxiety and provide a sense of stability. This is particularly important for children who have sensory sensitivity, as grief may heighten this.
  • Use clear language to avoid confusion, here are some ideas about explaining death and dying and what language to use
  • Using visual aids such as pictures, drawings, videos or social stories can help develop their understanding and support them in processing their loss.
  • Children may need information to be repeated. After a period of time, assess their understanding to see where the gaps are, to then build on this. Information can gradually be built up, it doesn’t all need to come at once.
  • Encourage the child to express their feelings or emotions, even if they do not have the words to articulate them. Methods such as art, music and physical activities can be great ways of expressing emotions. Feelings cards may help the child name and understand the feeling that they are experiencing.
  • Children with additional needs may rely on structure and routine to feel secure. The loss of a loved one can disrupt this, particularly if the person who has died played an active role in the day to day routine. You can support the child in re-building a structured routine, including them in discussions, where possible.
  • Involve the child in rituals and memorial activities as this will help with closure and support them in feeling included.
  • Creating a memory box can help facilitate communication, help remember the person who has died and help them to feel more connected. Many things can be put in a memory box, but it’s useful to find something for each of the 5 senses; a picture, the perfume/aftershave that the person used, CD of a song that reminds them of the person who has died, an item of clothing they wore and a reminder of their favourite meal.

It is important to remember that each child is unique and grief will impact each individual in a different way. Consider the strengths, challenges and communication styles of each child when offering support. Providing a supportive and understanding environment can go a long way in helping children with additional needs navigate their bereavement journey.

Find out more about the support that the 565 service offers here.

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