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posted: 9/4/2014 10:00 PM

Help grieving children return to school

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Christy Pitol
Fox Valley Volunteer Hospice

Fox Valley Volunteer Hospice offers Herbie's Friends, a program to help grieving families cope with loss, grief and death. Herbie's Friends, for families with children ages 5 to 18, creates a safe environment where participants who have experienced a loss can share their thoughts, feelings and stories with others who have had similar experience. They will enjoy a meal together followed by a variety of children's activities including games, art, drama and puppetry, which are used to encourage expression of feelings.

For grieving children, returning to school can trigger heightened anxiety. While every child and family situation is unique, below are some guidelines that may help:

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• Ask the child to talk about concerns s/he may have about returning to school. What thoughts cause the most anxiety or dread? Are there specific fears, such as crying in the classroom or being left out? What is the child looking forward to? Listen attentively and tell the child that it is OK to have these fears. Then devise a plan together for addressing them.

• Practice the school routine in advance. Children mourning the loss of a loved one often feel out of control of events around them. Re-establishing a routine schedule several weeks before school starts can help, including bedtime, waking/dressing/eating breakfast, etc. Also practice putting shoes on, grabbing lunch and backpack, and walking to the bus stop/driving to school could be helpful.

• Communicate with the teacher or school. To ensure that the child receives the support s/he needs, teachers of young children need to know about anything that may impact the child's school performance. Ask the young child if s/he would like you to talk with the teacher about the death, or if the child would like to do it (sometimes with your help). Many children are afraid of being different or feeling embarrassed, so reassure the child that the teacher will keep the information private. Adolescents may want more control over whether or not to inform their teachers. Encourage them to select at least one supportive person -- school counselor, nurse, social worker -- to talk to if needed during the school day.

• Develop an "I need a break" plan with teachers. Grief in the classroom can present itself in a number of ways: difficulty concentrating, easily distracted, unexpected displays of emotion, withdrawal from friends, picking fights, engaging in attention-seeking activities, easily startled, seem lethargic, or a drop in attendance or grades. Develop an "I need a break" plan with the teacher that may include getting a drink of water, walking to the office, or in severe cases, a trip to the social worker/counselor/nurse to talk when unexpected emotions or distracting thoughts surface. In addition, because grief negatively impacts concentration, children may benefit from longer timelines for turning in assignments.

• Keep to a consistent behavioral plan. Many teachers and parents are afraid of correcting disobedient or aggressive behaviors exhibited by grieving children. Relaxing classroom or home behavior expectations sends the message to children that they are not able to control their behavior. A universal behavior plan with clear expectations that are consistently enforced actually provides the child with a sense of security at a time when life feels out of control. If the "I need a break plan" is being followed along with consistent enforcement of a classroom and home behavior plan, acting out behaviors will hopefully diminish over time.

Finally, it is OK to get support for you and your child. There is no stigma to getting help for your family. Often times when seeking support you can connect with other families who are also experiencing grief, and develop a support network.

In "Herbie's Friends," families with children, age 5 to 18, journey together for seven weeks discussing different aspects of grief which impact their lives. Meals are provided for families during the program along with education about grief.

The next session for "Herbie's Friends" will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Mondays, Oct. 6 to Nov. 17, at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, 27 S. Edgelawn Drive, Aurora.

For information or registration, call Christy Pitol at Fox Valley Volunteer Hospice at (630) 232-2233.

All programs are offered free of charge, but registration is required one week in advance. Visit www.fvvh.org.

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