BackPocketTeacher: Bereavement and Grief in SEND

The Birth of BackPocketTeacher

Hands up, who returns from school with a bizarre range of things in their pockets? Stickers, symbols, bubbles, raisins, latex gloves…. they’ve all been found in my pockets and also been seen spinning around my washing machine!

As a SEND teacher I learnt very early on that however amazing and detailed your planning to succeed you will also need a range of ideas and resources stored in the back of your mind, up your sleeve and in your back pocket.

Teaching in special schools has always been my natural ‘working home’ – communities filled with unending joy, support and learning (and I still believe my students have taught me far more than I have ever taught them). Alongside the feelings of warmth and happiness, there is another, sadly far too frequent feeling – grief.

In 2016 after 20 years working in special education BackPocketTeacher was born. What started as a plan to provide general SEND advice and support quickly became a specialism in an area that has been so significant in my career (and an issue I was desperate to improve) – how to support children with SEND with the issues of bereavement, grief and loss.

Loss and grieving in SEND special education

Bereavement, Grief, and Loss in SEND

I have experienced, on average, one pupil death per year. That will take its toll on any teacher, but what about the impact on the pupils? It was after looking at one particular pupil (we’ll call him Tom) in my class and realising that he was very much affected by the recent death of one of his class mates that I knew something needed to change.

Tom didn’t have the verbal language to tell me that he was sad and missing Jessie, but his body language and general demeanour were expressing it loud and clear (although not everyone wanted to see or accept this).

Since starting at the school (as a four year old) five of Tom’s classmates had died and that was before he had even reached the secondary department of the school.

Understanding death can be difficult for us all, but how does a child with SEND cope with death? How is it explained to them? Do schools/staff recognise and accept that their students with SEND experience grief? Or do they try to avoid the topic?

How do you support children with SEND to come to terms with loss when communication can be such a difficulty? Are you and your school equipped and prepared?

And let’s remember death is just one of the losses that our students may experience. They can also grieve for parents divorcing, grandparents moving, respite provision closing, having to change schools….(the list is endless). Any of these events can result in a child suffering immense emotional distress. Are we as professionals always aware of the extent of this distress and the impact that it can have on the child’s physical and mental state?

Conversations about Grief and Bereavement

Bereavement and grief Special education

This 21st century has seen conversations about grief open up, it is being researched, accepted and understood to a level that would have been hard to imagine when I started my career. But when I went looking for advice and guidance for Tom and the rest of my special school community it was very hard to find. In fact I was unable to find any specific resources for bereaved children with SEND or any advice on how special schools should support grieving students and staff.

Grief is inclusive, but is support for grief inclusive? Currently, I believe it is not.

And so I began to try and fill the gap by carrying out research, writing books, providing training, developing resources and campaigning – to try and ensure that the needs of all grieving children are being met.

Along the way I have been immensely fortunate to work with the UK’s leading child bereavement charities and been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research best practice for supporting bereaved children who have SEND.

My BackPocketTeacher work fits along side my role as Assistant Headteacher (part-time) at an incredible special school in Dorset. I truly do have the best job.

If you would like to find our more about my work, read my Churchill Report, or to connect and share about all things education, inclusion, SEND, grief etc. please get in touch I’d love to hear from you.

Sarah Helton

Email –

Twitter @backpocketteach

Blog –


Publications by Sarah Helton  

A Special Kind of Grief

The complete guide for supporting bereavement and loss in special schools (& other SEND settings)


Remembering Lucy

A children’s story book about grief and bereavement in a school

Both books are published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and are available from along with all good bookshops

Bereavement & Loss Symbol Resource Set

Developed in association with Widgit Symbols a set of resources designed for children, young people and their families to help them through the process of bereavement and loss.

Available from

A Jumble of Knotted Thoughts

A sensory story to support bereavement and grief

Available from


1 thought on “BackPocketTeacher: Bereavement and Grief in SEND”

  1. Pingback: Teaching Self-Advocacy For Students with SEMH - Special Education and Inclusive Learning

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