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Addressing the needs of lone-parent pupils.


Currently, in the U.K. there are 1.7 million lone parents with 3.1 million children. Children from households where there has been the death of a parent can experience significant difficulties associated with loss in self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-confidence, not only in the months that follow, but also, throughout the ensuing years. Common factors can be found between this group and those children experiencing loss through the separation or divorce of parents This paper argues that children's educational opportunities can be adversely affected following significant loss and that what is needed is an eclectic framework, which will assist educational professionals in meeting the diverse and individual needs of children who have experienced such loss.


A growing awareness can be identified amongst educators regarding their perceived need to offer informed and meaningful support to children who have experienced loss following the death of a parent (Holland, 2001). Whilst each child's situation and the course of life following the death of a parent is unique, it is also the case that there are marked similarities between loss following bereavement and loss following separation and divorce (Robinson, 1991; Rowntree, 1998; Brown, 1999). Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1989) cited in (Brown, 1999) have, for example, described the longer-term effects of divorce as including "delayed emotional and social development; diminished capacity for parenting; increased danger of unrelinquished compounded grief from subsequent bereavements; over-burdening responsibility to role-play absent parents "(72).

A growing number of teachers and other relevant professionals are now recognising the need to develop an appropriate knowledge and skills base which will allow them to go further in responding effectively to those pupils, not just in the initial stages of loss after bereavement or divorce, but more particularly in the longer term. The problem of parental loss within school children is not a minor one, nor is it isolated to particular areas or strata of society. It has been estimated, for example (Wells, 1988), that in England and Wales, some fifteen thousand children experience the loss of a parent each year following bereavement. Whilst the number of widows is falling, the number of divorces is rising dramatically. In addition, there is an increase in the number of children living in lone-parent households where parents have chosen to live apart and remain unmarried.

The Need for a Conceptual Framework

Following significant loss, children experience emotions that are characterised by their intensity and by their newness. At the same time, they navigate the complexities of their social lives and academic life at school, often returning to homes characterised by sadness and anxiety, repressed anger and even depression. Painful feelings may be repressed during

the initial stages of loss and may surface only later during adolescence and adulthood, affecting emotional well-being and even mental health, with adverse effects upon educational achievement. The consequences of not dealing effectively with significant loss in childhood has been recognised for some time (Bowlby, 1980, 23). Typically, few schools have policies in place to support these pupils. Support, when given, is generally in the form of comfort and offered usually within the first weeks or months following the child's initial loss. The quality of the support offered will depend, to a greater extent, upon the individual efforts of staff within the school as opposed to some previously agreed protocol (Holland, 2001). Following loss, children can feel isolated, left with confusing feelings and emotions, which they do not understand and which they do not have the appropriate coping strategies to deal with. They may feel bewildered and powerless (Brown, 1999). Perhaps, more importantly, attributions made by children, during the months and years following their loss, can affect the manner in which they grieve, again resulting in some eases, in missed educational opportunities, failure to realise potential and problems with emotional well-being. In addition, the hidden costs of managing behavioural difficulties, which may emerge later within school can be considerable. Similar emotions and feelings of bewilderment, isolation and deep hurt may be found amongst children who have lived through the separation or divorce of their parents (Robinson, 1991).

In considering the elements that might work to generate a conceptual framework through which teachers can understand and support children who have experienced significant loss, the model proposed by Roger Adams, (cited in Barnard, Morland and Nagy, 1999) provides an initial entry point. Its emphasis upon resilience, and how this can be related directly to self-efficacy, self-esteem and self-in-situation through behavioural psychology, offers tempting possibilities for the teacher working in partnership with surviving parents of bereavement, custodial parents following divorce and other professionals. The model suggests that resilience in children experiencing bereavement can be positively affected through the manipulation of identifiable independent variables, with the anticipated result that change can be observed through identifiable dependent variables, in particular, self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-in-situation. This proposition offers many possibilities for professionals, working with pupils who have experienced significant loss in that it offers a means by which they can, with confidence, apply accepted principles rooted in the behaviourist tradition of psychology.

A second entry point was found in the work of Balk (1966) who proposed a model, which focuses on those coping mechanisms employed by older children who have experienced bereavement. Balk refers to three main categories of coping appraisal-focus coping in which the child applies meaning to the traumatic event; problem-focus coping in which the child actively responds to the bereavement; and emotion-focus coping where the child controls feelings by pushing them away and not dealing with them. In further considering the coping mechanisms employed by children, attention also needs to be paid to any identifiable blocks such as negative or distorted thinking that might affect the child's progress. Here, attribution theory offered a valuable way forward. The work of Seligman (1975) and Abramson et al. (1978) offered real possibilities. They have suggested that attributions may be classified along a number of dimensions, and differentiate between 'universal' and 'personal' helplessness and between 'stable' and 'unstable', and 'global' and "specific' factors. An example serves to illustrate 'universal' and 'personal' helplessness. A student whose mother dies of cancer will realise there is nothing she could do to prevent the disease and subsequent death, whilst a student who has worked extremely hard to pass her school examinations will almost certainly realise when she fails that she may not have the ability to pass and will experience feelings of personal helplessness unlike the former who will experience feelings of universal helplessness. Abramson also reformulated the Learned-Helplessness model (Seligman, 1975) as a means of assisting in the prediction of those situations in which helplessness might occur and the length of time that helplessness might last. He used two attributional dimensions: 'stability' and 'globality' to help explain this. Factors that are 'stable' tend to be almost always permanent, and factors which are unstable, tend to be transient. Global factors generalise across a wide range of situations and specific factors relate directly to particular situations where helplessness has occurred.

Extending the possibilities that a deeper understanding of resilience might have, the work of Grotberg (1995), (cited in Barnard, Morland, and Nagy, 1999, 57), offered an additional starting point. He has identified three protective elements, with accompanying illustrations, apparent in resilience, as follows: personality factors such as "I am a person people can like and love, glad to do nice things for others, respectful of self and others, willing to be responsible for what I do, confident things will be all right"; family and external support structures, such as "I have people around me I trust, who love me, people who show me how to do things right and set examples, who set limits for me to help me avoid danger, who want me to learn to do things myself, who help me when I am sick or in danger"; and the child's own social and interpersonal skills, such as "I can talk to others about frightening things, find ways to solve problems, control myself when angry or upset, see when it's a good time to talk to somebody, and find somebody to help if I need it". Grotberg has argued that with the 'I am' factors, it is possible to strengthen these but not to create them. With the 'I have' factors, it is possible to provide these and strengthen them but the 'I can' factors must be learned and could not be taught.

It has become increasingly apparent to researchers in the field of loss (Capewell, 1994; Leaman, 1995; Brown, 1999; Holland, 1997, 2001) that there exists a growing desire amongst many teachers to have access to a theoretical basis, which would permit them to go further in reflecting upon the learning environments they created within their schools, and their own underlying belief systems regarding loss, whether it be through death of separation and divorce. How, for example, do teachers select and organise the world of unexpected and unanticipated stimuli for these children immediately following loss as well as in the months and years that follow? How can teachers do this from a starting point, which may be one of poor awareness of their own unresolved issues regarding loss? To have an awareness of these internal conflicts and cultural influences would be the very starting point for teachers attempting to modify the cognitive structures of children responding to significant loss. The work of Feuerstein, et al (1979) and Feuerstein, et al (1980), with its emphasis upon the belief systems of educators, offered a useful entry point for analysis.

Feuerstein asserts that all individuals can become effective learners. By adopting such a belief system teachers can be 'freed' and a number of consequences occur, most notably, the concept of 'structural cognitive modifiability'. This refers to the belief that the brain's cognitive structure can be altered by an enabling process which permits the learner to learn how to learn. Learning, therefore, becomes essentially cumulative and affects performance throughout an individual's entire life (Burden 1987). Feuerstein (1980) has commented "The essential feature of this approach is that it is directed not merely at the remediation of specific behaviours and skills but at changes of a structural nature that alter the course and direction of cognitive development "(9). Feuerstein views structural change as an individual's manner of acting upon and responding to sources of information. The central factor involved in learning how to learn is the idea of 'mediated learning experience' that underpins Feuerstein's social interactionist theory of learning. Mediated learning experience refers to ... the way in which stimuli emitted by the environment are transferred by a 'mediating' agent, usually a parent, sibling or other caregiver. This mediated agent, guided by his intentions, culture, and emotional investment, selects and organises the world of stimuli for the child ... Through this process of mediation, the cognitive structure of the child is affected (16). Three crucial factors in mediated learning are required. The mediator must be aware of, make known and ensure the learner has comprehended what is intended (intentionality and reciprocity). The mediator must explain why she/he is going to work at a task (investment of meaning). The act must be shown to have value over and above the here and now (transcendence), (Burden, 1987).

The Case of Clare

When her mother died, Clare was in her middle years of childhood. Initially, Clare found great difficulties at school where she was frequently upset, was observed by her friends to be breaking down in tears during lessons and was assessed by staff as experiencing significant problems concentrating on her school work. Clare described herself as being lucky in that she had a kind and sensitive teacher and a close group of friends around her who offered her much support through her mother's illness, at the time of her mother's death and during the months that followed. She did, however, admit to hiding her hurt and disguising her emotions at times, especially when in the company of her peers.

Clare was at a stage in her cognitive development where she was coming to understand death as a final state (Nagy, 1948; Anthony, 1971; Melear, 1973). At the time of her mother's death, Clare was attending school on a daily basis and had already established friendships with other girls who she had known and played with since she was three years of age. Following the death of her mother, new demands were made upon Clare by the adults in her life to behave in ways expected of children moving towards their teenage years such as helping manage the home, having active outside interests and working in a sustained manner within school. Clare recollected how, at times, she felt overwhelmed by new and confusing thoughts and emotions resulting from the new demands made upon her, "I used to feel frightened and lonely and I would cry a lot. Everything in my life had changed and I couldn't understand why it had happened".

Clare was moving towards the stage of emerging adolescence and undergoing considerable physiological, psychological and social change. In addition, her attempts at understanding her mother's death were becoming more sophisticated. More particularly, the enormity of her loss occurred within an environment where there were varying degrees of fragmented support. Clare found herself drawing upon support from others who, themselves, had little understanding of what she was experiencing and how they should respond to her. There appeared in the case of Clare, like so many other children who experience significant loss, to be a reluctance to deal with her discomfort and her distress, not just in the early stages of loss but also over time and throughout her formal education. Clare's lack of appropriate support in the years that followed the death of her mother meant that she continued to experience significant problems with schoolwork.


The death of a parent or the break up of a family following divorce is difficult for any child and can involve years of readjustment. Whilst there exists no overall successful method for returning a child to his/her state of optimism, following the parent's death or for rebuilding their sense of trust in the world or reconstructing their feelings of autonomy, it is hoped that the conceptual framework, outlined above, will offer to professionals a means by which they can respond to significant loss experienced by children. In the case of Clare, the conceptual framework would have offered her teachers a means by which they could have gained confidence in supporting her through identifying specific aspects of her cognitive and emotional functioning, and understanding the consequences of their own actions. Future evaluation of the effectiveness of the conceptual framework which is currently being undertaken will, it is anticipated, offer new insights into how teachers such as those working with Clare, can work to effectively support pupils, especially in the longer term.

Creating a context in which children have opportunities to talk openly and honestly with adults about their emotions is important but it is apparent that there also needs to be some type of informed structure within which effective support can occur. Taking time to talk about one's feelings with an adult is, for a young child and, perhaps more importantly for an adolescent, an important mechanism in supporting and facilitating the coping mechanisms, if a framework informs the thinking of those adults engaged in this process. Through doing so, children can allow emotions to surface and adults, as in the case of teaching staff cart gain a better sense of where the child is in their grieving process and how to work with the child.


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Feuerstein, R, Rand, Y., Hoffman, M., and Miller, R. (1980). Instrumental Enrichment. Baltimore: Univ. Park Press.

Grotberg, E. (1995). A Guide to Promoting Resilience in Children. The Hague: Bernard van Leer Foundation, Netherlands.

Holland, J. (1997). Coping with Bereavement: A Handbook for Teachers. Cardiff: Cardiff Academic Press.

Holland, J. (2001). Understanding Children's Experiences of Parental Bereavement. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.

Leaman, O. (1995). Death and Loss: Compassionate Approaches in the Classroom. London: Cassell.

Melear, J.D. (1973). Children's conceptions of death. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 123 (2), 359-360.

Nagy, M. (1948). The child's theories concerning death. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 73, 2-37.

Robinson, M. (1991). Family Transformation Through Divorce and Remarriage. London: Routledge.

Rowntree, J. (1998). Foundations-Divorce and Separation: The Outcomes for Children. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development and Death. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Wallerstein, J. and Blakeslee, S. (1989). Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade after Divorce. London: Bantam Press.

Wells, R. (1988). Helping Children Cope with Grief. London: Sheldon.

Sean MacBlain, Stranmillis University College, Belfast

Martin S. MacBlain, Brislington School, Bristol, England

Sean MacBlam Ph.D., is senior lecturer in education and developmental psychology. Martin MacBlain B.A., teaches history. His special interest is the psychology of motivation.
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Author:MacBlain, Martin S.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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