This page chronicles my Churchill Fellowship

In 2018 I was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship to research best practice in supporting children with special educational needs and/or disabilities with bereavement and grief.

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Churchill Fellowship – USA trip


I will shortly be heading to America for the next phase of my Churchill Fellowship – researching best practice in supporting bereaved children who have special educational needs and/or disabilities.

The schedule for my trip is really coming together now and I am so excited about the incredible people I will be meeting.

In New York I will be going to Columbia University to meet with Dr. Katherine Shear of Columbia University. Dr. Shear is the Marion E. Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University School of Social Work and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.  She is Director of the Bereavement and Grief Program and Director of the Complicated Grief Research and Training Program at Columbia University School of Social Work.  She is also Director of the Complicated Grief Treatment Program at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. I feel so honoured to have time with this world famous bereavement and grief specialist – I know I will learn so much.

I will also be visiting some special schools in NYC and local child bereavement charities.


Then it is off to Boston. In Boston I will be spending time at Cotting School a SEND school in Lexington. Whilst there I will be talking with the teachers, social workers, and psychologist and spending time in class with the students. I have also been asked to  deliver my bereavement training to school staff and other local professionals – which will be a great pleasure.

Later in the week it’s off to meet with the Good Grief Program and the Boston Medical Centre. 

Auburn University

Finally I travel to my old university – Auburn University, Alabama – where (many years ago!) I gained my MEd in special education. Whilst in Auburn I will be meeting with professors in the special education and psychology departments along with delivering my SEND bereavement training to students studying to be SEND teachers. This is going to be incredible – standing at the front of classes that I use to be in!

I will also spend time in local special schools and talking to the members of the local education authority.

It’s going to be amazing time – I can’t wait for the trip to begin. More soon…..

To do list!

As my time in Denmark and Norway comes to an end my to do list is rapidly getting longer and longer. Normally the ever growing to do list brings a sense of doom and dread, but not this time!

I have seen and experienced so many things over the past three weeks and spoken to so many amazing people that my brain is brimming full of ideas to take back to the UK. There are so many opportunities to develop the bereavement support given to children with special educational needs and/or disabilities (and children in general).

So currently on my to do list is –

  • finish my second children’s story book about bereavement and grief
  • design resources and toys to help children learn about life and death
  • look into how I can be involved in SEND bereavement research
  • talk to colleagues about scheduling a conference dedicated to the bereavement and grief issues of individuals with SEND
  • look into creative ways that we can support children with bereavement e.g. theatre, art etc.

And of course as my #ChurchillFellow2018 trip to Denmark and Norway comes to an end I start to think ahead to the next phase of my research – my trip to America in December when I will be  visiting New York, Boston and Auburn, Alabama. I know that this trip will yield just as many wonderful opportunities and my to do list will happily continue to grow.

The Generosity of Strangers

I have nearly completed the Denmark and Norway phases of my Churchill Fellowship travels and I have been struck by many things during these wonderful 3 weeks.

One of these observations is that people (strangers apart from a few email conversations and tweets) are so incredibly generous with their time and support. I have met with very busy professionals who have taken hours and at times whole days out of their busy schedules to meet with me. What an honour.

Secondly, people are also very generous in sharing their resources and work.

During my time in Scandinavia colleagues have shared copies of their Phd theses, research papers, books and a myriad of other fantastic resources. All of which I am looking forward to reading (with the help of some translation!) and taking inspiration from them.

Finally, these generous people may have initially been strangers, but I now count them as international colleagues in this very special field of child bereavement. And the wonderful thing about the digital 21st century is that these colleagues may live many hundreds of miles away from me but I can keep in touch with them in an instant.

Thank you to everyone I have met in Denmark and Norway for your kindness, support and generosity.

Another big day in Bergen!

It’s been another big day in Bergen – I had the privilege of meeting with professors from the Psychology Department of the University of Bergen and Clinical Psychologists from the Centre for Crisis Psychology. These two groups work together with great effect. It was absolutely fascinating to hear about the research projects that they are involved in and the joint working to achieve Crisis Teams in every region of Norway by 2020.

When it came time for me to share my background and work I have to say I felt rather under qualified! I’m very proud to be a teacher, Assistant Head Teacher and holder of a Masters Degree in Special Education, but up against all these PhDs I felt some what lacking!

Thankfully once I started talking about my work (and when I do this  I always get very passionate and animated) I got lots of smiles of encouragement and many thoughtful questions.

It turns out these two groups of incredible professionals haven’t been involved in any research concerning bereavement and grief with individuals with special educational needs and/or disabilities and don’t know of any. Also they have very limited experience of supporting people who have SEND with grief issues.

Although I am desperate to find research concerning the best methods and strategies to support bereaved children with SEND I am not frustrated by the lack of it. Instead, this Churchill adventure is making me realise that I can be a part of the research and I can help develop resources, methods and approaches to use with grieving children with SEND.

At the end of this wonderful meeting I was not only given a round of applause (I wasn’t prepared for that!) I was also invited to come back to Bergen to deliver a workshop for clinical psychologists and researchers and to discuss further ways of working together. Hmmmmm the possibilities are endless and very, very exciting.

Puddle jumping in Norway

Bergen is a beautiful city, but it’s true, it rains here a lot.

As I walked into the city today I repeatedly had to jump over puddles. As I navigated my way over, round and at times through the puddles my thoughts turned towards children managing a bereavement. Picking their way over, round and through their puddles of grief. And some days that is easier to do than others.

Today my umbrella and boots weren’t quite up to the job of protecting me from the rain and puddles.

Check whether any of the children that you work with has more or bigger grief puddles to navigate today – they may not have their ‘wellies’ with them and you may need to help support them a little more. You can do this simply by being there for them, listening and showing that you care.

Intensive Interaction ~ the universal language

When visiting a special school in Norway this week I was overwhelmed by how easily I was able to communicate with the pupils.

I guess you're thinking that I speak some, not a word!

Instead I had wonderful conversations with the children using Intensive Interaction. It was such a beautiful experience, resulting in both me and the children having big smiles on our faces.

You can find out more about Intensive Interaction here.

Intensive Interaction wasn't the only reason I could talk so easily to the children. The other factor was the power of a PODD book.

You can find out more about PODD here.

PODD books have a standardised format, so although the words written in the book are in Norwegian the symbols are exactly the same as we use in the UK, the pages are exactly the same and the position of the symbols on each page are exactly the same - therefore I could talk to the children. 

My PODD and Intensive Interaction experiences were really magical.

I've always known that the world of Special Education is a marvellous one and it's a world with ever more standardised approaches. This is of immense importance for individuals with SEND as it means they can communication and interact with the world far more effectively and that is of vital importance. As individuals working in the field of SEND we need to all keep getting better and better at this - our children deserve it.   

Churchill Fellowship Feedback

My Churchill Fellowship travels to Denmark and Copenhagen are all about learning from others and I have certainly done a great deal of that. I feel so lucky to be having this incredible opportunity.

What I hadn’t expected from this trip was to receive such wonderful feedback from experts in the field of child bereavement about my own work……..

“Your work is pioneering & I hope we can find an opportunity to invite you back to the university & clinic perhaps some time early next year when we could plan for a workshop for clinical psychologists & researchers here in Bergen”

“We very much enjoyed having you here & you got some glowing feedback from the people you talked to. We are all sure that you have a glowing future ahead of you within this area & look forward to following it”.

“Thank you for giving us inspiration, acknowledgement & enthusiasm. It was a great pleasure spending time with you.”

“Thank you to you too, so nice to meet a person so dedicated to help the children. Looking forward to seeing your report & to see you again”.

Churchill Fellowship Phase 2 ~ Norway

Phase 2 of my Churchill Fellowship ~ Bergen, Norway

My first meeting in Bergen was at the Nordnes School.

Nordnes School is a primary school for 250 pupils aged 6 to 12, including 32 pupils with special needs.

I had the pleasure of meeting with the Assistant Principal of the school - Solfrid Storum. She explained how the school was organised and the schools beliefs on children with special educational needs and/or disabilities. Inclusion is at the centre of the school's ethos.

The majority of children with SEND are included in mainstream classes, those children with more severe needs have an SEND base, but they are also a part of a mainstream class. They are not an add-on to this class, they are on the roll of the class and they have their own desk etc. These children join their mainstream class as much as possible (with the support of a teaching assistant), but they are also have the specialist provision where different therapies take place, and individualised programmes for communication development etc. are worked on.

Even as a non-Norweigan speaker I could tell that the school was truly inclusive - all pupils and staff were totally welcoming of all individuals - including the colourful lady from England! The school community (pupils, parents, staff) all recognise the benefits to both disabled and non-disabled children, of this inclusive style of schooling.

I realise the following observations are from one school visit and from talking to a dozen members of the education profession in Norway, but here are my thoughts on the differences between Norwegian and UK schools -

  • smaller class sizes (in both mainstream and special classes)
  • higher levels staffing (virtually one to one for pupils with SEND)
  • more money available
  • higher levels of therapy input e.g. from physiotherapist, speech & language therapist etc.
  • AND most importantly, like Denmark, teachers and the education profession are respected and trusted to get on and 

Norwegian schools ~ bereavement & grief

I spoke to Solfrid about how bereaved children are supported.

Norway has a 'plan' that is shared with all areas of the country and the region of Bergen has further developed this to be a plan for all of the schools in Bergen. It is an emergency response plan that covers death, fire, kidnapping, terrorism etc. It gives details of what a school should have in place and a flow chart of what to do if one of these incidents occurs. For a bereavement that affects a pupil it does not go into the individualised  detail of the Danish Bereavement Plans. At Nordnes School should a child be bereaved a member of staff contacts the family and talks with them about how best to support the child at school.

Thank you Denmark

My final meeting in Denmark was in Copenhagen with Thomas Boesen, a psychologist with The National Centre for Grief and Børn, Unge & Sorg.

One of the aims of the National Centre for Grief is to teach Denmark about grief and the centre's work involves research into the impact of grief on all ages of society.

Børn, Unge & Sorg - is all about supporting children, adolescents and young people with the issues of bereavement and grief. They work with people up to the age of 27 who are bereaved due to the death of a parent or sibling.

This work involves -

  • Bereavement Groups for children (groups for children aged 7-9, 10-12 and 13 -15). The groups run a 10 week programme (developed in-house) for approximately 8 children. The programme has been developed using extensive research and the programme is continually being monitored for it's impact and effectiveness.
  • Individual counselling - face to face and via Skype.
  • Cafe Nights for young people.
  • Supporting professionals working with children (nurses, teachers, social workers etc.)

Having met with a wide range of people in the field of child bereavement in Denmark I now feel like I have an understanding of how support is delivered across the country. It is  truly impressive the amount of support and the range of services that are available to young people. Also the speed that these services are delivered at (no long waiting lists) and it is all free for the user.

As with most countries more money would be a bonus and there will always be the need to ensure that all individuals are aware of the services that are available - often the most needed are unaware of the many bereavement services in Denmark.

One thing that certainly makes the delivery of services easier in Denmark than the UK though is size - a smaller country and smaller population makes it much simpler to implement.

Like the UK though the most important factor in the successful delivery of bereavement support for children is the people involved. The commitment and dedication of the individuals that I have meet is incredible. 

Another similarity between Denmark and the UK is that the bereavement needs of individuals with special educational needs and disabilities are only just beginning to be thought about. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Denmark to make sure that this group is as well supported as any other.

Thank you Denmark.....

Lolland – blog post #2

Here is blog post #2 about my trip yesterday to Lolland, Denmark. So many marvellous things happened in one day that one post just wasn’t enough to cover it all!

I was invited to visit Anne-Marie Kleis and Anne Brandt Olsen at the offices of Lolland Kommune in Maribo.

One of the fantastic things about being on a Churchill Fellowship trip is that you don’t just learn a huge amount, but you also meet the most incredible people. People who are so kind and supportive, individuals who are generous with their time and hospitality (I’ve had some delicious lunches in Denmark).

Anne-Marie and Anne support schools to set up and run Care Groups – groups that help children to talk about difficult times and manage complex emotions. These children may be experiencing problems due to a bereavement, family problems, bullying, health need etc.

The passion and dedication that both Anne-Marie and Anne have for their schools is tremendous and all of this is done with limited budgets, in a region of Denmark that has a wide range of socio-economic issues.

The thing that makes it all work though is the committed individuals. People who are totally dedicated to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of children. This commitment in Lolland Kommune starts at the very top – local politicians and the education department believing in the need for schools to have staff trained to support the mental health needs of their young people. They are also backing the need for regular Care Groups to take place in the schools. They are helping to create schools that have a holistic view of the child – schools that nurture every part of a young person.

We can all make a difference to children at a grass roots level, but just think what we can achieve with a top down approach – the entire education system believing in the importance of supporting the emotional needs of young people…

Even the classrooms are hygge!

So much happened yesterday that I feel I may need 2 blog posts to cover it all!

First I want to write about the thing that I did last yesterday – I visited a school in the Lolland area of Denmark. Lolland is a 2 and 1/2 hour train journey out of cosmopolitan Copenhagen into the countryside. The area is very rural, with lots of agriculture and a range of socio-economical difficulties. Schools in this area have limited funds.

The school I visited was small – just 120 pupils (of primary and middle school age) but wow what an impact this school was having on the wellbeing and mental health of its students.

The school has a dedicated Heart Room – a space in the school that is always open. A space that children can go to alone or with others for support. A space where ‘free hugs’ are always available. A space that is looked after by one of the students. This young lady was so articulate (in English) of the need for the room and the immense impact it was having on the pupils that she could have persuaded even the most cynical Ofsted inspector or policy maker in the Department for Education for it’s existence in all schools.

When you enter the Heart Room you are immediately hit by the spirit of Danish Hygge – there is low lighting – created by the use of electric candles and fairy lights, soft relaxing music and the most delicious calming scent from aromatherapy oils. There is also a ‘check-in’ system for the children – pieces of paper for the children to record how they are feeling on entering the room. They do the same on leaving the room. Sometimes the children put their names on their messages, but there is no expectation to do this. The student leader of the heart room diligently looks at the messages each week – to see how many pupils are making use of the room and to ascertain if the children tend to feel better as they leave the room from when they enter. I am told the overwhelming majority do. I know I did.

Children who come into the Heart Room can curl up on the comfy sofa, or in a bean bag. There are plenty of cushions and blankets for them to snuggle in and spend time calming their mind.

The Heart Room is very hygge.

Hygge is a Danish word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment.

For some children coming into the Heart Room allows them to decompress, to help them lower their adrenaline and to forget (at least for a little while) about their troubles.

For other children they come to the Heart Room to talk to one of the schools Care Group leaders, or to a fellow child.

As well as the incredible resource of the Heart Room the school has also invested in two Care Group leaders – a teacher and a teaching assistant who run Care Groups for students in need across the school. Two groups meet each week, one for the younger children and another for the older students. These groups are made up of approximately 10 children and last an hour. The criteria for attending these groups is purely that the children are in need of a bit of extra care. This could be because difficulties at home, a bereavement, bullying etc. Children tend to attend the group for 10 – 12 weeks, but this isn’t set in stone, it’s determined by the individual needs of the students. They stop attending the group when they feel better.

Members of the older student Care Group told me how crucial the weekly sessions were for them. They told me that by coming together and talking about their feelings it allowed them to empty their head of the problems that were creating these difficult emotions. The also said that it showed them that they weren’t alone – that other students were experiencing similar issues and this was very positive for them.

It was clear from taking to these pupils that they not only valued the Heart Room and the Care Groups, but that they also found the community/family nature of the groups incredibly supportive. They had a strong support mechanism made up of staff and students – all of whom they trusted and respected beyond question.

As I stood in the hygge Heart Room with these amazing students and staff I was overwhelmed with how such a small and simple space had achieved so much.

Very little money had been spent on making this hygge space but it had reaped a priceless amount.

Let’s get a bit more hygge in UK schools and classrooms.

Another incredible day in Copenhagen

Today I met with the Danish Cancer Society – OmSorg

Om Sorg translates as About Sorrow

omsorg translates as care

And it’s been another incredible day as a 2018 Churchill Fellow researching how to best support bereaved children with special educational needs and disabilities.

In Denmark the Danish Cancer Society lead on supporting bereaved children. They have introduced Bereavement Plans to schools (plans to support bereaved children) and 98% of all schools in Denmark use Bereavement Plans. This statistic is immensely impressive, but what makes it even more impressive is that schools do not have to use Bereavement Plans. B-Plans are not statutory, schools do them because they know they work. That is a ringing endorsement of the plans.

The Danish Cancer Society – OmSorg have not only introduced B-Plans to schools they also provide training to teachers and schools and have set up bereavement groups in schools. Teachers who lead these bereavement support groups attend a 3 day training course and each school ensures 2 or 3 members of staff receive this training, so that there is a team of staff delivering the support to the pupils. This approach also means that group leaders aren’t isolated or unsupported in the work that they do, they have colleagues that they can discuss issues with and they can provide emotional support to each other.

I am so grateful to Per Børg, Martin Lytje, Annemarie Dencker and Maria Hartmann for their time today. Each of them kindly shared their work with me, explaining the history of how they got to where they are and the plans for the future. My mind is completely buzzing with thoughts and ideas for the future of child bereavement in the UK.

  • Why don’t all trainee teachers have training in child bereavement and grief?
  • Why don’t schools have Bereavement Plans for bereaved children?
  • Why don’t schools have bereavement groups?

And at the heart of all of this are my thoughts on the needs of my particular cohort of children, children with special educational needs and disabilities. This group of bereaved children seems to be rather overlooked in Denmark as they are in the UK – how are we going to change that……?

Light bulb moments in Copenhagen

It is fair to say that I’m having quite a few light bulb moments here in Copenhagen.

Up until now I have thought of my bereavement and grief work in a very linear manner –  delivering training to educational settings and print based materials for teachers and children. But after just a few days in Copenhagen I have a whole range of ideas and thoughts that I want to develop to support bereaved and grieving children – and the really wonderful thing is that all of these ideas are for resources that are totally inclusive. They could be used with typically developing children and children with disabilities and/or special educational needs.

Let the lightbulb moments continue – who knows what ideas I will come back with at the end of my three weeks in Denmark and Norway………? And as ever I say thank you to Winston Churchill for this incredible experience.

Toys to support bereavement & grief

I saw these custom made toys on my #ChurchillFellow2018 visit in Copenhagen yesterday. They certainly got me thinking. Why don’t we have toys to help children process death?

Churchill Fellowship – day 1 in Denmark

Churchill Fellowship – day 1 in Denmark

I’ve arrived in Copenhagen and day 1 of my Danish adventure has been incredible.

Today I met with Jes Dige of Skyggebørn (Shadow Kids). What a wonderful man – so kind and supportive. I learnt so much from hearing about his work with bereaved children. I have many things to ponder about how we support bereaved children with special educational needs and disabilities. Separate support groups or inclusive ones? Separate or mixed pre and post-bereavement groups? I’m thinking that bereavement support groups for children would be best to be fully inclusive and made up of a mixture of pre and post-bereaved children. That way children at different stages of grief and with different levels of ability can support each other. I feel that the only barrier to these groups working would be the facilitator….that being if the facilitator isn’t confident to work in this mixed and inclusive manner.

I met with Jes at the home of  Liv & Død (Alive & Dead) where there is currently a photographic exhibition by Klaus Bo. What an amazing and thought provoking exhibition this is. Klaus has photographed death rituals around the world. You can see these images in a National Geographic article. I urge you to take a look – amazing photos and so much to think about and talk about.

In fact let’s all talk about death – it would help us all……

Other thoughts from today…..why don’t we have toys that help children role play life and death? Why don’t we have board games for children about life and death?

Here’s to tomorrow and the Churchill Fellowship adventure continuing….

Scandi Research Travels

September 2018

Earlier this year I heard I had been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research best practice in supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities with bereavement and grief. What a very exciting and privileged opportunity.

As part of my research I will be travelling to Denmark, Norway and America.

I am currently in the final stages of organising the Scandinavian leg of my travels. I will travelling to Copenhagen in Denmark and Bergen in Norway.

While I am in Copenhagen I will be meeting with Martin Lytje and his colleagues at the Danish Cancer Society - the leading organisation in Denmark supporting bereaved children. While I am in Bergen I will meeting with the team at the Centre for Crisis Psychology.

When I am in both cities I will also be visiting schools to find out more about the education system and to see how teachers support bereaved children.

I am now counting down the days to my travels commencing. I can't wait!

If you are in the Copenhagen or Bergen area and are interested in my research please do get in touch, I would love to hear from you.

To keep in touch with my research travels please follow my blog.

Sarah Helton - 2018 Churchill Fellow

'Brightest Hour' not 'Darkest Hour'

For Gary Oldman, Sir Winston Churchill = an Oscar                                                               

For me, Sir Winston Churchill = an amazing opportunity & adventure

I am thrilled to announce that I have been awarded a 2018 Churchill Fellowship.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust provides fellowships to UK citizens to research areas of interest and expertise in countries across the globe.

My fellowship is in the ‘Medical & Health’ category and is about supporting vulnerable children following bereavement. Specifically my project will look at ‘best practice for supporting bereaved children with special educational needs and/or disabilities’. I will be travelling to Norway, Denmark and America to find out how children with SEND are supported with the issues of grief and bereavement. I will also look at how teachers are trained to support these children and how they as educators are supported to deal with the impact of working with bereaved children.

I will begin my travels in late spring/early summer 2018 and will complete my overseas adventures in early 2019. I will then write up my findings and issue a report to WCMT. Then it will be time to start the important task of updating the bereavement training that I provide, through my company BackPocketTeacher, ensuring that I include all of the data and information around best practice for supporting bereaved children with SEND.  Another crucial part of my fellowship is to campaign for the Department for Education to include child bereavement training in all teacher training courses and for all schools to have a curriculum that includes talking and learning about life and death, with school staff having training to ensure that they are confident to support bereaved children.

As I progress through my year of travels and research I will provide regular updates on my work through my website and blog, the WCMT website and via my LinkedIn and Twitter @backpocketteach accounts. I really hope that you will follow me and my adventures. Please ask questions and get involved - it’s going to be an incredible year.


Here is some more information about the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust from their website -

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust funds UK citizens to investigate inspiring practice in other countries and return with innovate ideas for the benefit of people across the UK.

When Sir Winston Churchill died in 1965. Thousands of people, out of respect for the man and in gratitude for his inspired leadership, gave generously so that a living memorial to him could benefit future generations of British people. 

As Sir Winston's national memorial, we carry forward his legacy by funding UK citizens from all backgrounds to travel overseas in pursuit of new and better ways of tackling a wide range of the current challenges facing the UK. Successful applicants are known as Churchill Fellows for life. No qualifications are required, just a project and the desire and motivation to improve their community, profession or field.

The new Fellows will explore global best practice in the issues facing Britain today, and bring back global insights to improve communities and professions across the UK. The Fellowships address contemporary issues, develop knowledge leaders and offer transformative opportunities to outstanding individuals.

Between them, the 2018 Fellows will travel to 48 countries across six continents.

The next chance to apply for a Churchill Fellowship opens in April 2019. You can register your interest here.

Exciting news being announced March 9th 2018

Churchill Fellowship Letter of Introduction

Below is a letter of introduction from Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Chief Executive Julia Weston

WCMT letter of introduction_Sarah Helton (pdf)