Grief in the Classroom
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Tips for teachers with a child experiencing loss
For a classroom teacher attempting to serve a grieving child, it can be hard to know where to begin. For starters, a child who has lost a parent, sibling, other relative, or close friend may show grief in various and unexpected ways depending on the age of the child, among other factors.
Meanwhile, the parent, often a newly Solo Mom or a mother who’s lost a child, will be navigating numerous complex avenues including her own grief, financial considerations, and day-to-day practical matters.
Teachers have a unique ability to affect a family’s grieving process. As a trusted authority figure in the everyday life a bereaved child, a teacher can provide important support for the child during a difficult transition.
Here’s what teachers need to understand to begin supporting kids who are grieving.
- Understand that developmental concerns affect how children process grief. Spend a little time becoming familiar with the grieving process specific to the age of the student with whom you are dealing. It is a little more work, but teachers are famous for their capacity to care. A teacher’s generosity and talent can do wonders for a bereaved family.
- Recognize that an apparent lack of affect may be misleading. In fact, it is often utterly revealing and indicates an effort by the child to seek support. For example, a small child who tells everyone that his or her father has recently died may be looking for broad support. Children in grief process things in small and more manageable bits—returning to grief when able and reflexively moving away when it is too overwhelming.
- Playacting in younger children is common. Acting out various scenarios empowers children to change the end, reenact the story, and gain a sense of mastery over the facts. Such fantasies allow children to pace their own grief. Classroom teachers of children this age do well to listen carefully to children when they are acting things out. Listen in and communicate regularly with the parent about the scenarios that the child represents.
- Depending on their age, children do not understand death as either permanent or negative. This is important to bear in mind because it can affect and skew the time frame of the grieving process. With kids, grief is likely to be protracted and should be supported in the long term. Failure to do so may leave bereaved children at higher risk for psychiatric disorders later, as well as at a heightened risk of substance abuse.
- It is common to see classroom behaviors other than sadness that manifest childhood bereavement. In older children or adolescents, teachers may see heightened anxiety, a negative impact on academic work, anger directed at peers, and general acting out.
If there’s a bereaved child in your classroom, here’s how you can be an intentional, positive part of the child’s grieving process.
- Take the time to learn about the specific bereaved child. Become familiar with his or her strengths and weaknesses as a student, independent of the loss. Develop a strategy to stay on top of academic needs. Enable the student to feel successful in his or her areas of strength in order to maintain a level of pride and ownership. Help the family craft ways to address any academic deficits. This is more work, but the payoff to a child in need is immeasurable.
- Schedule a weekly conference to touch base by phone or text with the parent, taking special care if it is a newly Solo Mom or a mother grieving the loss of a child. Let her know about academic progress, projects, expectations, and rubrics. Understand that this is an act of extraordinary kindness and import. She is likely very worried for her children. Knowing that a teacher is an advocate is a gift that is life changing and immeasurable. You are one of few people in a real position to help her. Use your superpowers for the good once more.
- Be consistent. Schedule a time to check in with the student on a schedule that takes into account your other obligations and allows you to help the student effectively.
- Observe how communication about academics is flowing between the child and the Solo Mom. Remind the Solo Mom and child to communicate between themselves about expectations for school. For example, are all projects known, budgeted for, and planned? A lack of poster board and glue sticks can be prevented with a weekly planning meeting. Protractors are not so easy to find in a pinch. Work together as a cohesive team with you as the temporary academic team leader.
Here are some helpful links and resources:
- “5 Tips for Supporting Grieving Students” at Edutopia
- “How Teachers Can Help” in Scholastic’s Children & Grief Guidance & Support Resources
- “Suggestions for Teachers and School Counselors” at The Compassionate Friends
Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to incomplete mourning. Adults are often uncomfortable with grief and loss, and this can translate into how it is addressed—or not addressed—with children. This is especially true when parents of a bereaved child try to absorb all the pain to protect the child. Still, children must process loss so that they can integrate it. This is where teachers are uniquely helpful. They are trusted professionals who have their own relationship with the child. They are caring and have an objectivity that family members understandably do not.
You don’t have to experience loss alone. Did you know you can confidentially reach out to other Solo Moms who understand?
Tara Shafer is the cofounder of Reconceiving Loss, an online resource center for families coping with pregnancy and infant loss. She is a contributing blogger to the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and BabyCenter. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. You can follow her on Twitter at @reconceivinglos.
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