As a teacher, it’s almost inevitable you will cope with a grieving child. Studies show that one in 20 children will lose a parent by the age of 16, and almost all children experience the death of a close family member or friend by the end of high school. Yet only 7 percent of teachers say they’ve had any bereavement training. This has major implications for learning, as grief can mean academic, behavioral, and social issues.
There are some simple things you can do right away, says Dr. David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California. Schonfeld also served on the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission and is the author of The Grieving Student: A Teacher’s Guide.
Q: Some teachers are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Is it better for a teacher to say something rather than nothing at all?
A: Saying nothing says a lot — it communicates to children that you are unaware or unconcerned about their loss, or that you are unable or unwilling to help them. Your silence may also convey that you believe there is nothing you (or other adults) can do to help them adjust to their loss. None of these are messages we want children to receive. It’s the loss they’re upset about, not your question.
Q: What can teachers do to help children and families feel supported after a recent loss?
A: First, let children know that you are aware of their loss. Invite them to share their concerns over time, and check in with them periodically to see how they are doing. Second, offer to give them leeway in their schoolwork and work with other teachers and coaches to balance their overall workload. Don’t wait for academic difficulties to become academic failure. Finally, reach out to parents and caregivers and work with them to support the child. Establish ongoing communication to make sure a child is coping and to share strategies that are working at home or at school.
Q: What are some signs a child may be having extreme difficulty adjusting?
A: Excessive guilt, feelings of apathy, or unremitting sadness or depression warrant a referral, as do changes in behaviors, such as aggression or other severe problem behaviors. For children who experience trauma and a loss (e.g., a child who witnessed a violent death), or who have experienced major disruptions in their family situations, consider a referral for counseling even prior to any signs of coping difficulties.
Q: How should teachers explain a student’s loss to other children?
A: Just like adults, children may be afraid to say or do the wrong thing. They may distance themselves from the grieving student, make insensitive comments, ask repetitive or detailed questions, or even tease the grieving student. Step in before this happens and tell children the basic facts. Check with the bereaved child’s parents or guardians about what can be shared; for older students, find out from the student what he or she would like to have shared. It’s especially important to help younger students understand death and let them ask questions (they may be worried their own parent could die). Discuss ways to start a conversation and helpful things kids can say to a grieving classmate — and what not to say. And provide practical advice for what they can do, such as offering help with schoolwork or inviting the student to join in at lunch or recess.
Q: How much should teachers share their own feelings of grief with students?
A: When teachers share their feelings and positive coping strategies with students, they invite children to do the same. While it isn’t helpful for children to see adults overwhelmed and immobilized by a crisis, children appreciate when adults are genuine.
Q: How should issues of discipline be handled with grieving students?
A: The goal of discipline is to teach positive behavior rather than to punish misbehavior. It’s important to ensure children’s behavior doesn’t place them or others in danger. But setting limits and correcting misbehavior should be done with compassion. Your goal is to help them learn how to adjust to their loss and cope with their distress.
Q: Should teachers consider modifying certain classroom projects or activities?
A: Teachers can work with students to develop a safety plan for when students feel overwhelmed by grief triggers and take steps to minimize their occurrence. Holidays such as Thanksgiving or Father’s Day are common triggers. You can introduce activities associated with these holidays in a way that acknowledges some children’s family members may be absent.
Q: What about teacher training?
A: The goal is to help teachers feel more comfortable with the topic and equip them with basic knowledge to provide support, not counseling, to grieving students. Teachers can learn how to anticipate common reactions and challenges, basic strategies for addressing these challenges, and when referral for additional services is warranted.