Schools are the centerpiece of American communities. Every day during the school year, millions of children and staff come together with great hope and great dreams for the years to come. Students cannot easily achieve in a chronically distressed state. That’s why offering school staff and leaders tools and resources to reduce stress and facilitate learning is so important.
Younger children may not understand the concept of death, or they may show their distress in ways that are not easily identifiable. For example, some children may act as if nothing has happened, while others will attempt to take on the role of the deceased sibling.
This type of stress hinders learning, school performance, social development and emotional health. To make matters worse, the most important adults in students’ lives – their parents – are often too devastated and overwhelmed to recognize or understand what their children need. In fact, many parents may even become hyper vigilant about their child’s whereabouts and may limit their school events or after-school activities.
Teachers and school staff are role models and sources of continual support for grieving students. The less support children experience, the more severe their responses can become.
Five Essential Steps
There are five essential steps teachers and staff can take to support a grieving student.
Acknowledge the loss and listen
Saying you are sorry for a student’s loss and just listening to their experience is important. Often siblings, regardless of the circumstances, feel personally responsible for their brother or sister’s death. Listening to the student and orienting them away from feelings of guilt and blame can be helpful. Saying nothing at all can be very painful; children interpret that silence as meaning their pain and loss are not valued enough to warrant an acknowledgement.
Understand family dynamics change
When a child dies, regardless of age, parents often vault that child to angelic status. This can make surviving siblings feel less loved and worthy. Often, survivor’s guilt ensues, with some siblings believing that the family would be “better off” if they had died. Knowing that these siblings may be suffering in silence and reluctant to communicate their feelings is important so that you can provide a safe place for them to share these feelings.
Recognize you are a resource
While fewer than 10 percent of teachers or staff receive formal training on student grief, the school and its leadership will be a natural source of support for families. Schools should discuss how they will support these families. For example, offering fellow students and families the opportunity to attend a funeral or memorial, if welcomed, is one option. Understanding that a student’s academic pursuits may be challenged for months to come is another form of crucial support. Being a safe place to listen, offering gentle guidance when needed and knowing when professional support is warranted can all be important sources of support to grieving students and families.
Ensure school is a safe, supportive environment
Ensure school is a safe, supportive environment and not a source of additional stress. Help the school community anticipate a student’s grief and avoid stressors, perhaps by offering to postpone a test or making an alternative assignment, and by acknowledging and preparing for anniversaries or other events that spark powerful emotions.
Prepare and strengthen responses now
Student grief and loss are inevitable. When staff are trained and the school has policies and resources in place, educators are in a position to provide successful support and avoid further harm. This is especially important in today’s world of social media where there is often little time to prepare a response to a death in the school community.
Loss can be extremely difficult for anyone to understand, especially children.
WHY SCHOOLS MATTER
Nine in 10 children will experience the death of a family member or close friend during their time in school.
After a death, families often speak to school staff before they’ve been in touch with other professionals such as counselors or pediatricians.
One survey reports 93 percent of teachers provide insufficient support to grieving students.
Students are often more open with teachers. They don’t feel the same intense obligation to protect their teachers the way they try to protect their parents. Students can ask questions in school and make the kind of comments they often hold back from their families.
Grief is not a brief event. Schools provide continuity and represent a natural center of gravity for a community and policy change.