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Caring for Grieving Students and Families

American Educator, Spring 2021

Supporting grieving students, and their families, is always challenging. Now, more than a year into the pandemic, many educators are overwhelmed, processing their own grief even as they continue doing all they can to care for their students. No one should face this challenge alone. The Coalition to Support Grieving Students, of which the AFT is a founding member, was formed to help teachers and other education professionals comfort students and families experiencing loss. Here, we highlight materials focused on grief and trauma created by the coalition that are available through Share My Lesson.

Helping Students Cope

Very few educators have had the benefit of professional development on how to understand, approach, and connect with grieving students. The coalition’s comprehensive guide to its video and print materials is a valuable place to start. “Supporting Grieving Students During a Pandemic” offers modules on connecting with families remotely, explanations of grief triggers, and information about organizations supporting grieving children and their families. Similarly, the webinar “Supporting Grieving Children in Our Schools” outlines the strategies that teachers and paraprofessionals can use to help bereaved students who are withdrawing from friends, family, and academics.

An important first step in reassuring grieving students is starting a conversation. The resource “Talking with Children” offers advice on how to initiate contact with students and reassure them that they are not alone. With simple strategies for being genuine and approachable, and even some examples of what to say, this short guide will help educators take that first crucial step: creating an opportunity for the student to share. Even if a student does not want to talk at first, it is vital to show there are people who do care and are available to listen, if and when they are ready.

In offering words of consolation, many of us fear saying the wrong thing. Even a well-intentioned comment might inadvertently encourage those grieving to hide or even deny their feelings. The coalition’s “What Not to Say” module provides concrete suggestions to ensure that supportive comments are helpful and that students are given the space to express their emotions in a healthy manner. These suggestions include listening more and talking less (so that grieving students are leading the conversation), showing empathy, and avoiding efforts to simply cheer them up. Classmates also play an important role in processing loss. To support a grieving peer, the “Peer Support” resource suggests educators provide basic information to classmates about a peer’s loss, give classmates opportunities to ask questions of the teacher before a grieving student returns to class, and offer a safe environment to share thoughts and feelings.

Connecting with Families and Colleagues

In the module “Connecting with Families,” the coalition highlights the need to partner with students’ primary caregivers to provide students a firmer basis for emotional support and to ensure family members are aware of school and community resources. Cultural considerations also play a role in building these connections. The coalition’s “Cultural Sensitivity” resource underscores the importance of approaching each family in a sensitive, thoughtful manner. It’s essential to ask questions and intentionally avoid making assumptions so that each family’s unique perspective is honored.

In supporting students experiencing loss, coordination by the entire school staff is crucial. The module “Coordinating Services and Supporting Transitions” explains how each member of the school staff has the potential to help grieving students, and how they can provide the most effective support if they work together as a team, especially as students navigate potentially difficult transitions (such as to a new grade or school, especially since grieving is a long-term process).

Helping grieving students express their feelings and accept emotional supports will give them the tools to help themselves. It will also prepare students to sustain themselves and their loved ones in difficult times that will inevitably come later in their lives. To see what other resources Share My Lesson offers on grief and loss, visit our collection of lesson plans, materials, and activities. If you have additional ideas or requests, please reach out to us at content@sharemylesson.com.

–THE SHARE MY LESSON TEAM

American Educator, Spring 2021
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