Grief among students: Tools for educators facing a wave of loss

As COVID-19 sweeps through communities across the nation, educators are on the frontlines witnessing unprecedented grief and loss among their students. Parents and other family members are getting sick and sometimes dying, household tension is rising with job loss and remote learning, routines are being disrupted and social networks shattered by the need to distance and isolate.

woman in mask holds up hand to a child in mask who is on the other side of a window
Photo credit Getty Images, staticnak1983

In a new survey from the AFT and the New York Life Foundation, 95 percent of educators say that providing social and emotional support has never been more important, and most say they need more preparation to provide it. And with holidays approaching—a traditionally difficult and emotional time—that need is expected to grow, as comforting traditions shift and disappear.

“It is more crucial than ever that educators create safe, supportive classrooms because increased isolation and decreased social support caused by social distancing may intensify feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear and uncertainty,” says Julie Taylor, an AFT member and school counselor in Oregon City, Ohio. Death is not the only cause of grief, she adds. “Separation from loved ones, quarantines, travel restrictions, forfeiture of traditions such as birthdays and graduations, and financial insecurity are impacting so many.”

Grief as a part of life

Even before COVID-19, grief in the classroom was not uncommon, with an estimated 1 in 14 children in the U.S. experiencing the death of a parent or sibling by age 18. Eighty seven percent of educators have had at least one student a year experience a death; 25 percent have had five or more students in that category. Those numbers are likely to increase: More than 1 in 4 educators report that a member of their school community has died from COVID-19.

Educators are struggling to keep up: The survey shows that only 15 percent feel very comfortable addressing students’ emotional needs—including anxiety, grief and/or trauma—and 84 percent say the coronavirus has made them more aware of the impact of “non-death-related losses,” like disrupted routines, interrupted employment for caregivers and displacement from housing. Other challenges can include changes in the neighborhood, new partners for parents and the addition of step-siblings to a household.

The impact of profound loss shows up in many ways—including withdrawing, acting out and an inability to focus—and can prevent children from learning and growing academically.

“Grief can be an invisible backpack our students bring with them,” says Daisy Mundt, an AFT member and school social worker in Deer River, Minn. “They don’t always know they are even carrying it. They don’t know why something triggers them, or why a simple assignment could trigger them to just shut down.”

Here’s how we’re helping

How can an educator help? The AFT’s new Grief-Sensitive Educator project has some answers. Launched in early December , the project offers 90-minute grief and loss training sessions presented virtually by AFT-trained members across the country, plus print materials that aim to help fortify the training—like a “what not to say” tip card and a brochure on how to support grieving students—and $30 to spend on grief-related books for children, with a guide on how to use them. To learn more, tune in to the Share My Lesson launch seminar on Dec. 21.

Through the training (and with other resources from the AFT), educators learn that talking about death as a universal experience and allowing children to name their emotions—normalizing the loss—can help ease the process of grieving. Educators get guidance on making assignment accommodations, suggestions about how to acknowledge common grief triggers, and tools to teach children to be supportive and kind to their grieving peers.“If we can understand how grief impacts our students, we can adjust the environment to help them succeed,” says Mundt. When a student struggles, “it is our job as the adults in this child’s life to help identify the cause of the struggle and help the child through it.” 

More resources

The Grief-Sensitive Educator program is an extension of existing AFT resources on grief and resilience. More than 50 AFT trainers have already reached more than 550 educators with answers to some of the difficult questions that surface when a community is navigating death, loss and fear. For example: What should school staff say to a child whose father has died? Should a young child attend a funeral, or is that too traumatic? What other issues, besides death, are causing grief and trauma among our children?

For those unable to attend training sessions, the AFT offers online resources with deeply informed partners like the Coalition to Support Grieving Students: Its free, self-paced learning sessions can be found on the AFT’s Share My Lesson.

Additional online materials specific to COVID-19 include tips for coping, sample scripts for discussing death, and guidelines for virtual memorials from the AFT’s partner, the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. And the New York Life Foundation’s Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative provides grants to develop a grief-sensitive culture in schools.

“As people across the United States grapple with this crisis, grief and anxiety are at an all-time high,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “I hear about this trauma every day from educators, parents and students. Their voices, and the voices of others on the frontlines, make abundantly clear that our students are struggling and need us now more than ever.

“The AFT is committed to fighting for all educators to work in collaborative, healthy school environments that have the appropriate training and resources to help both students and educators thrive, and deal with the unique challenges we face today.”

[Virginia Myers]