“What should I say or do?” is the first concern you may have when called upon to help students deal with a loss. Being prepared can help you help your students.
Hopefully your school has a counselor available to help students deal with a loss of a family member or friend, but if a child in your class is dealing with a loss you may be the one who must support them by assuring them they can talk to you. Dr. David Schonfeld, an expert on student grief, warns that “saying nothing says a lot.”
Grieving students often find it difficult just to go to school. Once in class, their schoolwork, behavior, and emotional reactions are all impacted and teachers must find the right words to say and the correct approach to take to help students deal with a loss. Consider the following suggestions to help you say and do the right thing.
Your attendance at a funeral home visitation, funeral service, or memorial service could mean a lot to your student. It shows them that you are there to support them. This simple act can even help students transition back to school as it signals to them that there is someone in the school environment who knows and cares about their situation.
2. Be a Role Model to Your Class
Offer a sympathy card for the students in your class to sign for their classmate. Help them to know what to write on the card as it may be the first they have ever signed. If the students have questions about what happened, tell them the basic information you know without gossiping, embellishing the facts, or betraying the student’s privacy. When in doubt, an answer such as “I’m not sure what happened, but I know this person was very important to our friend” can refocus student attention and bring the conversation back to their grieving classmate.
3. Know What to Say
When helping students deal with a traumatic event, tell them that you are sad they have suffered this loss and ask how their family is coping. Listen to whatever the student wants to say, and keep your experiences to yourself. If they ask, you can suggest ways for them to reconnect with their friends. Let them know that you are always there, even if they want to talk weeks or months from now. Stay in touch and make sure they know you remain concerned about them. If you need a conversation starter, ask what this has been like for them, what have they been thinking about, or how things have changed. If they are not ready to talk, respect their silence.
4. Determine Schoolwork Standards
Even though you may think the students who are dealing with a loss do not need to worry about their class work on top of everything else, sometimes it gives the students something to do and think about other than their loss. Make sure they know that they should do what they can for now, and that you are there to help if needed. Days following the death of someone close can be lonely days, so ensure the school is a warm, welcoming place.
5. Provide Private Time
Returning to school can be very difficult, but you can help students deal with a loss by talking privately with them on the first day back. Let them know that if they become upset or need a break, they can leave and go to see the guidance counselor or school psychologist, or just get a drink of water or go to the restroom. Make sure that the student is safe and if you observe destructive or unusual behavior, notify the appropriate professionals according to your district’s policies.
Grief counseling was probably not a course you took in college while earning your teaching degree, but there are many resources available and teachers need to know how to help students deal with a loss. Visit GrievingStudents.org for more information.