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NEA News

When Students Grieve, How Can Educators Help?

The death of a parent or sibling is a common experience for students, and yet many return to school and don't get the support they need. As National Children's Grief Awareness Month approaches, educators are poised to help.
National Children's Grief Awareness Month
Published: 11/01/2021

Key Takeaways

  1. One in 14 children lose a parent before age 18, and the volume of loss is only getting worse, as a recent study found that 140,000 U.S. children have lost a parent or grandparent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. Children who are grieving can be distracted, tired, and unable to learn. They're also feeling sad and alone. How can educators help? What accommodations should be made?
  3. The National Education Association is a founding member of the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, which provides many, many resources for educators. These include what to say, and not to say.

A few years ago, Kate Wilcox looked across her library stacks and saw three students who she knew well. It occurred to her: All three had a parent who died, one recently. Wilcox went up to her to check in.

The student was struggling, she told Wilcox. When she had returned to school, all she had heard from teachers was, “Here’s the work that you missed.” Now the high schooler had a tall pile of past-due papers and assignments—plus a mountain of grief to process. To Wilcox, it felt like educators could do a lot better to support students.

Wilcox reached out to a local non-profit for support and has since set up a thriving “grief group” at her Pennsylvania high school. But many educators don’t have the same local resources. With them in mind, NEA is a founding member of the national Coalition to Support Grieving Students, led by the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

What do you say to children who just lost a loved one? What don’t you say? Too many educators have no idea—because the majority haven’t been trained—and they say (and do) nothing because they don’t want to make a mistake, says David Schonfeld, director of the national center. Their students are left bereft and unmoored, often unable to do the work of learning as they struggle with grief.

Even before the pandemic, 1 in 14 children lose a parent before they turn 18. 

Supporting them has become more essential than ever, especially as a recent study has estimated that 140,000 U.S. children lost a parent or grandparent in the COVID-19 pandemic. “This means that for every four COVID-19 deaths one child was left behind without a mother, father and/or a grandparent who provided for that child's home needs…love, security and daily care," lead author Susan Hillis, an epidemiologist, told NPR.

Even before the pandemic, 1 in 14 children lose a parent before they turn 18. The best way to help them, says Schonfeld, is for schools to become “grief-sensitive schools” through the educator training provided by the Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative.

Being Supportive

The idea is not that all educators need to become grief counselors, says Schonfeld. “We want them to be empathetic, supportive and to make appropriate accommodations” for grieving students.

The coalition has put together reams of online resources for educators, including a NEA-hosted webinar on grief and self-care for educators. (You can’t support your students, if you are depleted yourself!) Other coalition resources include videos on: how to talk to children about death, what not to say, recommended practices around funeral attendance, how to coordinate support by school team members, and more.

Many of the coalition’s resources, including reading lists for students, have been curated and shared at nea.org/grief.

Before Students Return

When a student loses a loved one, teachers should reach out to that student or their parents before the student returns to school, advises Schonfeld. “Let them know you understand what’s happened, express your condolences, and let them know you want to help when they come back to class.”

Teachers can help students and parents plan for the funeral: what kind of participation might be meaningful for the student? It can be helpful for students to have a mentor sit with them during funeral services—somebody who is not personally grieving. That person doesn’t have to be an educator, but it could be, Schonfeld points out.

Before students return to school, their teachers should ask “if it’s okay to tell the other students in the class that your parent or brother died, so they can be supportive,” Schonfeld says. “A lot of kids are afraid that when they come back, they’re going to look different, or kids are going to ask a lot of questions that they don’t want to answer.”

Grieving students will need a script on what to say to educators and peers about their loved one’s death. Their peers also need to know what to say and what not to say.

Just like adults, when kids don’t know what to say, they often say nothing, which further isolates the grieving student. Or they blurt the wrong words, which can be hurtful. Schonfeld recalls a grieving student who drew a picture of their family, and a classmate saying, “You can’t include your dad. He’s dead.”

Figure out a “safety plan” that includes a place in the school for grieving students to go, and a person for them to talk to, so that they don’t have to sit at their desk and cry. A grieving student might signal their teacher by raising their hoodie when they can’t cope with classroom participation. One teacher that Schonfeld knows keeps a box of tissues by the door. When her grieving student takes one and exits, the teacher knows she’s going to the school counselor for a moment.

After Students Return

Grief is a normal life experience, not a mental illness—but common symptoms of grief, like distractibility and sleeplessness, can look like illness and similarly affect a child’s ability to learn. Grieving students will have trouble learning new information, applying concepts they already know, and demonstrating knowledge on tests, Schonfeld warns. They may struggle to work in collaborative groups. Keep all of this in mind, he suggests, and “make accommodations on how assignments are given and graded.”

“Sometimes you excuse them from testing for a period of time, or sometimes you give them more time with assignments,” he says. “Work with the student and their family and figure out what feels achievable now, in terms of their academic expectations.”

Also, be mindful of the content of assignments. “Figure out if there’s something you’re asking students to do, or read, that is going to be a trauma or grief trigger.”

The Grief Group

After speaking to the student in her library, Wilcox couldn’t rest. She reached out to the Highmark Caring Place, a local non-profit oriented toward grieving adults and children, and found a partner in her efforts, science teacher Jeff Ward. In 2018, after going through two days of training at the Caring Place, Wilcox and Ward started the grief group at Shaler Area High School.

“It’s not a therapy session—I’m not a therapist,” says Wilcox. “It’s just an opportunity for kids who have lost someone to be with other kids who have lost someone so that they don’t have to be so alone. You don’t have feel so different.”

That first year they worked with a dozen students who had been identified through the high school’s counseling office. They met once a week for several months, during a different class period each week so that they kids wouldn’t miss too much of any one class. They talked and talked— “there was a lot to talk about,” says Wilcox—and worked on projects, like memory boxes and papier-mâché face masks.

“We talked about how when people ask how you’re doing and you say you’re okay, but you actually feel dead inside. Or you’re fine, until you smell chocolate-chip cookies and they make you think of your mother and you fall apart,” recalls Wilcox. The masks were painted on the outside with what the world sees, maybe glitter and sprays of color, and on the inside with the gray truth of their feelings.  

The stories students shared made Wilcox hurt. “Some of them only had their moms for 15 years. One boy’s dad hung himself. Another girl watched her mother die from cancer for years,” she recalls. “I admired them so much! They just kept coming to school, playing football, writing for the newspaper, they just kept living and fulfilling the expectations that school and family had for them. I wanted to advocate for them so much!”

National Day of Awareness

Initially, Wilcox and Ward worked behind the scenes. Their small grief group—which will welcome two dozen new students this spring and split into two groups of a dozen each—was something like a secret on campus.

This year, in advance of National Children’s Grief Awareness Month, which is November, and National Children’s Grief Awareness Day, November 18, Wilcox is working with two student representatives to lead the high school’s public, participatory events. (Check out the coalition’s ideas for grief awareness day, too.)

They’ve sold t-shirts that say, “It’s okay not to be okay,” and they’re working to create a memory board in the high school’s front hall. Students and educators will be able to affix paper butterflies—labeled with the name of a loved one—to the board, publicly commemorating their love and loss.

“It used to be like teachers couldn’t know or shouldn’t know. But why shouldn’t they know? They should know!” says Wilcox. “Maybe this is why their students can’t concentrate, or why their students just want to put their head down.

“I want it to be okay to be sad,” she says.

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.