How to Help Students Cope with Grief in the Classroom?

As a teacher, you will likely have to deal with grieving students at least once in your career. Statistically, around 20% of individuals lose a parent by the sophomore year. And by the time they finish high school, most of them will know what it feels like to lose a family member or a friend.

As natural as grief is, it can bring a lot of complications in the classroom learning process. Grieving students may lag in studying, start showing discipline issues, or even unsocial behavior. And as most of their day students spend at school, a lot of responsibility falls on teachers’ shoulders.

While bereavement training will be an obvious advantage, there are ways how untrained teachers can help their students deal with grief.

Show That You Care
Talking about the loss of a dear person is always uncomfortable. Teachers fear to say something wrong and make the situation worse. However, avoiding the conversation can’t be an option either. Silence can be interpreted as indifference, lack of idea of what to do about the situation, or unwillingness to give a helping hand when it’s needed the most. Each time a grieving student will feel misunderstood and abandoned, and it is not what you want.

Establishing an open and sincere dialogue is crucial for helping the student go through and overcome their grief. First, let them know that you’re aware of what happened. But don’t use the cliché phrases that you know what they’re going through and time heals. You can’t possibly know what’s really going on in their hearts and minds.

Instead, be supportive, ask them about their feelings and concerns, and let them know you’re always here to hear them out. It’s important to give them space and build trust. When the time comes, they will talk.

Allow Academic Leeway
You may deny it, but everything changes with the loss of someone you love. It’s understandable if school is no more a priority for a grieving student. They may start having difficulties with memorizing, sticking to a studying routine, and meeting deadlines.

For a teacher, this means showing understanding and helping find balance during this tragic situation. Least of all, a grieving student wants to be reprimanded and punished for their failures. Rather than that, discuss how you can balance an academic workload with other teachers and professors. Perhaps, you can extend deadlines, unassign some tasks, or offer extra classes to catch up with the program. It wouldn’t be odd to ask a student for a regular update about their academic progress. This way, you’ll show that you care, will stay tuned about their learning struggles, and know when to offer help.

“I was lost and broken after my father’s death, and I would have stayed this way if not for my philosophy professor. This man gave us all so much understanding, support, respect, and freedom…He never cared about assessment but rather about our opinion and attitude. At the same time, no one in my class ever thought of buying philosophy papers as they did in other subjects. Truth be told, we longed for his assignments. Perhaps, it was his faith that helped me go through my grief,” confessed a student from Columbia University.

Explain a Students’ Loss to other Students
While the loss may be treated as a personal problem, it’s enough to destroy an entire ecosystem of the class. A grieving student may start showing apathy and weird behavior, or their classmates demonstrate insensibility, aggression, or even violence. And although these are a natural response to undesirable changes, they can make the situation far worse.

Step in before it happens and explain everything to the class. Ask the student’s parents or guardians about what information you can disclose, and then speak in front of the class. Tell them that their friend and classmate is going through hard times and needs their support. Explain what topics they can rise and how they should communicate with the kid. Also, ask their opinion about how they can and want to support their pal. This is especially important among small kids, as they may not even realize that their words can hurt. So try to build a rapport before a grieving student comes back to school.

Treat Discipline Issues with Compassion
Grieving students may feel guilt, sadness, apathy, or even depression. It’s not rare when they are so overwhelmed that they start showing disturbing behavior such as bursts of aggression, which may be dangerous and harmful both for the grieving student and for their classmates. In this case, it’s better to advise professional counseling help where a therapist may prescribe assistive medications to ease the emotional level.

Otherwise, teachers should remember that the goal of discipline is to foster positive behavior rather than punish naughtiness. Setting limits and correcting misbehavior is necessary but it should be done with tranquility and compassion. The idea is to help the student go through their grief and adapt to new circumstances – without the person they used to hold dear.

Modify Classroom Projects and Events
Certain projects and events can trigger apathetic thoughts. Especially, this may happen during classroom celebrations of family holidays, such as Christmas or Thanksgiving Day. In this case, a teacher together with the class may discuss ways to modify the projects to make them more comfortable for a grieving student.

Perhaps, it can be a reminiscence day where the student would tell about the activities they used to do with the person who passed away. Or even a “pay it forward” flash mob to honor the memory of a perished family member.

It doesn’t mean that the whole class should put their life and learning on hold just because someone’s grieving. But building an environment that would be healthy both for the student and their classmates is what a teacher should strive for. Fortunately, a good word and a shoulder to cry on are often enough to overcome this hardship.

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