Grief engulfed the learning environment. Here’s what can help (Opinion)


As teachers and students enter the third year of the pandemic, we are facing unprecedented levels of grief in the learning environment. About 1.5 million children worldwide lost a caregiver to COVID-19 in the first 14 months of the pandemic – more than 120,000 of those children mourning the death of a caregiver parent or grandparent in the United States only. This number, for comparison, is equivalent to the entire population of Hartford, Conn. And these losses are not evenly distributed. Black and Indigenous students and other students of color face higher rates of bereavement due to systemic health inequalities.

Meanwhile, young people and teachers face forms of loss that go beyond physical death. Loss of life are forms of loss such as those associated with divorce, housing insecurity, foster care or family estrangement. Disenfranchised bereavement is grief that is not socially or societally recognized, such as generational grief and trauma related to inequity. Both forms of grief abound in this pandemic, although in less traceable ways than those linked directly to COVID-related death.

Whatever form it takes, grief changes the brain, body and behavior, which inevitably impacts learning. In response, grief-responsive teaching—a pedagogical, interpersonal approach to teaching that integrates the science and stories of grief into concrete practices to implement in classrooms—provides strategies to help students this period of community mourning.

To integrate grief-sensitive teaching into the classroom, consider a tiered approach: environmental, interpersonal, and school structures at play in your learning environment and how you might infuse bereavement-friendly practices at each level to better support student well-being, as well as your own.

1. Consider the classroom environment. Whether we are 8 or 80, grief and loss can lead to feelings of helplessness, fear and lack of control. Our routines no longer include the ties we once had close. No more than “hidden regulators”we once enjoyed (the sensory ingredients in our routines and relationships that may go unnoticed until they’re gone, like the sound of a parent’s laughter, a teacher’s thoughtful penmanship, or a teacher’s favorite music). a brother or sister floating in the house). In the midst of a changed world, providing opportunities in school that restore students’ sense of routine, autonomy, and choice aids recovery.

How do you already create and scaffold a sense of routine with your students? In what ways do you provide students with choices through differentiated instruction, project-based learning, reading assignments, or community-building activities? To what extent and in what ways do you think about and talk about metacognition with students when discussing subjective learning and experiences in the classroom? Do they have a say in how class time or homework is structured?

In the context of loss, return to these questions, along with your classroom plans and goals, to consider how to improve collaboration to empower students to advocate for their needs. Find ways to add activities, engagement strategies, and opportunities to build trusting relationships into students’ routines.

2. Improve interpersonal support. Connection is our greatest defense against trauma and necessary in the face of loss. Yet the reality of vicarious trauma reminds us of the importance that teachers, who may experience grief and loss alongside their students, do not have the sole responsibility of supporting students in times of bereavement. Educators are not trained therapists, but that doesn’t mean that, as caring adults in young people’s lives, they can’t offer lifelong meaningful guidance and mentoring for young people. students facing adversity.

Orient yourself as part of a grieving student’s “team” and consider ways to increase the connection in students’ lives. This means not only building strong relationships with grieving students through direct communications about your concern for their welfare, but also facilitating a closer connection between students and classmates, students and colleagues. , and students and members of your local community. By increasing students’ network of connections, you reinforce their sense of “perceived availability of supporta term psychologists use to describe the feeling that people around you will be supportive if they need to turn to them for help. This in itself is a powerful predictor of a person’s ability to cope with and integrate experiences of loss.

3. Attend programs. Whatever subject you teach, loss and mortality can occur in the content of the curriculum. You may not know if the students in your class are actively dealing with grief and loss, nor do you need to know the details of students’ stories to be sensitive to the presence of grief at school.

Instead, consider how to buttress student engagement with potentially difficult materials by offering content warnings or alternative texts that they can engage with on a “challenge-by-choice” basis. Welcome student expressions of their lived experiences as they occur naturally in the learning environment, but never demand or force student disclosures, lest this pressure induce further trauma. Remember that culturally appropriate teaching and bereavement-sensitive teaching should be closely linked, as students’ identity and background can influence their orientation and expressions about grief and loss. Finally, consider how you normalize expressions of loss and grief, whether through literature or about lived experience.

In Western society, traditionally a culture of death denial, grieving students may feel ‘altered’ by the inability of many adults to know what to do or say in the face of grief. Distill the topic of grief in school by considering the three principles above and how grief can impact the student experience, as well as your curricular and relational strategies at each level. It offers a starting point for destigmatizing loss – and learning through it – in this moment of collective challenge.


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