Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Grief Has Engulfed the Learning Environment. Here’s What Can Help

A field guide to grief-responsive teaching
By Brittany R. Collins — January 14, 2022 5 min read
Conceptual illustration of a stressed and unhappy person under a storm of negative emotions and viruses
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As teachers and students enter the third year of the pandemic, we face unprecedented levels of grief in the learning environment. An estimated 1.5 million children worldwide lost a caregiver to COVID-19 in just the first 14 months of the pandemic—more than 120,000 of those children grieving the death of a parent or caregiving grandparent in the United States alone. That number, for comparison, equates with the entire population of Hartford, Conn. And those losses are not evenly distributed. Black and Indigenous students and other students of color face higher rates of bereavement due to systemic health inequities.

Meanwhile, young people and teachers face forms of loss that extend beyond physical death. Living losses are forms of loss such as those associated with divorce, housing insecurity, foster care, or a familial falling out. Disenfranchised grief is grief that is not socially or societally acknowledged, such as generational grief and trauma tied to inequity. Both forms of grief abound in this pandemic, albeit in less trackable ways than those tied directly to COVID-related death.

No matter its form, grief changes the brain, body, and behavior, which inevitably impacts learning. In response, grief-responsive teaching—a pedagogical and interpersonal approach to teaching that integrates science and stories of grief into actionable practices for implementation into classrooms—offers strategies for helping students in this time of communal grief.

To integrate grief-responsive teaching in the classroom, consider a tiered approach: Contemplate the environmental, interpersonal, and curricular structures at play in your learning environment and how you might infuse grief-responsive practices into each level to better support students’ well-being—as well as your own.

1. Consider the classroom environment. Whether we are 8 or 80, experiencing grief and loss can incite a sense of helplessness, fear, and lack of control. Our routines no longer comprise the connections we once held close. Nor do the “hidden regulators” that we once valued (the sensory ingredients of our routines and relationships that may go unnoticed until they are gone, such as the sound of a parent’s laugh, a teacher’s thoughtful penmanship, or a sibling’s favorite music floating through the home). In the midst of an altered world, offering opportunities at school that return to students a sense of routine, autonomy, and choice helps recovery.

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

In the context of loss, return to these questions, as well as your classroom plans and goals, to consider how to enhance collaboration to empower students to speak up for their needs. Find ways to add activities, engagement strategies, and opportunities for dependable relationship-building into students’ routines.

2. Enhance 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 be experiencing grief and loss alongside their students, do not hold the sole onus for supporting students in times of grief. Educators are not trained therapists, but that does not mean that as caring adults in the lives of young people they cannot offer guidance and mentoring that holds lifelong meaning for students experiencing adversity.

Orient yourself as one member of a grieving student’s “team” and consider ways to increase connection in students’ lives. This means not only by building strong relationships with grieving students through direct communications about your interest in their well-being but also by facilitating furthered connection between students and classmates, students and colleagues, and students and members of your local community. By increasing students’ web of connection, you buoy their sense of “perceived support availability,” a term that psychologists use to describe the sense that people in one’s circle will be supportive should they need to turn to them for help. That is, itself, a powerful predictor of one’s ability to cope with and integrate experiences of loss.

3. Attend to curricula. No matter what subject you teach, loss and mortality may arise in curricular content. You may not know whether students in your classroom are actively grappling with grief and loss, nor do you need to know the specifics of students’ stories in order to be responsive to the presence of grief at school.

Instead, consider how to scaffold students’ engagement with potentially challenging materials by offering content warnings or alternative texts with which they can engage on a “challenge by choice” basis. Welcome students’ expressions of their lived experiences as they arise naturally in the learning environment but never require or force students’ disclosures, lest that pressure induces further trauma. Be mindful that culturally responsive teaching and grief-responsive teaching must be intertwined, as students’ identities and contexts may influence their orientation toward 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 death-denialist culture, students who are grieving may feel “othered” by many adults’ inabilities to know what to do or say in the face of bereavement. Distill the topic of grief at school by considering the three tenets above and how grief may impact the student experience, as well as your curricular and relational strategies at each level. Doing so offers a starting place for destigmatizing loss—and learning through it—in this moment of collective challenge.

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Teachers Want Parents to Step Up to Curb Cellphone Misuse. Are They Ready?
A program from the National PTA aims to partner with schools to give parents resources on teaching their children healthy tech habits.
5 min read
Elementary students standing in line against a brick wall using cellphones and not interacting.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students' Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago
Less than half of public schools report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs.
4 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Download How to Spot and Combat Student Apathy: A Teacher Resource
A guide to help teachers recognize and address apathy in the classroom.
1 min read
Student reading at a desk with their head on their hand.
Canva
Student Well-Being Social Media Bans Alone Won’t Improve Mental Health, Say Student Advocates
Students need safe spaces and supportive leaders to talk openly about mental health in their schools.
4 min read
Image of hands supporting one another. In the background are doodles of pressures, mental health, academics.
Laura Baker/Education Week with iStock/Getty