Grief Has Engulfed the Learning Environment. Here's What Can Help (Opinion)

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.

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