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Fighting the "Hidden Pandemic"

Five ways school leaders can create grief-responsive teaching environments

February 11, 2022
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In October 2021, the Centers for Disease Control named a "hidden pandemic" — that of COVID orphans, or young people who have lost one or both primary caretakers to the new coronavirus. In the United States alone, more than 140,000 children had lost a parent or guardian at the time of the study, and that number has continued to ascend in the wake of the Omicron variant.

Grief is a natural response to many types of losses, even those that do not relate to the death of a person — for example, divorce, a change in housing or socioeconomic status, or a loved one’s illness. And it transcends emotion, impacting our brain, body, and behavior, no matter our age. For that reason, it is critical to understand how best to support grieving students’ needs in the classroom, and in turn, for school leaders to apply their own knowledge of grief-responsive practices to leadership, not only supporting teachers’ wellbeing as they work with grieving students, but recognizing that many teachers are grappling with grief themselves — at and beyond the workplace.

The following strategies help to create wraparound systems of support for teachers, creating a reciprocal sense of wellbeing between students, teachers, and school leaders that centers social-emotional wellness in times of loss.

1. Provide affinity spaces.

Trauma science reveals that connection and community are our greatest antidotes to trauma. Yet for many people, topics like grief and loss can feel too difficult to discuss with others, meaning we sometimes feel siloed when we are bereaved or working with students experiencing loss. Teachers who are routinely exposed to others’ stories of loss may face an increased risk of what is called vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue — a very real, physiological response that parallels symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This risk is heightened for teachers who are grieving themselves, who have a history of loss or trauma, or who face a lack of support from administrators in the face of adversity.

To stave off the isolation incited by grief and loss in the learning environment, create spaces for colleagues to communicate with one another about the presence and impact of grief in their classrooms. Affinity groups, or “a group of people having a common interest or goal or acting together for a specific purpose,” are shown to boost morale, and they provide a sense of community support that is often lacking in the context of grief.

2. Offer opportunities for regulating emotions.

Because grief induces a fight-flight-or-freeze stress response in the brain and body, students and teachers experiencing loss may have difficulty regulating their emotions. This is because the prefrontal cortex, responsible for “higher-order” functioning like impulse control and forethought, takes a back seat in the face of stress.

Teachers working with grieving students may know that routine, consistency, and predictability are important components of the classroom environment for students experiencing loss, or that mindfulness activities alter brain structures in ways that promote physiological and psychological regulation and healing. But so, too, do teachers need these ingredients of safety, especially when they are at risk of vicarious trauma.

As a school leader, consider — perhaps in relation to the affinity spaces mentioned above — ways to routinely create spaces and opportunities for teachers’ regulation and connection at school; even 10-minute time blocks devoted to mindfulness or expressive writing (reflective writing that uses emotion words is proven to improve liver, immune function, and psychological wellbeing) support adult wellbeing and funnel through teachers into the classroom to benefit students, too.

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It is critical to understand how best to support grieving students’ needs in the classroom, and in turn, for school leaders to apply their own knowledge of grief-responsive practices to leadership, not only supporting teachers’ wellbeing as they work with grieving students, but recognizing that many teachers are grappling with grief themselves — at and beyond the workplace.

3. Expand connections between school staff and exeternal resources.

Taking the sole onus of grief work off of individual teachers' shoulders and creating whole-school systems of support requires connecting teachers and staff members with resources and professionals whose training transcends their own; we know that inequity leads to a lack of access to school counselors in the United States, yet many free resources exist for students and teachers. Here are several organizations to explore yourself and share with those in your learning community:  

4. Bring into discussion the role of boundaries in student support.

Grief-responsive teaching and school leadership are a "both/and" — teachers both hold the potential to make a lifelong impact on the lives of students experiencing loss and must institute and uphold appropriate boundaries to protect their wellbeing in the face of this challenging work. One way to do so is to position teachers not as “saviors” or sole witnesses to students’ losses but instead facilitators of connection between students and peers, adults, community groups and resources, activities, extracurriculars, and more. Because connection is so important in healing from loss, consider how to reframe for teachers their role in amplifying student connection (rather than absorbing student stress in a silo). Teachers, especially those with marginalized identities, are often expected to embrace unpaid emotional work; bringing into conversation the importance of boundaries in supportive relationships counteracts this expectation and creates opportunities for discussion regarding teacher wellbeing.

5. Create opportunities for open communication between teachers and leaders.

Students experiencing loss need to feel seen and heard; the same goes for teachers grappling with loss in the learning environment. In the way that teachers consider ways to foster strong, ongoing relationships with grieving students in ways that support wellbeing, consider, as a school leader, how to similarly create ongoing communication between teachers and colleagues, as well as teachers and administrators, regarding social-emotional work at school. Beyond the affinity spaces mentioned above, create spaces in staff meetings; asynchronous communications; or office hours in which teachers are invited to openly discuss the ways in which grief and loss are manifesting in their work and have their concerns met and respected. Better yet, rather than waiting for teachers to approach administrators, consider how you, as a school leader, can actively reach out to teachers to initiate these check-ins. Doing so takes grief work out of stand-alone professional development sessions and instead integrates and normalizes conversations about the impacts of grief and loss on learning and teaching.

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About the Author

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Brittany Collins
Brittany Collins is a teaching fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Learning from Loss: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Supporting Grieving Students, and is the founder of Grief-Responsive Teaching. She has published more than 40 peer-reviewed and public-facing articles in such outlets as The Washington Post; Education Week; Edutopia; Inside Higher Ed; We Need Diverse Books; and English Journal of NCTE, among other outlets. Learn more about her work at www.griefresponsiveteaching.com@brcollins27 on Twitter, or @griefresponsiveteaching on Instagram.
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Early Childhood K-12 Social-Emotional Wellbeing