A Child in your classroom is grieving a death. What do you do? How can you help? You want to take the pain away, but you can’t. But, you can create a safe and empathetic place for all children to grieve and mourn a loss. This is how you do it.
Develop Your Grief Support Protocol
Start with great practice and develop your personal protocol for early childhood grief support. Reliable, emotionally competent teachers and predictable classrooms help bereaved children adapt. The following is a comprehensive, research-based framework to help you create your own plan for compassionate bereavement support within your unique setting. These guiding principles incorporate evidence-based bereavement support theory with best teaching practice.
6 Guiding Principles For Grief Support At School & Care
Allow young children to direct their own grief journeys.
Understand young children’s responses to grief.
Integrate early childhood bereavement support with good teaching practice.
Proactively teach young children about life and death.
Work to prevent isolation for grieving children.
Identify and share local bereavement support resources with families.
Allow young children to direct their own grief journeys:
Child-led grief support includes giving bereaved children agency to choose how they will engage with their grief, how they will express emotions and to never be pushed to ‘get over it.’ We know the most impactful learning is self-directed. When young children self-regulate their own grief journeys, while feeling the full support of the adults around them, they are able to cope better. We can’t plan a grief support timetable. (There is no timeline for grief!) The goal is to create open-ended social and emotional learning opportunities for all children to express themselves. We help best when we observe and respond compassionately to grieving children’s unique and ever-changing needs and cues, without judgment or redirection.
Instead of telling the child what he should be feeling, we respond to what he IS feeling. This means talking openly about death with the child. It’s very hard to talk about death with children, but if we help them feel safe enough to talk about scary things, like death, children will be less frightened. If we act afraid or uncomfortable, children will believe they should not be talking about the death. Sometimes grieving children don’t want to talk about what's happened. At that time we must respect they are not ready and never force. We help best when we let children know they are accepted and understood, then help them to feel safe enough to talk when they’re ready. Voice your understanding: “It’s okay if you don’t feel ready talk about what happened to your Uncle Bob. If that changes, I am always here to listen or maybe draw a picture with you about it.”
As long as no harm is done to another person, property, or himself, the grieving child must feel safe with you to express his feelings of anger, sadness, fear and confusion. At school and care, it is the responsibility of supportive adults to set secure boundaries for children to express pain while gently safeguarding the setting. Children need to know an adult will keep school and care feeling safe for everyone, especially when a child is learning to cope with powerful emotions. Voice your safe boundary setting: “Billy, I can really see you’re having some big feelings today. We can’t throw the markers, but we can use the colors on paper to let out some feelings. What does red feel like today? And what about blue, or yellow? Let’s find out together.”
After a death, be prepared for children’s emotional reactions to elevate unexpectedly, even to small events. Overwhelming feelings of fear, anger, and confusion can be masked by aggression, impatience and regressive behaviors in young children. We help best when we are patient, talk through the circumstance, and deliver compassionate support. At the same time, it’s crucial for both the grieving child and all other members of the classroom community to honor classroom guidelines. Consistency, even during upsets, will keep everyone feeling more secure and deliver a much-needed sense of normalcy for the grieving child. Voice your limit-setting and empathy: “We need to keep everyone feeling safe, so we are careful to not bump our friends with our bodies. The good thing is, we have this bubble wrap over here for squeezing the big feelings out whenever we need to. That feels safer than bumping.” Provide reliably accessible, ‘go-to’ choices for grieving children when they are feeling overwhelmed by emotion. Partner with children who need to learn how to express overwhelming emotions, and demonstrate safe ways to let feelings out. When adults provide what one of America’s leading grief counselors and author, Dr. Alan Wolfelt, calls safe holding environments of trust, empathy and respect, grieving children are more able to experience agency as they work to cope with the crisis of death. (centerforloss.com)
Understand young children’s responses to grief:
Developmental responses to grief are not universal, every child’s response to death is unique. It’s common for children to regress to younger behaviors when experiencing trauma. When this happens, we help best when we support a child’s reach toward emotional competency by offering encouragement they’ll be able to complete the task once again. Voice your patient and gentle reassurance: “It looks like it’s hard for you to put the book away. We’ll do it together this time, and next time you might do it yourself.”
Integrate early childhood bereavement support with good teaching practice:
Young children lack the cognitive skills to know that death is permanent. Children need repeated and gentle reminders death cannot be reversed. It is great practice to offer all children multiple opportunities to construct new knowledge about life and death. This is practical, empathetic teaching. We support young children’s limited cognition and limited language skills when we supplement curriculum with life cycle and grief themed literacy. We cannot ask or expect young children to talk about their feelings. These skills, although emergent, are underdeveloped. Offer open-ended learning experiences, for example, by recording children’s personal narratives and stories. Read the stories together and with the group (always and only with the young narrator’s prior permission) to foster empathy, nurture inquiry and create understanding. We help children best when we use clear and concrete terms when talking about death. Idioms like “sleeping’ or ‘lost” confuse and frighten children.
Engaging in play with grieving children and classmates is an opportunity to enhance new vocabulary. Voice your willingness to explore and question: “What is a funeral? Has anyone ever been to a funeral? What happens there?” When adults signal to children the topic of death is not taboo, all children benefit from feeling their classroom is a secure place to ask questions and learn about topics that may confuse or frighten them. It’s hard, but we help best when we weave nurturing and open spaces for young children to hold difficult conversations with caring adults.
Proactively teach young children about life and death:
Teaching that all living things have their own unique lifespans will help young children begin to understand the cycle of life and death. Work with children to notice and make comparisons between the natural rhythms of the lives of plants, animals, and humans. But be especially sensitive when approaching the topic if a death has recently occurred; you know your children best, so time and a little healing distance may be necessary if a crisis is recent. Examine lifespans of indigenous plants and animals to provide relatable experiences for children. We help young children understand life and death when we provide concrete learning experiences with living things found in local and natural environments.
Work to prevent isolation in school or care:
Creating a caring environment for bereaved children and families elevates a school’s culture of inclusiveness. Death is frightening, and many people don’t know how to interact with grieving people. We help best when we model how to gently acknowledge the crisis and offer support to help prevent isolation. Reach out and partner with the grieving child’s family or guardians as part of your plan to cultivate an empathetic and inclusive classroom. Be intentional about checking-in regularly and often. Offer extra help and patience with paperwork and/or school communication tasks for overwhelmed grieving adults. Ask parents and guardians how they would like their child to be supported, and honor this. Your support plan may include:
- Before a bereaved child returns from a death-related absence, talk with classmates about what has happened using developmentally appropriate language you and your administrator have selected. Remember, less is more. Do not over share. Young children are egocentric and self-oriented; you will need to accept them right where they are, even if that means they cannot engage with the topic. They may not yet have the language skills required. Reassure classmates it’s okay to talk about the person who died and to ask questions. Explain what their friend may be feeling, and discuss ways they may be able to help.“When Sally comes back to school she may be feeling sad-missing-lonely-hurt. It will help Sally if you play together in all the ways you have loved before. It may even help a little bit if you ask her how she is feeling.”
- Manipulate peer groupings. Partner the grieving child with the most nurturing, and socially and emotionally developed children in play, mealtime and project settings. This will help the bereaved child secure a sense of belonging.
- Consider creating a classroom memory space. Provide all children the opportunity to use this space to remember people or pets they loved who have died. This is a concrete and compassionate way for grown-ups and children to empathetically share their missing feelings in death and loss. The grieving child will know she is not alone.
Identify and share local bereavement support resources with families:
Bereavement support groups are bridges of hope for many children and families, but they are not right for everyone. Some children do thrive in a support group setting, and others need more intimate support; the decision is not ours, it is best left in the hands of the bereaved families. Familiarize yourself with local child and family bereavement support organizations so you’re a capable and ready resource. Share what you learn with your administrator and colleagues, and work together to form a protocol for how your community will share bereavement support information with families. If your center or school has a social worker on your team, learn about referral processes used to help families access outside support. Above all, remember: you are not a therapist, and must never try to deliver therapeutic care. If you sense the grief is more than you can handle as a lay companion, partner with your administrators to help struggling families find the level of professional support they may need.
If families do choose to connect with a local children’s bereavement center, they will often have access to support meetings and services designed to nurture both the adults and children in the family. It is commonly a free service. Every person in a family grieves differently, and each requires special care. Assistance designed to nurture the needs of all family members will promote healthier outcomes for grieving children. Children do better when the adults taking care of them are getting support, too.
“A child’s ability to process the pain of loss will be influenced by observing the adult’s experience of this process.” © J. William Worden, Children and grief: When a parent dies.
Finally, intuitive caregivers observe and honor how young children communicate grief through play, art and behavioral responses to loss. You truly will help best when you cultivate safe and accessible ways for young children to grieve at school and care. Changing lives is what teaching is all about. If you can fully support a grieving child at school, your life will be forever changed. I promise!
Copyright (2016) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.