As some educators begin to return to school buildings, and others continue to teach virtually—or do both—many are confronted with a stew of emotions among their students. Even in the best of circumstances, students and their families experience tragedy and loss as a matter of course, but the pandemic has multiplied and magnified these challenges.
Whether a child has lost a loved one to COVID-19, is feeling household tension because of a parent’s job loss, is adjusting to a new living situation, or is just sad because gathering for a birthday party wasn’t possible, grief is disrupting learning routines and social-emotional well-being. To cope, educators need resources and ideas about how to talk to students about emotional topics, when to intervene in family business, and how to make accommodations for students who are struggling.
The AFT is here to help, with our Grief-Sensitive Educator project. This collection of resources includes at a free 90-minute grief and loss training session presented virtually by AFT-trained members across the country. The session comes with a packet of print materials—like a list of ideas for how to support grieving students, and a “what not to say” tip card on how to talk them—plus $30 to spend on related books for children, with a guide on how to use them. Affiliate leaders can request a workshop from the staff lead, Chelsea Prax, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Members can also access the workshop on demand via a free virtual webinar with AFT Share My Lesson. Finally, there will be a Grief-Sensitive Educator workshop during the AFT’s TEACH conference in July. You can click here to save the date for the conference and get notices when registration opens.
“I would definitely recommend this training,” said one participant. “It was very useful and helpful—especially during the pandemic.” Another participant called it one of the best professional development sessions they’d attended, adding that it will help “build stronger community in the classroom and promote healthy coping and healing.”
The training shows educators how talking about death as a universal experience, not as a taboo topic, can help children normalize death and make it less scary. It describes different ways adults can encourage children to name their emotions, which can ease the grieving process. It teaches educators to recognize “grief triggers” so they can recognize why a student might act out and can work to minimize the presence of upsetting incidents, if possible. There is even some practical advice about when and how to make assignment accommodations so that the comforting routine of academic progress remains in place, but with flexibility that might be needed during times of duress.
“If we can understand how grief impacts our students, we can adjust the environment to help them succeed,” says Daisy Mundt, an AFT member and school social worker in Deer River, Minn. When a student struggles, “it is our job as the adults in this child’s life to help identify the cause of the struggle and help the child through it.”
The Grief-Sensitive Educator project is an extension of existing AFT resources on grief and resilience. More than 50 AFT trainers have already reached more than 1,000 educators with answers to some of the difficult questions that surface when a community is navigating death, loss and fear. For example: What should school staff say to a child whose father has died? Should a young child attend a funeral, or is that too traumatic? What other issues, besides death, are causing grief and trauma among our children?
For those unable to attend the virtual training sessions, the AFT offers online resources with deeply informed partners like the Coalition to Support Grieving Students: Its free, self-paced learning sessions can be found on the AFT’s Share My Lesson website.
Additional online materials specific to COVID-19 include tips for coping, sample scripts for discussing death, and guidelines for virtual memorials from the AFT’s partner, the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. And the New York Life Foundation’s Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative provides grants to develop a grief-sensitive culture in schools.