One of the most difficult events a child can face is the loss of a parent or other family member. Often, the child will turn to a trusted teacher for guidance and support. These suggestions will help teachers better understand how to help a child suffering a loss.
Teacher's Guide: Helping a Child Cope with Loss
Prepared by the staff of Barr-Harris Children’s Grief Center, a program of The Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis
Should Teachers Attend the Funeral?
Depending on the relationship the teacher or other professionals have with the child or the family, it may be appropriate to attend the funeral.
Returning to School
Children’s behavior immediately following the loss varies:
- Some children will resume their school work without difficulty.
- Most children’s academic performance will suffer for a time, for some as long as a year.
- Some children may have difficulty concentrating and often appear to be daydreaming.
- Some children may feel embarrassed or ashamed when returning to school. They may feel uncomfortable with the idea of being “different” or temporarily in the spotlight.
Helping Classmates with Their Feelings and Interactions with the Grieving Child
- Discuss the loss before the child returns to school.
- Write cards to the child.
- Draw pictures for the child.
- Welcome the child.
- Identify children who may need to be addressed individually.
Emotional Response to Loss
Children can demonstrate a variety of affective responses to a loss. Some may be as simple and straightforward as sadness. Most adults have an easy time recognizing and responding to this reaction. Anger is also common, yet is sometimes harder for the adult to recognize and appreciate. Anxiety is often a common response and can appear in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is a reaction to real changes in the family situation such as financial problems, a move, the emotional reactions of other family members, and the like. Sometimes it is a reaction to fears about safety and concerns that the world is not a safe place; fear of losing the other parent is common. Often the anxiety is expressed through somatic complaints such as headaches or stomachaches, which may result in frequent absences or visits to the school nurse. Sleeping problems, appetite changes, and not enjoying normal activities may be seen. Mood changes with crying episodes, sudden highs, anxiety episodes, and angry outbursts may also occur during the first six months or so after a death.
In general, younger children tend to be more open about expressing their feelings. They may exhibit regressive behaviors such as thumbsucking, wetting or soiling, and whining.
Older children tend to avoid or deny their feelings, although they may be expressed indirectly through their behaviors. These behaviors run the gamut from depression and withdrawal to acting out in an aggressive or hostile manner.
The child may at times think there is something radically wrong with him or her and that he is in danger of being abandoned by anyone he becomes involved with. Consequently, this child may be especially sensitive to changes, losses, or separations at school. The absence of a teacher and the presence of a substitute teacher can be upsetting. Changes in the usual school routine may also create anxiety.
What Can Teachers Do to Help?
- Adjust academic expectations for a while.
- Prepare the child for any changes in routine, wherever possible, to minimize additional anxiety immediately following a loss.
- Inform a substitute teacher about the child’s situation.
- Recognize that anniversaries, holidays, special parent days at school, and the like require sensitivity to the child who has lost a parent.
- A warm smile, a friendly touch, and attentive listening may help the child.
- Providing an opportunity to “time out” or “time in” with an appropriate adult in a nonpunitive way in the immediate aftermath of a loss may provide moments during the day for refueling, inner tension regulation, and “holding” that respect the healing process.
If the child’s emotional needs appear to be great and/or of long duration (several months), it would be appropriate to suggest to the parent that the child might benefit from seeing a professional who works with children and their families who are having difficulty managing the grief process. Physically abusive behavior to self or others must be evaluated. Professional help is also indicated for those children who have experienced emotional difficulties prior to the loss.
Loss from Separation, Divorce, and Abandonment
Children who suffer these kinds of losses are in as much pain and distress as children who experience loss through the death of a loved one. They may not show sadness; in fact, they are more likely to show anger and frustration, acting out in ways that may not make them very likable. Your constancy is most important to them. Their lives and sense of security and trust in adults have been disrupted. The anger and disappointment they may feel toward family members may be acted out toward you or one of their peers who is less risky to offend than the family members they are afraid of losing. It is important that you maintain boundaries and limits, providing safety for the child and others, while at the same time empathizing with the feelings the child is expressing. In your valiant attempt to remain neutral and uninvolved in the parental conflict, be sure you do not distance yourself from the child who needs your involvement in the form of reassurance, support, and consistency.
In all of these issues of loss, teachers play a very important role. They provide the child with a safe, stable environment when his or her inner and outer life may be in turmoil.
Teachers may also experience emotional responses related to loss. Ask for help or guidance if you find dealing with these children especially stressful or difficult for you. Seek help through your school, your doctor, or Barr-Harris.