Tips for Teachers : Helping children cope with grief and loss


Little boy covering his face by David Costillo Dominici

Traumatic experiences are confusing and frightening for young children.  The experience is made all more confusing when the adults in their lives are not coping with the traumatic event, and may be behaving in a way that the child is not familiar with.   Children will attempt to seek answers and reassurance from the caregivers in their lives, and while teachers and other adults working with grieving children won’t have all the answers we can offer a supportive environment to help them through the coping process.

Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally-recognized authority on children in crisis.  He suggests some simple strategies to use that teachers may be helpful in assisting the grieving child to cope:

Don’t be afraid to talk about the traumatic event. Children do not benefit from ‘not thinking about it’ or ‘putting it out of their minds.’ If a child senses that adults around her are upset about the event, she may not bring it up even if she wants to. Listen to the child, answer their questions as best you can. As you answer you can provide comfort and support.

Be honest, open and clear. Whenever possible, adults should give children the facts and important details. The imagination of a child will “fill in” the details if they are not given. Too often, these imagined details are distorted, inaccurate, and more horrifying than the actual details, and can ultimately interfere with the long-term healing process.

Do not avoid the topic when the child brings it up. The adults around the child need to be available when the child wants to talk, but should avoid probing when the child does not want to talk. Children will sense if the topic is emotionally difficult for adults around them. A child will try to please adults by either avoiding emotional topics or persisting with topics that she senses they find more pleasant. Try to gauge your own sense of discomfort and directly address this with the child. It is reassuring to children that they are not alone in some of their emotional upset.

Be a good role model.  Show children how to express emotions in a healthy and nondisruptive fashion.

Be prepared to discuss the same details again and again. Expect to hear things from the child that seem as if they didn’t “hear” you when you told them the first time. Patiently, repeat clear, honest facts for the child. If you don’t know something — or if you also have wondered about the nature of death or a detail in this specific loss — tell the child. Help the child explore possible explanations, and help the child understand that you and others can and do live with many unknowns. In this process, let the child know, however, that there are things we do know — things we can understand.

Be available, nurturing, reassuring, and predictable. All of these things make the child’s work easier as they will feel safe and cared for. Extremely traumatic events will forever change these children’s lives. Available, nurturing, and caring caregivers, teachers, therapists, and caseworkers will all make their journey easier.

Understand that children often feel guilty. This can be a very destructive and pervasive belief. The guilt children feel is related to the false assumptions they make about the event. An important principle in this process is that children do not know how to verbalize or express guilt in the same fashion as adults. If these children’s caregivers, teachers, and therapists can minimize these potentially escalating and destructive ideas, the child’s recovery will be eased.

Help other children understand how devastated their classmate feels. Explain that this child may be more tired than usual, more irritable, and less interested in playing. Advise them that their classmate may want to talk about the loss and encourage them to listen

Tell other children in the class that this is a completely out-of-bounds topic for teasing. You can teach the children to respect the grieving process and avoid the emotional tender spots for a child. Also help children understand that this will be a long process and a major challenge for their classmate.

Take advantage of other resources. There are many other well-trained professionals willing to help you and the child in your care with these problems. Take advantage of them. Always remember that the loss does not go away, but the way children experience loss will change with time, hopefully maturing in ways that make it easier to bear. The traumatic loss of a parent, a sibling, and a peer will always be with these children. With time, love, and understanding, however, children can learn to carry the burdens of traumatic loss in ways that will not interfere with their healthy development.

Gaynor Clarke

B.Ed (Teaching), Cert Tertiary Teaching, PGDip Ed, MEd Leadership

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