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A Teacher’s Role in Helping Their Students Through the Loss of Family or Friend

A teacher comforts a crying studentLike all trauma, the impact of death extends far beyond the event itself or the immediate aftermath. Unlike physical injury, it’s not a matter of healing over the course of days, weeks or months. The waves of grief experienced over death often ripple through a person’s life for years to come.

For teachers with students experiencing the loss of someone close to them, it’s not unusual to face situations that require them to provide needed support.

Guiding a student through the grief process is challenging and often complicated. The role of teachers in helping students deal with the death of a loved one differs from a grief counselor or close family member. Through its professional development courses, Fresno Pacific University teaches educators about their role and the best practices to address grief in the classroom.

These courses include Helping Students Cope with Grief and Loss and Trauma-Informed Teaching. Teachers completing either or both of these programs can apply the credits toward earning a Social Emotional Learning Certificate from Fresno Pacific University.

Methods to Address Grief in the Classroom

Almost all students will experience a death in their family or among the family of close friends. It’s often difficult for educators to know how to respond. But they must learn how to address grief in the classroom, as teachers can significantly impact how students move forward.

Grief can impact student academic performance, social interaction, behavior and physical health. In the Helping Students Cope With Grief and Loss course, teachers learn valuable strategies for supporting students experiencing grief.

The course includes strategies to understand grief felt in specific circumstances, including suicide, death of estranged family members, diagnosis of a family member with a long-term illness, deaths on campus and deaths that impact the whole school community.

The course provides knowledge of practical, valuable outcomes for teachers when dealing with this complicated issue:

  • How to prepare to meet the needs of grieving students and enhance the ability to talk with students directly and compassionately when helpful and needed.
  • Understanding the best strategies to address the developmental, cognitive and emotional stages of students coping with grief or loss.
  • Competence in addressing a variety of faith, religious and cultural concerns.
  • The capacity to answer questions related to sensitive areas like attending funerals, visiting dying students in hospitals and engaging with the family.
  • An ability to address complicated deaths involving suicide, estranged family members, multiple family member deaths or when a student is present at the death or finds the body.
  • Methods for addressing the needs of a school experiencing shared trauma like multiple deaths in a community, the death of a colleague or the death of an administrator. This also includes national issues, such as the death of a political leader.

The Four Concepts of Death

One essential strategy teachers learn in the course is talking to students about the four concepts of death. These concepts can help students come to terms with death:

  • Death is irreversible
  • All life functions end at the time of death
  • Eventually, everything dies
  • There are physical reasons why someone dies

These four concepts can reduce the chance of students engaging in fantasies, like part of the body may remain alive and return. It’s especially important for students who may experience extreme emotions, including guilt or self-blame about the death.

Trauma-Informed Teaching

Two out of every three kids report experiencing a traumatic event by age 16 that can impact their behavior, academic performance and social-emotional learning skills. Types of trauma include death, divorce of parents, surviving an auto accident, natural disasters and other upheavals (such as multiple moves).

The Trauma-Inspired Teaching course prepares educators to implement strategies that support the brain’s ability to heal from trauma. Teachers learn how to promote positive behaviors, social-emotional well-being and academic success that allows students to engage with and enjoy classroom activities.

Other outcomes for the course include:

  • Learning how trauma can impact a student’s behavior, social-emotional well-being and academics.
  • Understanding how to apply learned concepts and trauma-informed strategies in their workplace.
  • Evaluating the impact of vicarious trauma on their teaching practices.
  • Creating a trauma-sensitive classroom where trauma-affected students feel safe, loved and able to complete higher-level thinking tasks.
  • Understanding the components necessary to create a trauma-sensitive classroom and school.

Both courses and others in the Social Emotional Learning Certificate program help teachers support students during a time of complicated emotions. It’s a critical facet of teaching, as all educators will, at some point, find themselves trying to support grieving or traumatized students.

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