Grief may be an unavoidable part of life but it can have a huge impact on students as well as their ability to learn – here, one community psychologist offers her advice on helping kids through it.
“We know that if a child is experiencing difficulties with emotions their learning will be impacted so school staff are very aware of these links and see their role as being about the whole child – which includes how they are feeling,” says Lyn O’Grady, national project manager with KidsMatter.
“Often they are working with a social and emotional learning program so will be having conversations with children about how they feel,” she continues. “A child who is sad or grieving will hopefully feel comfortable to share that with their teacher.”
For those who aren’t able to be so open, O’Grady says there are some common signs to look out for which may indicate a child is struggling – however, she warns that these will vary depending on age, cultural background and personality.
“Typical behaviours can include crying, showing signs of anxiety, becoming easily upset, irritable or angry when they usually wouldn’t, being extra clingy to parents/carers or siblings, losing interest in school work or activities, regressing behaviours where the child acts younger than they usually do,” she tells the Educator. “As teachers get to know children very well, they will often notice that something the child is doing is out of character for them.”
O’Grady, who’s currently undertaking a master of suicidology with Griffiths University, says there are countless ways for staff to support students:
- Noticing that the child is showing some changes or signs that something is wrong if the first step, then “checking in” to open the door to a conversation
- Listen when the child wants to talk
- Protect the child’s privacy by not talking in front of other children
- Problem solve with the child about what will help at school. For example, a child who is grieving may want to have a picture or photo on their table or have some quiet time to draw or write about their feelings when they’re feeling sad or upset.
- Be ready to check in with the family and work together.
- If the child is continuing to be upset over time and efforts to support him or her aren’t making a difference, be mindful of the limits of your role and consider when to talk with parents and the school wellbeing person about a possible referral for specialist support
- Take care of yourself too – hearing sad stories and seeing a child who is upset can be distressing and sometimes remind staff members of their own losses.
While there is a multitude of ways to offer support, O’Grady says it’s not uncommon for staff to misstep and says there are some things to avoid at all costs in this type of scenario:
- Certainly not to dismiss the signs or hope the child will “get over it” – it’s important that children feel heard and understood.
- On the other extreme, don’t over-react to a child who is distressed or their behaviours related to distress. Listen to understand what behaviours might mean and problem solve together with the child and family so that they see that feelings are normal and the school will support them.