Creating a Culture of Compassion
With the start of the school year underway, many educators, students, and schools are working together to develop the beginning of new routines, connections, and expectations. While academic requirements and school procedures are being covered, we must also cover an often not thought of topic. One that now, more than ever, is in desperate need of being covered: grief within the classroom.
Recent statistics from the Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model reflect that 1 in 11 children in the state of Indiana will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18. Many of these children attend local schools and spend most of their time in the classroom. This statistic alone acts as a call-to-action for teachers, caregivers, and schools to develop compassionate classrooms for their students who are grieving.
However, many educators feel ill-equipped to address grief in the school. According to a 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation with the American Federation of Teachers, only 24% of classroom teachers feel comfortable supporting a student after a death and 93% report childhood grief was a serious problem that deserved more attention from schools.
So, how can we begin to cultivate compassionate classrooms for our students who are experiencing grief?
Step One: Awareness
As educators and caregivers, being aware that children and teens within our schools are experiencing grief allows us to begin some needed dialogue. There are many ways to identify students who are grieving, whether through conversations at back-to-school nights, progress conferences, or family surveys sent out at the beginning of the year. Communication between home and school is necessary for developing compassionate and grief-sensitive schools.
Step Two: Normalizing Grief
Death is a universal experience, one that we all experience at different times throughout our lives. Age-appropriate conversations about death and grief in a classroom help normalize a difficult topic while children are in a safe, familiar setting. Using inclusive practices in lesson planning and school events can make a big difference for students who are grieving and help decrease isolation. School events, such as “Muffins with Mom” or “Donuts with Dad,” may leave students who have experienced a death feeling alone in their grief. Events geared at honoring all those important connections in our lives and honoring those relationships that have changed due to death allow the inclusion of all.
Step Three: Mindfulness
Mindful changes or explanations of classroom assignments can aid in normalizing that students are not alone in their grief. For example, when introducing a “Family Tree” assignment, address grief at the very beginning. Acknowledge that some students may feel confusion or a plethora of other emotions when determining where or if they should recognize the person who died. Addressing the classroom as a whole, acknowledging that students may have experienced a death, and empowering students with choices on how they want to incorporate their loved ones nurtures compassion and reduces isolation.
Step Four: Advocacy
We can encourage a culture of grief sensitivity within our classrooms by becoming advocates for students who are grieving. Advocacy comes in many forms, but a simple way is to investigate your area’s resources.
What grief support systems are available to children and families in your area? Does your city have a bereavement center?
Does your child’s school partner with another organization to provide support to students who are grieving?
What educational opportunities are available for partners and school personnel to address grief?
The Fort Wayne regional area is fortunate to have access to a wide variety of community resources, including a children’s grief center. Erin’s House for Grieving Children partners with area schools to bring programming and resources into the classroom for students who are grieving and in need of support. Additionally, Erin’s House provides community training to many different area organizations to equip them with knowledge of children’s grief and practical ways to integrate inclusivity for creating a culture of compassion within their classroom or organization.
“New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers Grief in School Survey: Key Findings and Topline Results.” New York Life's Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative, New York Life Foundation, Aug. 2020, https://www.newyorklife.com/assets/foundation/docs/pdfs/key-findings-and-topline.pdf.
“Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model: Indiana 2022.” Judi's House CBEM Reports, Judi’s House/JAG Institute, 2022, https://judishouse.org/download/cbem-indiana/?wpdmdl=1599&_wpdmkey=631b7a6642520.