The Total Child

Resource: Grief Over the Holidays: Educators Can Help Students Cope

(Student Support Services) Permanent link

The following is a  cross-post from the National Center for School Crisis & Bereavement. Learn more about ways to offer support to grieving students at the Coalition to Support Grieving Students website. AASA is part of the Coalition.

All across the nation, Thanksgiving and the December holidays are a special time for families, schools and communities. Everywhere we look, we see signs of celebration. In schools, there may be pageants, food drives, decorations and parties. In stores, we hear familiar music. On the streets, people wish each other happy holidays and talk about getting together with extended family and close friends. 

During these times, most of us also think about people we miss,including loved ones who have died. These memories can be especially acute for children and teens who have lost a loved one. They may experience periods of deep sadness, a renewal of their grief, or sudden and unexpected reactions of anger, despair or fear.

These responses may happen the first or second year after a death, or many years later. Educators spend a lot of time with students and are uniquely poised to observe grief responses over time. They can take steps to anticipate challenges. The support and understanding they offer grieving students over the holidays can be especially helpful.

Grief Triggers Can Be Strong

Grief triggers are sudden reminders of the person who died that cause powerful emotional responses. These can include smells or sounds, hearing a song, participating in a family tradition, or even imagining a lost opportunity such as a holiday dinner with the loved one.

Our holidays are filled with these kinds of reminders, so grief triggers can be frequent and quite strong during these times.

Emotions Can Be Powerful 

Grieving children may feel particularly vulnerable when they have grief responses to holiday events. They may isolate themselves from peers or celebrations in an effort to avoid triggers. They may be frustrated or disappointed that they can’t manage these responses. It’s common for children to feel, “I should be past this
and able to stay in control now.”

Goals For Educators

By reaching out to grieving students, educators have an opportunity to promote several important goals, including:

  1.  Decreasing the students’ sense of isolation. It’s common for grieving children to feel that others do not understand their experience.
  2.  Offering students an opportunity to talk. Students will be thinking about their loved one. They will be reflecting on memories, experiences and feelings.
  3.  Encouraging students to talk with others. In most cases, it’s helpful for students to talk honestly with peers and family about their thoughts, feelings and memories.

Steps to Take

  • Ask open-ended questions. Listen more than talk. For example, ask, “How are the holidays going for you? I wonder what thoughts you’ve been having about your dad lately.”
  •  Accept expressions of emotion. Children may express sadness, pain, frustration, anger or other powerful emotions. Avoid minimizing their feelings or trying to put a “positive” spin on their expressions. For example, saying, “It’s important to focus on the good times you had with your dad,” is likely to communicate that you don’t want to hear a child talk about painful things.
  •  Reach out to grieving students at school events. The absence of a loved one may be especially noticeable during the classroom party or holiday band concert. Make a point to touch base in some way. Let a student know you’re happy to see her here at the party, or are looking forward to hearing her play in the concert.
  •  Introduce class activities in a way that acknowledges absences and offers alternatives. For example, if students are making cards for members of their family, invite them, if they wish, to also include cards for someone who is no longer living, or who does not live with the family.

Children experience grief differently over time. What is true this year for the holidays may not be the same next year. This is why one of the most important things a family member can do is ask questions and then listen, with presence and patience.Learn more about ways to offer support to grieving children and students at the website of the Coalition to Support Grieving Students.


Redefining Ready! Reflections from 2018 Superintendent of the Year

(National Awareness, Student Support Services) Permanent link

Guest Post by David R. Schuler, Ph.D., Superintendent, High School District 214 (Ill.)

It has been amazing to serve as the 2018 National Superintendent of the Year. This award has not been about me or my career. It is truly a reflection of the outstanding teachers, students, and staff of High School District 214, where I have served as superintendent for the last 14 years of the 19 that I have been a public school superintendent. I absolutely love leading this District and working to influence the national dialogue about public education.

I have appreciated the opportunity this year to reflect on what it means to be the leader of not only a district but of a movement of educators across this country who are striving to redefine what it means to be ready for college, career, and life beyond high school.

More than 60 districts across the nation have joined the Redefining Ready! cohort and hundreds of educators attended the inaugural Redefining Ready! National Summit where we shared best practices and ideas to inspire innovation within our respective districts. Superintendents and districts across this country are engaging in the work to redefine and redesign the educational experience for thousands of students.

As part of our Redefining Ready! work, I am continually inspired by the stories of our students and graduates in High School District 214. Each day I hear of stories such as Zach Burke. Zach, a Prospect High School graduate, took a computer science course his freshman year that led to a passion for coding and a top award in the 2016 Congressional App Challenge. He presented his app – designed in one of our classrooms – to national tech leaders in Washington, D.C.

At Buffalo Grove High School, Jackie Molloy and Nicole Relias took courses in the business management pathway and now co-run a startup selling their product, Skunk Aid, on Amazon and in stores across Chicago. How cool is that?

An internship at a physical therapist’s office affirmed recent Wheeling High School graduate Hannah DeGraff’s decision to pursue a career in the field and provided her a behind-the-scenes look at running a healthcare business.

Rolling Meadows graduates Miranda Adelman and Raymond Liu completed courses in the visual arts pathway and interned at Harper College, while Elk Grove’s Oscar Gonzalez worked with high-tech tools in the classroom and earned an industry-level safety certification verifying his qualifications in the field.

At Hersey, Kayleigh Padar's introductory course in journalism led to a role as editor-in-chief of the school's paper and an internship writing bylined articles for the Daily Herald, our local newspaper. And Brandon Sobecki, a Vanguard graduate, spent half of his day interning in a veterinarian’s office while simultaneously earning 21 college credits through our Early College Center.

Our students are saving money in college and shortening the time to graduation by enrolling in dual credit and Advanced Placement coursework.

Tanya Sarkis, a Wheeling High School graduate now a freshman at DePaul University, took four dual credit courses during her senior year that allowed her to save about $11,000 in college tuition.

And Ivan Najera, who never planned to pursue college, participated in our Early College Center where he earned 28 transferable hours of college credit through Arizona State University’s Global Freshman Academy classes. Ivan is wrapping up his first semester at our local community college and will soon transfer to a four-year university to earn his bachelor’s degree.

These are just a few of the countless success stories that our staff have provided for our 12,000 students. Our students can only dream what they can see and we must provide engaging, rigorous, and relevant experiences on their educational journey.

Students today are entering a workforce where they will have multiple careers during their lifetime. We must move from focusing on motivation and inspiration, to aspiration. We must empower our students to aspire, dream big and discover their future.