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Working with Strong Emotions in the Classroom

Emotions in the Classroom7 out of 10 teachers have a student currently in their classroom who is grieving

Recently, I was working at a school that had been experiencing a tremendous amount of loss in their community—illness, the death of family members, divorce. On one of my consulting days, a 3rd grade teacher Sarah and I had planned to offer a community circle with her class of 25, on the subject of gratitude. But sadly, Sarah was unexpectedly called on a leave of absence because of the loss of her father.

With the support of the principal and two counselors, we decided to go ahead with the circle. We gathered together with the students, and the principal shared what had happened with Sarah’s father and let them know Ms. Sarah would be taking some time off. She then asked the students to speak about one thing they could do to help the classroom run smoothly, both during the time that the substitute was teaching their class and when Ms. Sarah came back. We passed the “talking piece” and the students shared wonderful ideas—being extra kind to each other, listening to the substitute with respect, using their “five-count” breath to calm themselves, making their teacher a card, greeting their teacher with a hug when she returned.

About halfway through our circle, one boy shared that his grandparents had died this last year—and that he was sad he hadn’t known them better. We talked about how sometimes, when we are around someone who has had a loss, it brings up our own losses. We shared how this is normal and natural and that there are many caring adults in the school who are here to support and listen. Then the last girl in our circle spoke—saying that she was so glad that we were taking time to talk about these things instead of keeping them inside. We were all so moved by the simple and profound truth that she had given voice to—and it reminded us that we can support student’s emotional capacity by simply making space for the range of feelings to be named, felt, and expressed. In a 30-minute circle, we were able to meet and address the situation at hand, make space for the voices of students, and further support the development of their safe and caring community.

In a recent a NPR–Ed blog post entitled “Saying Nothing, Says A Lot”, author Elissa Nadworny discusses the impact of unexpressed and unacknowledged grief in the classroom. Nadworny says that according to the New York Life Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers, 7 out of 10 teachers have a student currently in their classroom who is grieving.

I am reminded of a dear colleague whose mother died when he was in high school. He went an entire year without a single teacher or administrator acknowledging this loss— this was devastating and profoundly alienating. On the other hand, after finding out a middle school student’s family had just undergone a divorce, a teacher reached out privately to find out how that student was doing, to invite her to drop in any time to her office, and to accompany her to the counselor’s office if necessary. Sometimes, the simplest gestures make all the difference. We are not therapists, and it is essential that we understand what we can address and what we need to refer out. And, at the same time, within our role, we can be a compassionate, caring adult who reaches out and offers an acknowledgment, an invitation for connection, and a referral to useful resources.

Below are some guidelines we have found useful for addressing grief and loss in the classroom.
  • Acknowledge the loss (privately)
  • Provide accommodations for students (around school work)
  • Offer a safe space for expression
  • Normalize the full range of feelings
  • Provide creative outlets
  • Let go of our need to fix or take away the loss or “make it better”
  • Provide other resources
  • Offer opportunities to commemorate a loved one
  • Support students to manage emotional depth
  • Connect with family members

You may also wish to refer to pp. 98-100 in The 5 Dimensions of Engaged Teaching book for more on this important topic. Below is an excerpt from the chapter on emotional capacity.

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