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Principal Pointers: When and How Should Grief Counseling be Handled

As both a mother and a school principal, I have watched students, schools, and whole communities grieve losses. About a year and a half ago, I watched as my own children and community grieve the loss of their longstanding school principal who was killed in an accident. I've watched students grieve together over the loss of other students, from health, accident, and gang violence. And we cannot ignore the grief students may endure invisibly that comes with neglect, loss, and misunderstanding. So what is the "right" way to handle these situations at a school level? As usual, I shall point to those more expert than myself.

Teenage boy is seated on a park bench, hunched over with his hands behind his neck.

General Tips to Support Students

In an article entitled, "Addressing Grief: Tips for Teachers and Administrators," the National Association of School Psychologists offers actionable tips for school leaders in handling student grief. Among the many suggestions, several stand out as particularly useful on a day-to-day basis.

  • Recognize and empathize with grief reactions that may present as negative behavior. These reactions may include a loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, inability to concentrate, sadness, social withdrawal, and anger. The US Department of Education also notes that students in grief may have physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches, and exhaustion.

  • Don't shy away from words about death; young students especially need clarity and not vague euphemisms such as "passed away" or "left."

  • Listen and validate the students' feelings.

  • Be sensitive to cultural differences in how death is handled.

Child is playing with clay while talking to an adult woman on the computer.

  • Do not pressure students to talk. Allow options such as drawing, writing, listening to music, or going about the day normally.

Guidelines for a Teacher or Student Death

In addition to the above-referenced article, the US Department of Education has also published guidance for school leaders in the face of student or staff death. As soon as possible after the death of a teacher or student, the following actions should be taken:

  • A letter or email (I recommend an email as a letter is much too slow.) should be sent home to all families notifying them of the death. I would also add that, in the case of a student death, the guardians should give permission for the student's name to be disclosed. Otherwise, the name should not be included. Other information in the email should include:

    • Facts about the death to alleviate rumors

    • Tips for parents to help their own children through the grief process

    • Availability of grief counseling and how to recognize if their children are in need of such

    • How to contact the school and grief counselors

    • Information about other mental health or community services

  • Update staff, students, and parents regularly with relevant information and memorial or funeral information.

  • Give teachers guidelines and give them a process to refer students for grief counseling. I must add that I feel this is often overlooked, with an expectation that students will go to a school counselor if needed. Some students may have never talked to a school counselor and might need guidance or an opening.

  • Pay particular attention to students who may already be under stress or grief that may be compounded.

  • In addition to grief counseling, some student may need additional tutoring during this time.

I highly recommend the US Department of Education document, as it includes a table, detailing what information should and should not be shared in various circumstances.

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