Date: April 3rd
Five Ways to Help Students Get Through Grief
Students in almost every classroom are experiencing grief—and it's affecting their learning.
By Brittany R. Collins | March 11, 2022
In the fall of 2021, the Centers for Disease Control released a study that highlighted the ways in which grief and inequity are intertwined.
Among the more than 140,000 children who had lost a primary or secondary caregiver to COVID-19 in the United States (numbers that do not reflect the more recent Omicron surge), Indigenous children were “4.5 times more likely to lose a parent or grandparent caregiver, Black children were 2.4 times more likely, and Hispanic children were nearly 2 times more likely” than white children.
Loss influences learning and cognition, as brain-based changes cast ripple effects throughout one’s body and behavior. For example, “If someone close to us dies . . . based on what we know about object-trace cells, our neurons still fire every time we expect our loved one to be in the room,” writes psychology professor Mary-Frances O’Connor. Grief causes a fight-or-flight stress response, as well as a depressive response, confirms neurologist Lisa Shulman. Since stress hormones dampen the functioning of the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that holds primary responsibility for higher-order functioning like impulse control, emotional regulation, and planning ahead—people of any age may have a harder time with executive functioning skills or memory-related tasks at work or school, especially when, as in adolescence, their prefrontal cortex is still in development.
Grief is not only experienced in response to a death but can also occur as a result of other forms of loss—a change in housing or schooling, a sibling moving away to college, a parental divorce, experiences in the foster system, or losing touch with friends as school buildings open and close in response to pandemic surges, among other examples. When we “zoom out” from death-related statistics to consider the myriad forms of losses experienced by young people, it seems feasible to assume that nearly every classroom comprises students (and teachers) who are grieving.
For the past three years, I have interviewed teachers, school counselors, and social workers for my new book, Learning from Loss. Through my research, I came to identify five approaches to helping students heal from grief and loss. Here’s how you might apply them in your own classroom.
1. Create opportunities for self-awareness and reflection
Teachers should never force students to self-disclose regarding their loss experiences—but they can create environments that promote habits of mind that buoy young people experiencing grief.
2. Foster connections with nature and community
There is much research highlighting the healing powers of nature for folks experiencing grief and trauma. One 2016 study from UC Berkeley, for example, highlights the ways in which white-water rafting trips attenuated symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in both veterans and teens labeled “at-risk.” Renowned neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has written, in “The Healing Power of Gardens” and elsewhere, about the restorative powers of nature. And another recent study found that time spent near water directly improved physical and psychological health.
3. Empower student agency through project-based learning
Trauma occurs when we feel a loss of control over our situation or surroundings, as neurologist Bessel van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score. Grief can also make us feel helpless, and can drive feelings of isolation.
More resources on grief, trauma, and healing
4. Find moments for facilitating “flow”
Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow describes “those moments when you’re completely absorbed in a challenging but doable task.”
Because grief activates the “downstairs brain,” it may also make people of any age more prone to risk taking (especially in the context of adolescence, a developmental moment that already promotes risk taking). Leveraging risk-taking impulses by connecting students with opportunities for “healthy risk taking” increases the likelihood that grieving students will discover activities and practices that promote coping and facilitate flow in activities like theater, soccer, the debate team, and community service.
5. Model self-care and healthy habits
At this writing, almost a million people have died of COVID-19 in the space of just two years. At a moment like this one, it is critical to recognize that teachers and colleagues are grieving alongside their students—not just for lost lives, but also for lost friends, cancelled milestones and celebrations, and academic opportunities.
Based at UC Berkeley, the Greater Good Science Center provides a bridge between the research community and the general public.