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Culturally Sensitive Approaches to Support Grief in the Classroom

By — Diversity in Education Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

Educators are largely ill-prepared to assist grieving children. Although this lack of experience undoubtedly impacts all children, it may have particular ramifications for Black youth. Due to the high frequency of homicide among Black males (1), an increasing number of Black youth must cope with the loss of important figures in their lives, including brothers, uncles, fathers, and neighbors. Many well-meaning adults neglect or avoid discussions of death with children. Caregivers are often preoccupied with grief themselves, don’t know what to say, or hold misconceptions about children’s understanding of death, grief, and coping. Consequently, many children experience disenfranchised grief (2, 3) or grief that is largely unrecognized or unacknowledged in our culture, both within family systems and educational settings.

Whether unintended or not, neglecting to acknowledge children’s grief experiences means that they lack the support necessary to cope with the hardest transitional experiences of their lives. 

How can teachers be better prepared to assist children grieving violent deaths, such as homicide, within the context of the classroom? How can teachers be supportive in ways that are culturally sensitive to children’s grief and coping following homicidal deaths?

How Parents Can Help

Parents can serve as an important resource to teachers during their children’s grief process.

Inform the teacher of the death.

Never assume that the teacher will know of the death. Inform the teacher of the death in a format that is comfortable for you, like a phone call, email, letter, or in a parent-teacher conference.

Talk to the teacher about your observations of your child’s reactions to the death.

Inform the teacher of changes in behavior, mood, eating or sleep habits that you have noticed in your child.

Culturally Sensitive Ways for Educators to Support Grieving Children in the Classroom

Self-Awareness

Work to understand your personal feelings and experiences with death, loss, and grief. Despite your best intentions, personal fears and anxieties about death may prevent you from functioning as a support to students.

Death Education & Training

Seek out opportunities to expand your knowledge and that of your colleagues on issues related to death and grief. The Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) has a directory of Death Education Specialists across different regions that conduct workshops and trainings and provide information on supporting grieving youth. For a listing of Death Education Specialists in your area, visit ADEC.org.

Student Information

Gather information on children’s family and friend history that includes a section on death experiences and coping strategies within their family.

Avoid Stigmatizing or Stereotyping

Because homicidal deaths are considered non-natural deaths or normative deaths (deaths due to old age or deteriorating health), they are often stigmatized within the larger culture. Many families won’t disclose the homicidal nature of deaths of their loved ones due to fear of being stereotyped or stigmatized.

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