I recently presented at the National Association of Educators of Young Children annual conference on A Death In A Classroom When A Parent, Child, or Teacher Dies.
A difficult subject however 60% of our nation's children experience a major loss by the time they graduate highschool. This does impact their development and education.
I am sharing this with you.
Teaching Children How To Grieve, Using Multiple Intelligence Theory To Help Cope
Death occurs. Natural Disasters strike. Buildings are bombed. Wars kill.
Traumas and tragedies come into our lives and to those that we care for and teach. Sometimes slowly when there is a disease or deployment, or quickly and unexpectedly like an accident, sudden health issue, or suicide. Then, the next day comes and teachers and caregivers hear a range of questions, comments, fears, and expressions of grief from the children and other adults.
Several years ago I was a nanny in a home when a parent came home one afternoon to tell me their spouse died. In the span of four months the children also would deal with the drowning of a family pet and a preschool classmate of the youngest died from a form of cancer. There was no information available on how to manage with them day to day at home where the guard towards grief behavior can be let down and yet maintain boundaries. It took months and recommendations from various people of books and articles to read. Then I worked in other nanny positions where the family was going through some trauma or transition related to a divorce, an addiction, a death, disease, mental illness etc. I continued to do more self study on aiding the children in moving forward.
My oldest sister died a few years ago unexpectedly. The reason is relevant to this article; she had been a long time special education teacher for young children. At the time I learned of her dying I had just set up a room to teach some theater students and they were about to arrive in ten minutes.
Joining us in our sorrow was her current and former students, and school coworkers. It wasnít until I started drafting a similar article for nannies a little while ago that I asked myself, "What did they do at the classrooms in the aftermath of her death?" Here I was being a grieving sister, and I really didnít stop to ask what was being done for her "Peapods" (special needs students).
As I researched for this article and read about what schools do when a student died, I had flashbacks to when a childhood neighbor friend and classmate of mine drowned. His death had been very hard on me. I still can remember vividly that first day of school that next fall with him not being on the bus. No one talked about it to us that summer or when we got to school. It was like he never was there. That makes a child think about whether they matter or not to the school too.
After stopping being a crisis nanny, I volunteered with youth bereavement programs where I received additional training. At various grief camps for kids I was able to observe therapeutic activities and events that were hits, and some misses. Itís not easy to help children cope and move forward. Itís a lot of piecemeal because each child and every death, their home life, family make-up, culture, etc. is unique. Thereís no one catch all manual or tip sheet that addresses all the various scenarios.
My day jobs now are ones where I work for a two healthy happy parent family. I have used this time to update my CDA hours. One of the classes I took a few years ago was in multiple intelligence theory. Shortly thereafter I attended the NAEYC annual conference 2009, registering for sessions related to different types of stress and trauma children face. At the first one, the person was talking about healing activities, something clicked and I made a connection between the theory of multiple intelligence, and grief therapy options.
Teachers and administrators attending these NAEYC sessions a few years ago asked questions about how to handle situations that have come up in their jobs. Things like what to do for and say to those who are grieving. How to talk to surviving parents and other relatives when a child is struggling in the classroom. Trying to decide if they should get a class pet that doesnít have a long life span. What do you do when a family is in denial? Which ways best help the family after a death? And, what do we do to heal the classroom and ourselves? With all due respect to the presenters, not even they had all the answers. I am not knocking them, these are big complex matters at times. There are protocols, standards, laws, rules, individual customs, etc. I found myself participating in discussions by stating resources I knew of that worked best for me when I needed them in the past. Everyone took notes.
One of the pros and cons of being a nanny is when the children get home is they take off masks that they often put on out in public. Not always effectively though. The public wonders why they are behaving the way they are or arenít. (To be fair to the kids, sometimes the public doesn't get their insensitivities). As a nanny, I sooner or later would hear their side and know. Or, I would pull it out of them because I just had too much on my own hands that day to walk around on eggshells with them. Sometimes those stories are easier and obvious, others incidents complex. Over time, itís taught me how to tune into them. To be able to tell quickly when they come through the door how their day went just by how they interact with their siblings, and me. To pay attention to the calendar and when holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, milestones, etc. are coming up. Yes each child grieves differently, at different stages, and ages. But there are commonalities too. (In the resources links are information on this.)
With all of that in my background, I would like to offer advice.
Find teachable opportunities to talk about death. It happens. There is no fountain of youth, all living things die. To deny discussing this with children is the biggest disservice we do them. Use the life cycles of plants and animals as the seasons change. Yes, get the class pet that may not live forever and have a funeral for it to introduce terms to them.
A few years, I had gone out to a regional zoo with my young charge, and we had gotten on to this big tractor pulled wagon to go out for a ride to see the bigger animals up close out in this field. There was a preschool there on a day trip. I overheard a conversation where a young child noticed one of the animals was missing. I could tell by the way the teacher paused and danced around her answer what had happened; only she said that the animal went away and they wouldnít see it anymore. Another little child stated clearly "He died". The teacherís comment was "Well thatís putting it bluntly." I thought, "Why is that blunt?" The animal had died of old age, not some attack from another animal or a painful slow death related to disease. It wasnít put down. It died. All living things die sooner or later. The little boy wasnít being blunt, he was being honest. Factual. Reality. Biology.
Another time in my past, I had been a nanny to preschool aged siblings. On the playground, they found a dead mouse one day. On the concrete driveway they could see worms washed up after rainstorms and if they werenít returned to the dirt, they would die. Once there was a dead duck in a pond along the walkway at the park. At the nature preserves are skeletons of animals, pelts, or others that were preserved through taxidermy. I could list other experiences where examples of death came into our daily experiences, like even road kill. We talked about death. Yes, I get parents might not like the idea of this, but thatís because they are uncomfortable too.
It is important, to take stock of our own feelings about death. Many times in my application process to volunteer for grief camps I would have to give my own history, memories, feelings, etc. on death. Perhaps this is where you might want to pause and do a nonjudgmental self evaluation on your own attitudes and background in bereavement. Include your spiritual feelings too.
We as adults can have various hang ups about death based on our cultures, politics, religious background, ethnic make-up, genetics, fears, phobias, etc. This happens with a lot of things.
No itís not a fun topic. Nor an easy one. But, there can be bigger issues that can develop if death is ignored, dismissed, or kept silent about. Teachers, parents, and other adults may think this is too tough of a topic for children to comprehend. Meanwhile, children pick up information here and there on the bus, on the playground, in their backyards on playdates (hey I have heard them all), they know violence happens, they hear when a classmateís pet or grandparent dies, and they come across dead wild animals sometimes outside their own homes. They overhear talk of wars and terrorists. We canít prevent death from happening. Kids will talk amongst themselves about it and form their own impressions and attitudes based on what they hear from possibly uninformed peers, or the media. Surely, you donít want that for your students.
What I can tell you because I have known of situations where adults are in denial, it really messes with the kids who see the reality right in front of them. They become stressed, they lose sleep, they may not eat. Their morale drops, they get more emotional. It gets harder for their teachers and caregivers to fully meet their needs. Our hands feel tied by laws and rules if you don't let us help you help them.
I had asked one of my sisterís long time neighbor and co-worker what happened in the school right after she died. The friend didnít know. She struggled herself with the news, this was my sisters friend, they raised their kids together in their adjoining backyards. The school had subs were in place to take on the classes for the day for her and other teachers who were all in shock.
Waiting until some crisis happens in our classrooms, community or country when we are wrestling with our grief too makes it very hard for us to take on the grief of the children. When we know what to do now, it makes us calmer in the crisis, otherwise you and everyone else can have more chaos.
I did teach my class right after learning of my sisterís death, I donít remember doing it. I just remember melting down on the phone throwing a tantrum to my mom before it, "She canít be dead now I have to teach." And no, in hindsight I get that she didnít wake up that morning, and thought, "Gee Iím going to die right here right now just to annoy Lisa." My mom, being the former hospice nurse she was probably recognized a few stages of grief going in me. I can still hear her in my memory telling me over that my sister would not have wanted me to cancel it. She always wanted me to teach, to get my complete elementary education degree, she naaaaaaggggged relentlessly every time I saw her. Itís very bittersweet that I did teach after the learning the news. (The Beat Goes On. La de da de de.)
This serves as an example of the different ways even we as teachers may respond too. None of them are wrong.
After we start teaching children about death, we can teach about resiliency and overcoming adversity. Children can be accepting and adaptable. But they need guidance on how to go on productively. Just as we teach the infant how to survive and live, we need to teach the complete circle of life. When you start a dialogue with children on death, you may discover that they are the ones that can teach us a thing or two about life and priorities. I have heard so many profound things from preschoolers.
My suggestion is to you is create a folder, file, or kit that contains articles and tip sheets that address all these topics, so if a crisis or tragedy were to happen in your work environment you arenít scrambling to figure out to do. I generally bookmark mine a computer. I am including a list of links I use (located in a sublink here at the website). Have plans tentatively in place. Think of various what if scenarios, some deaths happen to, from and at school while the children aren't with their parents but with you. Consider holding an emergency meeting to distribute information and coordinate the action you will take. Or better yet, in some of these websites that I provided links for there are training programs for teachers, parents, and caregivers. Take them together. Doing this allows you to be more focused and in control. Those grieving, including perhaps you, need calmness and stability.
The main purpose of this paper is to discuss dealing with the aftermath. However, I realize it is beneficial to bring up resources on the topic of stages of grief, how children comprehend death at different ages, signs, symptoms, etc. so that if you arenít familiar with them you are better able to recognize and respond the grief going on when you know the death is coming. (they are located at the links page here)
There are many other wonderful sites for the kids themselves too. There are countless books and movies recommended at them. Create lists and add them to your file or kit. Talk to your librarians about what ones are available, and if there arenít any, request them.
Contact grief support groups in your area. Find out what services your city, county, and state may offer. If you are involved with a place of worship, contact your clergy. Call the Hospice for your region. Get names and phones numbers. Put this information in your file or kit too. These agencies and organizations want to help, and they have received education and training on it. Trust me I know these people. (Side note other members of my family have worked with Hospice too.)
An average of five students in every classroom comes from a home with a parent who has a substance addiction. Chances are that parent may not be in the home. The children can be grieving over this. Or grieving over not having that parent like the other kids' parents.
Sometimes children move and they can be grieving over that. Or their parent maybe in jail, or institutionalized. Or in the hospital battling the illness.
Grief is not on a switch that you can turn on and off. You canít control or change this. Chances are you may be in a situation where counseling staff isnít available to swoop in and help meet the needs of the grieving child or students in your classroom. So often the counselors may be there in the immediate aftermath, but grief takes time, and four or five months down the road you can find it all bubbling up. Plus, because I have cared for children in the years after a death, they still struggle at times. They arenít like their friends who have mom and dad to go to, thatís hard.
A lot of children are out there in homes where they arenít getting the support they need to successfully deal with the loss. While we want the parent(s) to get them into therapy, many resist offering a wide spectrum of reasons and explanations to excuse why they canít or wonít get help.
Or, a child may be getting counseling. This doesnít mean though that they arenít going to have outbursts and meltdowns while they are with you. All types of reminders and triggers can set them off when you least expect it. Just accept that it will happen. Stay calm. Healing is an ongoing process that takes a lot of energy involving highs and lows.
There simple and affordable activities that you can do with the child or your classroom to help them work through some of their painful feelings. Some donít take a lot of time and can be done in a variety of settings and spaces.
The theory of Multiple Intelligence has demonstrated to us the different ways we all can and do learn. Linguistic intelligence ("word smart"): Logical-mathematical intelligence ("number/reasoning smart") Spatial intelligence ("picture smart") Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence ("body smart") Musical intelligence ("music smart") Interpersonal intelligence ("people smart") Intrapersonal intelligence ("self smart") Naturalist intelligence ("nature smart"). We better serve children by designing and implementing a variety of lessons to help learn better according to their strengths, abilities, talents, and interests.
In a handout of a presentation on Using Multiple Intelligences to Learn About Grief and Loss Debra L. Berke, Ph.D. and Tawny Smay wrote,
In addition, just as there are many ways to work through grief and loss, there are also many ways to teach about grief and lossÖ.
When teaching about loss, educators need to keep in mind that there likely are a variety of multiple intelligences represented among a group of learners. Similarly, educators need to be cognizant of the fact that we tend to teach from our strengths including our preferred multiple intelligences which may or may not match those of our audience. For example, some individuals may be able to better learn about and/or address their grief and loss through small group activities (interpersonal intelligence) while others may want to use journaling (intrapersonal intelligence), dance (kinesthetic intelligence), or art (spatial intelligence). By teaching the learners using a variety of intelligences, individuals will be better able to teach others about loss as well as deal more effectively with their grief and loss.
I have started to develop a website devoted to the idea of grief and multiple intelligence. I am hoping to list a wide range of activities and exercises teachers, parents, caregivers, etc. can do with children that embrace and honor their multiple intelligences. I decided to proceed with this after emailing Howard Gardner, developer of MI, who agrees that we would use the theory in death education too just as we would in other types of education and it relates to teaching children how to cope. and Thomas Armstrong (another PhD who does work in MI), followed by correspondence with Patrick OíBrien who co-wrote an article, Counselling Children Using A Multiple Intelligences Framework.
The following are my own ideas on things to do and you are welcome to think of your own.
Verbal Ė Linguistic Ė Poetry writing. Give them all types of media to use, different paper, magazines to cut apart, computers with all types of fonts and formatting options. Let them write journals and plays. Let them read.
Logical- Mathematical Ė Cooking (their favorite recipes or ones of the deceased), Puzzle solving, Building with little manipulative, Small construction projects (think those wooden models you can get for a few dollars), Geometry games, 3D projects, Simple Chemistry. Drumming (actually I have never met a kid who didnít like that therapy type.)
Visual Ė Spatial Ė Photography, Scrapbooking, Collage Making, Art of all types. Pounding clay and playdoh.
Bodily Ė Kinesthetic Ė Sports therapy, anything involves swinging a racket or bat. One former charge used to work out (he was a teen) on weights. Or he would kick his soccer ball or bounce his frustrations out with a basketball. Hiking, walks, running. Then theater and dance too.
Music Ė composing, singing, listening to songs, playing them ( I believe even in toy music or even pots and pans), again dancing.
Nature Ė Planting a tree or a memory garden, pet care, wild animal care (feeders, houses), animal therapy (horses, dogs, cats), astronomy, boating, creek stomping, swimming. Being outside in all four seasons.
Interpersonal Ė Celebrate the personís life party, organizing the honoring of the person at milestone times, kidís group therapy or go to a special camp for grieving children.. (Check you area, you may find they are near you or Dougy.org has listings)
Intrapersonal Ė definitely the journaling and photo diary. Worksheets on grief they can complete on their own. Sometimes, they may be willing to do some of the things mentioned above without or with others.
Obviously some of these things can be tried and liked by all children. Thatís cool. The thing I would like you to keep in mind though is not expecting a child to do something that really doesnít fit them. It will and has not worked. I have seen that, and sometimes it just frustrates them more, or their undesired behavior can escalate if they arenít healing.
In the links section you will come across lists of resources for healing activities that are coming from different types of intelligence learning. I also believe in sensory memories. As you can see I hint at those above too
My personal history in helping children grieving has been very therapeutic. It is my aim to help them get through what has happened to them. In doing this, I too am able to heal from loss, especially if the person being grieved, like a teacher or student, is one Iím mourning the death of too. It is my hope that if or when death ever comes to your classroom you will be able to do the same.
If you want to discuss this further confidentially, please email me.