Grief at School: How to Support a Grieving Child in the Classroom

By late October, most elementary school children will have settled into the new school year. If a particular child seems to have difficulty acclimating to classroom routines, an often overlooked possibility is the impact of grief due to death or serious illness. At times, school staff may not even know what has happened at home unless the student volunteers this information.

As a teacher or school counselor, you may feel unsure about how to respond if you have not had experience with students coping with bereavement or illness. Following are some guidelines for supporting a child who has recently experienced loss.

Offer chances to take a break.

A grieving student may feel overwhelmed or anxious in the classroom. When you suspect a child is having difficulty concentrating due to a loss, you can find a private moment to speak with them and come up with a plan. Give permission to step out of the classroom for a break, whether that’s to go to the restroom, spend a few quiet minutes in the media center or visit the school counselor.

Provide a listening ear.

Other people in the child’s life may make misguided statements about loss that invalidate grief feelings, such as “You need to be strong for your family.” In contrast, you can provide nonjudgmental support by asking open-ended questions and listening more than talking. Some helpful things to say to a grieving student include:

  • “I heard that a special person in your life has died (or is very sick). It’s okay to talk to me about it whenever you’re having a hard day.”
  • “Some kids might be feeling really sad or angry in this situation. What has it been like for you?”
  • “Is there anything you’re worried about right now?”

Don’t be overly concerned with getting the words exactly right. The most important thing is a calm and caring tone that shows the student you care.

Keep in mind that some kids may not want to talk about the loss at that moment—and some may never want to talk about it. Follow the child’s lead when making the offer of a listening ear, and let the student know that choosing not to talk is also valid. Your offer of support will feel meaningful even to students who opt not to share details with you.

Understand that children demonstrate grief in varied ways.

Children don’t always express grief feelings through crying or sadness. Elementary age students may display other changes in behavior or mood, such as irritability, angry outbursts, distraction, anxiety or unusual sensitivity. Kids may also have difficulty articulating their emotions.

Ask a Children’s Counselor.

The licensed counselors at Kids Path offer free phone consultations to any adult in the community, including school personnel and parents or caregivers. To ask about ways to support your student in coping with death or serious illness, call 336.544.5437 and ask to speak with a Kids Path counselor.