How Educators Can Support Grieving Students Through Learning

Concentration and learning difficulties are extremely common for people dealing with grief. This is true for adults, as well as children. However, because learning is the main work of school-aged children and teens, these common challenges pose a risk of serious academic problems.

As one grieving student explained, “It was hard because I couldn’t concentrate on my work. If I was reading, I would read the words, but I wouldn’t read the story. I would think about something else … .”

That reflects some of the typical experiences of grieving students. They are usually easily distracted and have more difficulty learning new facts or concepts. And pre-existing learning challenges often become worse.

The goal for educators is to find a balance between maintaining reasonable expectations and providing the support and accommodation students need. Educators should talk directly with students to identify the level of academic work that feels appropriate and achievable. It’s also a good idea to talk with families to learn more about how the student is adjusting at home.

Three actions that educators can take to modify learning activities for grieving students include:

  1. Change an assignment: This can include changing a due date or changing the format (for example, writing a personal essay instead of giving an oral presentation to the class). It might mean allowing a student to work with a partner instead of alone.
  2. Change the focus or timing of a lesson: Sometimes, the content of a lesson can pose problems. A literature class might choose a different book to discuss if the one originally scheduled describes a death similar to the one a student is currently grieving. A health class might postpone the unit on substance abuse until later in the year if a student has just lost a sibling to a drug overdose.
  3. Reschedule or adapt tests: Tests create considerable pressure for a grieving student who is unable to concentrate. Immediately after a death, these students could be exempted from a test. Or they could be allowed to take a test without the usual time limit or take it on a later date. Their test scores could also be weighted less in determining their final grades.

These learning adjustments and others can have a significant impact and relieve a great deal of stress for students already feeling bogged down by their emotions in the grieving process. Additionally, education modifications can allow grieving students the time to process their emotions more effectively and in a healthy way.

Learn more about the impact of grief on learning, and ways to offer support to grieving students on the Coalition to Support Grieving Students website. NASSP is a founding member of the coalition.

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