Family Holidays—A Reminder to Support Grieving Students

Mother’s Day offers a rich array of choices for classroom educators. Run an Internet search on “Mother’s Day classroom activities” and literally hundreds of ideas appear—quizzes, art projects, research, math, and that longtime standby, making cards for mom.

These can be fun endeavors for students and teachers alike. But a classroom activity focusing on mothers can be challenging for a student whose mother has died. It can also be difficult for students who don’t live with their mothers. Lesson plans posted on the Internet rarely take note of this.

Amber Serfling, a special education teacher at King Learning Center in Deer River, Minnesota, is an educator who has taken note. “I work with seven students, and three of them currently live with their mothers,” she explained. Her other students live with family members or in kinship care.

iStock_000070938661_Full.jpgMs. Serfling has learned to make a small extra effort in lesson planning. “Teachers don’t want to introduce lessons that trouble or traumatize our students. I’ve found that if I just bring some mindfulness as I plan, it’s easy enough to accommodate the different experiences in my students’ lives,” she said.

For example, last year she found a Mother’s Day activity she liked on a Pinterest board. The activity suggested teachers create a colorful backdrop that said, “Mom, I love you because…” Students wrote out a message completing the statement; the teacher took a photo of the student with the message, and students made cards with their photos.

According to Ms. Serfling, “My students loved this activity! And the only accommodation I made was not including the word “mom” on the backdrop. We talked about Mother’s Day as a day of appreciation for those who help us most—someone who is always there for us. I told students that didn’t need to be a mom.”

Her students wrote messages to a range of people who have supported them. The class framed their photos and gave them to the person they had chosen.

In any class, there is a reasonable chance that one or more students will have lost a parent. In fact, one in 20 students will experience the death of a parent by the time they complete their schooling. Parents may be absent for other reasons as well, such as military service, incarceration, abandonment, long distance work situations.

The Coalition to Support Grieving Students encourages educators to consider adapting not only Mother’s Day projects, but activities during other holidays that focus on family connections—Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, and more. Offer students options suitable to their range of life experiences.

Instead of drawing a picture of what their family did for Thanksgiving (some families might not have celebrated the holiday), students can draw a picture of a family celebration they have enjoyed, or one they would like to attend.

When teachers know a student has lost a parent, they might want to speak to the student privately before doing activities that focus on parents or families. Together, they can work out an option that is comfortable for the student—perhaps shifting the focus of the activity, as Ms. Serfling did, or offering another activity for that student.

For more information and resources, visit the Coalition to Support Grieving Students website, which includes videos and downloadable modules with more information and advice on students and grief. NASSP is a founding member of the coalition.

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