meIt was a Friday afternoon. With classes finished for another week, Jill Evans, assistant principal in Hertfordshire, left for a weekend away, telling the school principal, Julie Rees, her friend and colleague, that she would see her on Monday.
She did not do it. Over the weekend, Evans, 58, died in a car accident. By Monday morning, Rees not only had to process his own pain, but also set up structures to help the 440 Ledbury Elementary students, as well as staff and parents, through the enormous emotional consequences that the tragedy would bring. .
Rees’ experience has become exceptionally relevant in these coronavirus days, as principals and teachers begin to prepare for their return to the classroom. Whenever that time comes, one thing is clear: Many children will have experienced pain and trauma since the last time they were in school, and the school will have a crucial role to play in helping them and their families process their emotions. the future.
Looking back on the period around his deputy’s death in January 2019, the most important thing Rees says he learned was the resilience of humans to shocking and unthinkable circumstances. “I never imagined that I would have the resources to deal with what I had to face,” she says. “If you had told me that I was going to receive that call, I would have thought it would be a disaster. Then I would say to the teachers: believe in yourself in these difficult times, in your inner strength, and trust your intuition about what is what Right “.
The first thing Rees did, on the Monday morning after his colleague died, was to give staff the flexibility to run their classes in the way that felt good. “I told the teachers that it was up to them to decide how to use the time in class,” she says. “With regret, you need time to respond to the emotional needs of children. You have to make sure there is a lot of flexibility in the schedule, and that’s how it will be when the schools come back. “
In addition to the trauma that affects almost all children, many may have lost a family member, a grandparent, or even a parent, and may be experiencing the death of someone close to them for the first time. “We all process pain in different ways, and that’s as true for children as it is for adults,” says Julie. “Some will be angry, others will deny it, some will simply go on with their lives. The important thing is that they know there is a place they can go and someone they can talk to. “
After Evans’ death, Rees left a room at the school for a break, with a counselor on hand. “If people had problems, they could go there and sit quietly or talk, and the staff needed that support just like the children.”
As is often the case, supporting children also means supporting their families. Another of Rees’ initiatives at Ledbury Elementary was to establish a parent group for parents on Monday morning. “We invite parents to have a coffee in the teachers’ lounge, to talk to each other and support each other,” she says.
That peer support model was extended to students, as will surely be necessary when school resumes after the coronavirus closes. “We focus on encouraging two things: deep listening and noticing,” says Rees. “Our message to the children was: Don’t judge anyone who is crying or angry. Instead, ask them about it. And don’t give advice; just give them room to talk.”
Phoebe Gilbert, 21, knows everything about being a grieving student: She was eight years old when her mother, Lesley, died suddenly. Along with his father Ian and his brothers William and Olivia, he has written a book on how schools and teachers can help, called Loss: A Little Mourning Book for Schools.
She agrees with Rees that it is vital to recognize what a grieving child has been through and continues to go through. “It meant a lot to me, especially on a day like the anniversary of Mom’s death or her birthday, that someone gave me a supportive look or a hug, a sign that they knew it was a day when I would have a day especially Corazon heavy.”
Grief can be lonely, even for children. If teachers are prepared to share their pain and even their tears, that can be helpful, says Gilbert.
“You feel lonely when you have lost someone, and we all need to unite. Then I would say to the teachers: cry with the children. If a child sees a teacher crying, that is teaching that it is okay to feel sad, it is okay to show it and it is okay to talk about it. We learn a lot from how we see teacher behavior, much more than they actually teach us in the classroom. ”
Her father Ian, founder of Independent Thinking, a platform for education professionals to share ideas, says it’s vital for teachers to understand that pain can hit children in waves of nowhere, and that they may need to speak or cry at any time. “One thing that helps is giving them cards they can give to a teacher when they need help, or leaving the classroom for a while,” he says.
He thinks there will be a need after schools return to honor those who have died, for example, by holding special assemblies, and says that this could be particularly helpful when it was not possible to attend a funeral, or when there was not even Ha been one.
He also strongly feels the need for teachers to be aware of “post-traumatic growth.”
“My three children value this sense of growth in their own lives,” he says. “With pain and loss come opportunities to grow, learn, and be a better person. It can help give life a purpose: a young person might think, how can I share my experiences? How can I use them to help others?
So there are positive potentials. And that’s why it’s important not to make death a big taboo we don’t talk about, because if we do, we are likely to miss out on opportunities. “
How schools can help even in closing
Staff must keep in close contact, through social networks, applications and phone calls. “We have had regular Zoom calls with the entire team; it is essential that each staff member has an opportunity to share what is going on,” says Rees.
With the children you are supporting remotely, and when you return, recognize how strange and difficult the situation is. Don’t try to “normalize” it or ignore their concerns.
Contact families where someone has died to acknowledge their loss and express their support.
Consider compiling condolences for your classmates’ heartbroken children, collecting messages to send, or compiling an e-condolence book to email to a family who has lost someone.
When schools reopen, expect the adjustment period to take a long time. “Just as we know it will take a long time for students to adjust to being in school at first, or moving from one school to another, the changes we’ve all been through will take a long time to process.” Rees says.
Winstonswish.org has information on how schools can support heartbroken children and specific tips for the coronavirus pandemic.
Loss: a small grief book for schools is published by the Independent Thinking Press