How Can Teachers Take the Lead in Advocating for Students Who are Grieving or Facing Trauma?
CO ASCD sat down with Brittany R. Collins to discuss her background, grief-responsive teaching and how teachers can take the lead in advocating for students who are grieving. Below is a summary of our conversation where Brittany shares a little about her background on the subject and some eye-opening insights to help educators support and advocate for their grieving students. We truly appreciate the time Brittany spent with us and the engaging and insightful conversation. Stay tuned for our next blog on this topic where Brittany will share some practical strategies and resources.
1. What is grief responsive/trauma informed teaching and why is it important?
Grief-responsive teaching is a pedagogical and interpersonal approach to teaching and learning that integrates science and stories of grief into actionable classroom practices that support students’ and teachers’ well-being in times of loss.
Because grief impacts the brain, body, and behavior— and, by extension, teaching and learning— grief-responsive teaching seeks to support and empower the whole person, socially, emotionally, culturally, and academically.
We know that, prior to the pandemic, 7 out of 10 teachers (Nadworny 2012) had a student in their classroom who was grieving; in October, 2021, over 1.5 million children (Levin 2021) had lost a parent or guardian to COVID-19 worldwide, meaning the rate of bereaved children has likely increased in schools. And when we consider the ways in which grief responses can occur in response to losses not tied to death (e.g. a move or change in schooling, a divorce, a shift in socioeconomic standing), that number continues to ascend.
Grief has a direct impact on teaching and learning, as well as students’ and teachers’ holistic well-being at school, which is why we need to take an intentional approach to cultivating learning environments that are responsive to those experiencing loss.
2. When thinking about ASCD's tenents of educating the whole child, where does grief-responsive / trauma-informed teaching fit in?
The first thing that comes to mind is psychologist Howard Bath’s tenets of trauma-informed care: safety, connection, and emotional regulation (2011). Experiences of grief and trauma threaten our sense of safety (physical, relational, cultural, or otherwise); our connectedness to others and/or belief that we are worthy of connection; and, because of the fight-flight-or-freeze response, can impair our ability to regulate our emotions. In order to achieve the goals of the whole child tenets–in order to create learning environments in which students (and teachers!) are healthy, challenged, safe, supported, and engaged–we must first acknowledge and attend to the ways in which grief and loss can create physiological, neurological, and environmental changes that threaten those very tenets. Efforts to achieve those tenets will not be successful without also tending to the pillars of trauma-informed care through our classroom environments, interpersonal relationships, and curricula.
3. Why did you decide to write a book for educators on this topic?
I lost my father to male breast cancer when I was 14, during the summer before my sophomore year of high school, at a time when my mother was going through chemotherapy for the first (of two) breast cancer diagnoses. Experiencing grief as a young person revealed to me the ways in which teachers can have a lifelong impact on young people enduring loss; at the same time, I also became intensely aware of the ways in which people of all ages struggle to communicate with those who are grieving. Loss can be an othering experience, and it became my goal to equip teachers with tools to feel more comfortable and effective when working with grieving students; to support students’ and teachers’ well-being in times of loss; and to do what I can to lessen the stigma and combat the silo that many people encounter when they are bereaved. I’m also aware of the ways in which my loss experiences are subjective and rooted in my positionality; urban education scholar, Shawn Ginwright, quotes a student who said something like, “Watching someone get shot and killed is a lot different than watching someone die of cancer.” Grief and inequity are threaded together, and it’s important to acknowledge and actively pursue grief-responsive teaching as a component of antibias, antiracist, DEI work as well.
4. What teacher(s) had a big impact on you in terms of supporting you through your own grief and why? Were there key things they did or said that made a difference?
I was privileged to have many caring adults guide me through grief, even– and especially!-- at an age when I wasn’t comfortable talking directly about my emotions or experiences. My high school dance teacher, for example, was pivotal in helping me realize how dance, yoga, meditation, and physical activity can be really important coping mechanisms and outlets. My high school advisor established a sense of consistency, routine, and ongoing mentoring by setting up regular 1-1 meetings with me, even just to have a coffee in her office and talk about homework. In college, when I was experiencing different forms of loss later in life, a team of incredible mentors took me under their wings and encouraged me and my dreams. Building community is so pivotal in a grief context; ensuring that students experiencing loss know they have a team of supporters behind them can make all the difference in their trajectory.
5. What do you think is important for educators to know about students who have experienced loss or trauma? Is there a big difference in how children (versus adults) process feelings of grief?
It’s critical to know that grieving students possess incredible strength, wisdom, resilience, and knowledge, and to apply an asset-based lens to their presence in the classroom. At the same time, it’s dangerous to buy into the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that can sometimes surround discussions of “grit.” For example, systemic inequities may undergird many students’ losses, and praising resilience or positivity can both overlook the structural complexities that position some students for recalibration and others for prolonged loss or chronic stress, and can perpetuate “toxic positivity” or the message that “negative affect” (meaning emotions that aren’t considered positive, like sadness, anger, etc.) should be suppressed. It’s a “both/and.” Grieving students are both strong and benefit from support; they may be devastated and joyful; anxious and proud; defiant and determined. Education scholar Parker Palmer, among others, refer to these as “opposite truths,” and we need to make room for those both/ands, those contradictions, in our classrooms and caring relationships.
6. How has your own experience with loss changed or informed how you approach students who are grieving?
Certainly, experiencing various kinds of losses firsthand deepens the empathy that I bring into this work, but I am also always struck with a sense of humility because of the ways in which no two loss experiences are the same. I hope to enter this work in a way that is compassionate and honest, collaborative, and grounded in inquiry. The question driving my writing and work is, always, “How can we do this better?”
7. How has the pandemic changed the way you look at grief responsive education?
Loss has always had a strong presence in the lives of students and teachers– from school shootings to environmental disasters to familial losses to generational grief and trauma– but the pandemic has certainly brought grief into our national/public discourse in a more prevalent and direct way. Western society can be individualistic and death-denialist, meaning we are socialized to feel uncomfortable and uncertain when those around us are grappling with grief or illness, and we may “slip into silence,” as I write in my book, because we fear that we will say the wrong thing. Now, though, grief is a more visible part of our daily realities, and I feel that, as a society, we are starting to become more vocal about that. Leveraging our enhanced awareness of grief means we are better positioned to intentionally implement grief-responsive strategies at school, not only to support those impacted by COVID-related losses, but all of the other iterations of loss that have, and that continue to, impact students’ and teachers’ lives and learnings.
Brittany R. Collins is an author, educator, and curriculum designer dedicated to supporting teachers’ and students’ social and emotional well-being, especially in times of adversity. Her work explores the impacts of grief, loss, and trauma in the school system, as well as how innovative pedagogies– from inquiry-based, idea-centered learning to identity development curricula– can create conditions supportive of all learners.
Brittany is the author of Learning from Loss: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Supporting Grieving Students (Heinemann 2021). Her articles have appeared in such outlets as The Washington Post, Education Week, Edutopia, We Need Diverse Books, English Journal, and Literacy & NCTE of the National Council of Teachers of English, Inside Higher Ed, Brevity blog, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and Thrive Global, among other outlets. Brittany has designed and delivered curricula and educational programming for students of all ages through PBS Learning Media; Smith College; Boston University; Race Project Kansas City; Write the World; and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Learn more about her work at www.griefresponsiveteaching.com or @brcollins27 on Twitter.