To best support students’ mental health, staff have to take care of themselves first. As school leaders, principals are poised to be models of prevention and coping. However, principals, too, may need support and/or need assistance in identifying resources and developing skills. If you are sharing articles with tips for self-care, make sure you are providing time and space for educators—including yourself—to engage in the same self-care or engage with outside resources and supports. Staff can build community and resilience by creating a wellness group that meets regularly, in-person or virtually, to practice self-care, including:
• Mindfulness activities, such as yoga, meditation, and breath work, which can reduce stress in the moment and over the long term.
• Exercise, such as walking, running, aerobics, weightlifting, or a team sport, which can benefit mental and physical health.
• Healthy eating. Staff members can exchange healthy and easy-to-fix dishes and recipes to build a shared cookbook.
• Space to share concerns and advice. Feeling safe to vent can allow staff the outlet they need to let go of some concerns and gain perspective on others.
We know that no matter what students’ lives have looked like in the months between March and September, they will be grieving. But school staff are also grieving and are likely to have had to attend to their own individual and family stresses and traumas, in addition to trying to provide quality education and support for their students. Before addressing the individualized mental health needs of our students, we must acknowledge the deep sense of individual and collective grief each member of the school community feels.
As schools reopen, it is paramount that we specifically consider and address feelings of grief and loss among students and staff, as a result of COVID-19 disruption or because of the other events and violence in our country due to racism. Some students and teachers will be grieving for a family member, friend, or other loved one who died. Others will be grappling with the loss of missed experiences, the loss of sense of community and connection to school due to physical isolation, or even the loss or change in relationships with friends, teachers, or support staff during the course of this pandemic. As difficult and painful as it may be, schools must find a way to recognize those who died of COVID-19, as well as those who will not be returning to the school community for other reasons, such as graduating, moving away, or transitioning to homeschool.
When putting together a plan for reopening, schools must work to support all members of their communities. As with H1NI, SARS or the Avian influenza, some period of grief during the transition back to school will likely affect a large number of students. For example, Sprang and Silman (2013) found that one third of children began mental health treatment related to their experience during or after the H1NI pandemic and 16.7% of those children were diagnosed with grief. .
As students return to school, many will be able to move through their grief and sense of loss without individual intervention as school routines are reestablished and connections are formed and rebuilt. However, some segment of the student population may need more intensive intervention to help them process their emotions. It is well documented that grief may show up differently in kids than it does in adults (Pearlman et. al, 2014). Teachers and staff should be made aware of the differences between adult and child grief in order to best support their students.
Teachers, school administrators, and other support staff should also understand the differences between children who are moving through grief in a healthy way, and those who need additional support and resources to manage their grief reactions.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2018) notes that students who exhibit the above symptoms for an extended period of time may need further intervention. Students needing intervention may also imitate the dead person to a notable and excessive extent or they may believe they are actually talking to or seeing the deceased family member for a prolonged period of time. Some may express suicidal ideation.
Like other pandemics, COVID-19 has caused many governments to require social distancing, quarantine, and isolation guidelines that have made traditional rituals to process death or other transitions (e.g., graduation) impossible (Eng, 2020; Neighmond, 2020). Though some ceremonies have been carried out online or with limited attendance, many were canceled or postponed (Neighmond, 2020).
These rituals are important to the processing of grief and help to facilitate adjustment to changes. In correspondence in Psychiatry Research, Eisma, Boelen, and Lenferink (2020) note that—as has been the case with many during the COVID-19 pandemic—lack of preparation for the death, absence of rituals to recognize death, perceived lack of social support, and distress at the time of the death can all lead to higher rates of prolonged grief (Castle & Phillips, 2003; Lobb et. al., 2010). As schools reopen, they will do well to plan for ritual to acknowledge the losses their communities have experienced. Provide Space to Talk About Loss Teachers, school administrators, and other school staff can help students and staff to process their feelings related to grief and loss by providing structured space to set a tone for doing so in a way that they feel safe and comfortable.
Students need to know they have permission to share how they are feeling and be encouraged to do so. School staff should be prepared to talk with students about grief in a developmentally appropriate, but straightforward, way that focuses on facts and does not use euphemisms that may confuse children (NASP School Safety and Crisis Response Committee, 2015). Schools can engage professional counseling staff in individual and group sessions to help everyone in the school community process the pandemic experience.
Give Options for Those Who Do Not Want to Talk Knowing that people process grief and loss in different ways and that some students may not feel comfortable talking about their grief at school, teachers and administrators should strive to provide a number of different ways for the community to participate. Teachers and counselors can provide opportunities for writing, doing art projects, listening to music, and playing games for those who do not want to share their experiences verbally. During a school assembly, administrators might hold a moment of silence for those no longer with the community.
• Listen, acknowledge feelings, and be nonjudgmental.
• Express your own feelings in an open, calm, and appropriate way that encourages students to share their feelings and grief.
• Be simple and straightforward. Discuss death in developmentally appropriate terms for students. Use words such as “death,” “die,” or “dying” in your conversations and avoid euphemisms such as “they went away,” “they are sleeping,” “departed,” and “passed away.”
• A variety of feelings are normal. Be sensitive to each student’s experience, as there is no one right way to respond to a loss. Feelings and behaviors will vary across students and will change throughout the bereavement process.
• Normalize expressed feelings by telling students such are common after a death. However, if their expressions include risk to self (e.g., suicidal thoughts) or others, refer immediately to the appropriate professionals.
• Be sensitive to cultural differences of students and their families in expressing grief and honoring the dead. • Help bereaved students find a peer support group. There will likely be others who have also experienced the death of a loved one.
• Maintain a normal routine in your classroom and engage students in activities they previously enjoyed.