Administration & Leadership

A Practical Guide to Grief-Sensitive School Policies

When a school community experiences loss, having grief policies already in place can lessen the trauma.

May 9, 2024
SolStock / iStock

The need for trauma-informed schools is based on a widely recognized rationale: Trauma impacts students’ ability to learn and participate fully in academic and social experiences. In recent years, many school leaders have taken deliberate steps to create a trauma-informed environment in which students who have experienced trauma are able to flourish and thrive. Death can be very traumatic for people of all ages, but it can be especially challenging for young people to process. School settings that are not only trauma informed but grief informed and grief sensitive are better equipped to support students during their most vulnerable moments.

This year, a faculty member at our school passed away suddenly. He was active in the broader community as well, and the loss was felt by all of us. Our longest-tenured faculty member (32 years of service and counting) expressed that in her time at the school, the community had lost former employees, even a former student, but the community had not experienced losing a current faculty member. There were no guidelines, no blueprint, for what to do in this situation. It has led me to think about what I can do in the upcoming academic year to increase grief-informed practices at the school I lead.

A whole school culture shift requires shared language along with shared understanding, and shifting culture requires a series of deliberate, strategic steps. Discussing death and loss is, of course, incredibly sad and unpleasant, which is an obstacle to having the conversations needed to be grief sensitive. My school setting doesn’t have a clinician, so we coordinated with trusted clinicians from the area to support our community.

Other steps I’m looking forward to taking are providing training around grief-informed instructional practices; adding children’s books that address grief in the school library; and building a professional library for faculty with books about social and emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, and grief-sensitive schools.

Drafting a Grief Policy

If your school or district does not already have one, consider drafting a grief and bereavement policy. Last year, the mother of one of our upper school students passed away. We did not have a bereavement policy, and it caused discord among some of the student’s teachers and confusion for the student.

Some of the student’s teachers prioritized maintaining an academic standard by not accepting late assignments, questioning absences, and not offering check-ins during class. Other teachers felt that it was critical to acknowledge the trauma that the student was experiencing by being flexible regarding assignments and attendance, and they made themselves available for conversations with the student.

If we had had a policy to reference at that time, the student would have had a consistent experience, and the faculty would have had guidance based on the school’s commitment to being grief informed. When drafting a policy, there are three considerations:

  • Maintain standards within reason regarding grades, attendance, assignments.
  • Remember that equity is more important than equality. Always. In a grief-informed setting, educators provide accommodations for young people based on what they need, even if it is not exactly what other students receive.
  • Prioritize humanity. We lead institutions that are responsible for not only the academic and social but also character development of young people. Our commitment to character can be best modeled by how we support students during their most difficult times.

The objective is to mitigate the impact of trauma and grief and to nurture resilience.

Take care of the grown-ups, too: We all go into education because we care about young people, but being in administration, of course, means we care about the adults in the school community as well and have to be thoughtful about how best to support them. Some adults have not experienced grief, so this must be handled with tremendous care.

Lead by Following

Let the grieving process be defined by the bereaved. What we do in this moment is a lesson to everyone in the school community about loss and grief, and students especially need to know that there are many ways to grieve. Our students wanted to write cards and put them in our deceased faculty member’s office window, which we encouraged. These were eventually taken down and turned into a book that was given to the deceased’s son.

  • Include the family in your plans, and respect their preferences to the absolute best of your ability. Some common responses to grief are a moment of silence, a memorial ceremony, written tributes, a plaque. While these can all be part of the healing after loss, it’s best to focus on the preferences of the most impacted community members.
  • Offer suggestions that the family may not feel comfortable requesting. When a family with five children lost their mom, the staff packed lunch for all of the children for the remainder of the school year.
  • Use it as an opportunity for all community members to unite; emotions run high, and this can be complicated. Discomfort can cause tension, and we have to be especially gentle with each other during emotionally challenging times.

Be Gentle With Yourself

Most important, it’s not going to be perfect. It’s even more messy than many of the usual situations we experience as administrators. You may cry or feel uncertain about how to proceed. Some community members may say there was too much learning time lost to grief, while others may say that you rushed the community back to business as usual. Take care of yourself through it all by acknowledging your feelings and using everything in your self-care tool kit. (Make one if you don’t already have one.)

Most of all, be grounded and confident in knowing that taking steps to foster a grief-informed setting will benefit the students you are committed to serving.

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