Back to School: Supporting Grieving Students | Chicago North Shore Moms


Students have returned to school and some are faced with new challenges of loss and grief. Lauren Raney, LCPC, ATR, Program Director with Willow House*, discusses basic ways to support grieving students.


Hopefully this summer has been spent with family, friends, laughing, playing, and enjoying the outdoors. Sometimes routines are changed during the summer months, and it allows a bit more freedom in our day-to-day schedule. The school year has officially started, and with that comes new beginnings, changes in routine, and an awareness that something or someone may be missing or different. Children entering a new school year who are continuing to cope with a loss may have difficulty concentrating in class. They may have a limit to how many new concepts or facts they can learn at a time, may have less homework help at home due to the family grieving, and if there are any pre-existing learning challenges, these may become temporarily exasperated by their grief.

Children who are grieving a person close to them may have a challenging time going back to sitting in a classroom all day when they were just able to spend hours outside expending energy on the playground or at the pool. Kids are now asked to do a bit more sitting, a bit more reflecting, and homework! As structure comes back into the school year, its important for caregivers and teachers to still allow the grieving child a sense of control. We can inform them about what to expect in this year ahead, manage their level and acceptance of change, be present for them, and give space for choices. While there is still classroom work to be completed, an educator can remember the ACT acronym. This stands for:

A – acknowledge the feelings or desires
C – communicate the limits very clearly
T – target acceptable alternatives



This allows the teacher and student to work together on holding boundaries and making sure their education needs are met, while also validating the grief experience and how it can make focusing on schoolwork a bit more challenging. Along with following ACT, it is important for educators to acknowledge children’s feelings in a very human way. Be present now and into the school year as you listen to children’s emotions, provide space for kids to share their stories of loss, avoid a quick fix – rather let them know about the supportive people in their lives who they can come to and cope with.

Here are a few tools and tips to utilize in the classroom or school community:

  • Create a student grief task force
  • Make a back to school checklist of support: Names, locations, and numbers of an adult the student can see when feeling upset or needing to talk
  • Identify a safe space in the classroom and in the school: Counselors office, reading corner, etc.
  • Set up procedures that will allow the student to obtain support in a way that is subtle: Perhaps a hand signal the child shows to the teacher that allows the teacher to know that the student is going to take a break in their safe space.
  • Start the day with a 1-minute meditation or introduce a “Relaxation skill of the week”
  • Acknowledge the tiny victories every day. Showing up to class today is a huge win!
  • Have grief and loss normalized and seen in the classroom, such as utilizing posters and language that validate feelings of grief. 



Have grief and loss normalized and seen in the classroom, such as utilizing posters and language that validate feelings of grief.
At the end of the day, grieving students need consistency, predictability, safety, and people they can lean on. Grief is best coped with when there are supportive family, friends, and school staff around. Listen, be present, and allow stories of grief to be shared and expressed openly in the classroom or in a one-to-one setting. More resources can be found at*



* Willow House is a 501c3 nonprofit based in Bannockburn, IL with a mission to provide grief support and education for youth, families, schools and other communities grieving the death of a parent, sibling, or child. Our free services are where hope lives and healing begins, providing space for people to grieve in companionship with others who share a similar loss. Our vision is that no child, teen or parent grieves alone. Willow House is the official nonprofit partner of Chicago North Shore Moms. This post is not sponsored.

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