By Karen Nemeth
Someone close to me got notice that her child’s young first grade teacher died suddenly over the weekend. There are, of course, a number of reasons why a teacher might suddenly be gone from a child’s class as we are seeing lots of turnover during a time when there are many health concerns as well. I turned to a friend, Debra Repak, a talented and intuitive teacher, for insights on how to support young children during times of loss. A few years ago, she stepped in to teach a class of young children whose teacher had also passed away suddenly.
Here are some of her observations and strategies:
Young children experience the loss of a teacher in their own way that may not match adult experiences. They may not focus their attention on the loss for extended periods, but questions may pop up from time to time. Debra observed that children did not seem to benefit from ceremonies that called on them all to participate at the same time, in the same way. Observe and follow their lead. With multilingual children, it is important to watch their behavior and respond to their curiosity or sadness at times when words alone don’t help them communicate. Try providing art materials, puppets, and dress-up clothes that enable any child to express their emotions and thoughts.
Even though the children get back to the business of childhood, that doesn’t mean they didn’t love their teacher. Each child has a unique relationship with their teacher, so their experience of loss will be unique. They also have learned experiences within their family and culture, as well as their own developmental readiness to process what is happening. And, at the same time, they continue to need all the wonderful early childhood experiences that are developmentally appropriate for them. Consider being in touch with families to help them support their child. Ask them for suggestions based on their own culture and language that can enhance your understanding of each child.
When children are processing unexpected, stressful events, they may cling to the predictable details that fill their daily schedule. This structure provides a type of scaffold in which they can make sense of strong emotions. New teachers, counselors, or volunteers should pay close attention to upholding the overall routine and the details that are meaningful to the children. Developmentally appropriate practice (NAEYC, 2020) would indicate that young children need support within their routines that responds to their individual readiness and needs. This may be especially important for children who speak different languages and need more time to understand what’s going on.
Debra noted that the teacher’s husband wanted to visit the class and read a story or do a song. Debra planned brief activities for the children to choose and encouraged them to make things for his visits such as notes with memories about their teacher. They seemed to respond well to this outward focus on doing something constructive that could cheer or comfort someone else. These experiences also gave Debra a chance to observe each child and get a sense of their emotional status and note what supports they might need. Be sure that children of all languages and abilities are able to have these experiences of competence and agency.
Head Start Heals: Coping with Grief and Loss (2020) https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/podcast/coping-grief-loss
NAEYC Position Statement: Developmentally Appropriate Practice (2020) https://www.naeyc.org/resources/position-statements/dap/contents
A Mommy Breast and a Daddy Breast: Encountering Illness as Emergent Curriculum (2014) https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/books/excerpt-from-power-emergent-curriculum