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Creating a supportive environment

Communicating with Parents and Caregivers

Students’ emotions and behaviour are of interest to both the school and the home. Effective communication between teachers and parents and caregivers can provide an environment that is supportive and understanding of students.
Parents will want to be assured that:

  • students will not have to share their experiences if they do not want to
  • there will be adequate support within the school for students if they do become upset
  • the school will inform them if their child becomes upset
  • confidentiality will be respected.

Remind parents that one aim of this programme is to normalise grief and to establish it as something that we all experience in life.

Before teaching a unit of learning related to change, loss, and grief, it is recommended that you send a letter to each home informing parents and caregivers of the unit. Invite them to raise any concerns with you and to discuss the classroom programme with their child. 

Developing a Supportive Classroom

During the following learning experiences, students may identify or develop their own responses to grief. This may be the first time that some students have been invited to talk about how they felt in the past, and they may become tearful or angry. Such responses can be useful in class programmes: although these learning activities are not designed for therapeutic purposes, they can provide opportunities for children to revisit their losses with greater understanding. The following guidelines may be helpful.

  • Consider whether the physical environment of the classroom is appropriate for education about change, loss, and grief. Another setting, such as the school marae or library or a place in the school grounds, may be more appropriate.  Alternatively, consider rearranging furniture or changing seating arrangements in the classroom. 
  • Make the classroom environment as emotionally “safe” as possible. From the outset, set safety guidelines with your students. Discuss and reach agreement on such ideas as:
    • respecting what each person says, taking them seriously, and treating their feelings with care
    • being supportive
    • allowing everyone to share their stories in their own ways 
    • accepting that people react to grief in different ways
    • accepting that crying is a common reaction to grief
    • maintaining confidentiality and trust. Remind students that although they are encouraged to share their feelings and experiences, very private information is usually shared with close friends and adults rather than with a large group. 
  • Use classroom strategies that encourage safe participation, such as “think-pair share”, rather than asking students to share information in front of the whole class. 
  • Students may need opportunities to talk about their feelings privately. You could offer yourself as a listener, but you could also suggest others who are willing, for example, a counsellor, the Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour, a school or public health nurse, or a member of the whànau or local community.
  • Accept that some students may not wish to share their feelings, particularly if they have experienced recent loss. Remind students of the safety guidelines and encourage them to practise ways of responding sensitively.
  • Teachers are not often trained as counsellors. Know your school’s policies and procedures about student referrals. Before approaching parents about any concerns you have about a student, you should consult with senior staff and talk to the student if this is considered appropriate.  When speaking to the student’s parents or caregivers, suggest that they talk any concerns over with their family doctor, or refer them to the counsellors in your community (see Organisations on this page for more information).
  • If possible, provide a room to which students can retreat if necessary. Establish clear understandings about the use of such a room.  Offer students the choice of taking a friend.
  • At the end of each session of learning experiences, particularly those that ask students to focus on their past feelings, provide enough time for an activity that will help students to refocus their attention on the present.  This could be a routine activity, such as singing, taking a walk, listening to a story, or playing a familiar game, or it could mean taking part in a grounding activity.

Grounding

Grounding is a very useful tool in all sorts of situations. The essence of grounding is bringing yourself into the present by focusing on your senses. It is a very simple and effective way in which teachers can calm themselves so that they can cope with a busy and demanding situation. They can also use it to settle their class before moving from one activity to another. It can be practised for just one minute several times a day, and it can be taught to very young children.

Grounding is not an unfamiliar experience: people unknowingly use it very often. For instance, it is one of the reasons that we give upset people
a cup of tea – it brings the sensations of touch, smell, taste, and vision into use so that the upset person is reassured by a real, familiar, physical experience.

Practising grounding is helpful when working through these learning experiences because it can help to bring people’s attention from painful memories or frightening future projections back into the present in a familiar environment.

  • Sit or stand comfortably.
  • Your eyes may be open or closed. If you feel very upset, it may be better to leave them open so that you can focus on real and familiar surroundings.
  • With your hand on your stomach, take three slow, deep breaths, feeling your hand move out as you do so.
  • Become aware of the sensations in your body, starting with the feeling of your back and bottom in the chair and the floor under your feet. Notice whether you feel cold or hot and whether there are any draughts on you. Be aware of the texture of your clothing or of furniture against you. Notice any tightness or tension, for instance, between your eyes.
  • Notice whether you can smell or taste anything.
  • Become aware of everything that you can hear, both in the distance and close by.
  • Open your eyes (if they are shut) and turn your attention to what you can see around you. Pay particular attention to shapes, designs, and colours. Move your head and look at what is around you, both close by and in the distance.
  • Have a good stretch and take another deep breath.

You can use the technique of grounding in other ways with your class, either as part of these learning experiences or at any time when feelings are running high and you want to quieten everyone down a little. Short routines, such as “touch your head, your nose, your chest, your knees, your toes” or singing familiar songs, have a similar effect. The routines that work best involve as many of the senses as possible.


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