Ready for Tragedy
By Robert Schroeder
In a romantic sense, a school is a fountain of life and new beginnings. No one, from students to teachers to administrators, wants to think about death.
Death, however, is inextricably linked to life, and even the youngest of schoolchildren are not immune to its clutches. Youngsters' developing emotional frames require teachers and school administrators to tailor unique appropriate responses to the death of a classmate, parent, or teacher.
That is, if anyone wants to prepare to address those issues. National Louis University's Jane Moore, Ed.D., associate professor in the National College of Education, says most of the general population, let alone teachers, prefer not to think about death. Her message at a session on death education at the Teachers of Tomorrow Conference Nov. 19, 2011 in Skokie, Ill. focused on readying teachers and teacher candidates with the resources they need to adequately respond to emotionally-charged situations.
"Every death is different, and every person's reaction to death is different; there's no cookie-cutter recipe of what to do," Moore said. "Teachers need to be present for that child all the time, not just after the death occurs because grief is a lifelong process."
Moore's research shows that understanding the science of the grieving process is a key tool for teachers to interpret and guide the emotions of students. Children gain an understanding of the permanence of death around the age of 10 or 11. A kindergartner who loses a parent may not fully come to terms with the loss until a full five or six years later, leaving a future fifth- or sixth-grade teacher scratching their heads for reasons why what seemed like a perfectly normal student is suddenly an emotional wreck.
Moore says educators are best served by introducing the concept of death to young students in an open, harm-free environment. For example, many teachers incorporate the book "Charlotte's Web" in their curriculum as a theme about friendship. While the book certainly describes the meaning of friendship, Moore says many teachers simply skip over the fact that Charlotte, one of the two main characters, dies at the end of the book. Moore sees this text as a way to open discussion and create a safe haven for discussion about death.
"We have to respect what parents want talked about, so it's helpful to let parents know that today we talked about how Charlotte died in 'Charlotte's Web,'" Moore said. "Your child may be coming home with some questions, and you can answer them in any manner that best suits you, but be prepared that this is a topic we talked about."
Parents often thank Moore for broaching a sticky subject that no parent's manual covers. In today's media-consuming frenzy world, parents cannot keep their children protected from tragedy like the September 11 terrorist attacks or war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Moore argues that schools need to play a leading role in creating a safe haven for discussion to supplement the messages of parents.
"Many schools on September 11 told teachers not to talk about it," Moore said. "When you don't talk about it, it makes it even more scary because kids often imagine things worse than they actually happen."