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Helping Students Deal with Death, Divorce, Etc.

Janelle Cox

Schools and teachers play a very important role in helping students cope with death, divorce, or any other at-home situation that is out of a child’s hands. Any new adjustment in a child’s life should be handled with kid gloves and is a process that is stressful and that will take time. To support children during these difficult times, it is essential that schools and parents work together to ensure a child’s healthy development and success in school.

Here are a few things teachers can do to in helping students going through a tough time.

Provide Consistency

The first and foremost thing you can do is to provide the same structure and consistency that you always have. Children thrive on routine, and since their home life has changed, it’s essential that you keep their school life the same. The rest of their life may feel like its falling apart, so be sure to make school the one thing that they can count on. Keeping their minds busy will help them in the healing process.

Reinforce Their Strengths

For students who have parents going through a divorce, it’s important that these students know that they are valued. Their parents may be so wrapped up in their own situation that the child may feel neglected or unwanted. In these situations, teachers can provide opportunities for students to build on their strengths, or provide leadership roles where students feel they are in charge and an important asset to the class.

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Model a Culture of Equality

Avoid sensitive terms that may be offensive to students. Don’t assume that all students have a mom and a dad, or the same last name. Be sensitive to family differences and encourage a culture of equality in the classroom. If you do this from day one, then when these big issues occur during the school year, your class structure will already be in a place that will support any student whose going through a difficult time.

Make Decisions Based on the Student

Just as a doctor treats every patient differently, a teacher must treat every child based upon their own needs. In the beginning of the school year, explain this analogy to your students, so they have an understanding that at some point in the year, not every student may be doing the same amount of schoolwork. Learn as much as you can about the situation and make your decisions based on that. Make sure to be flexible to meet the needs of the child who is going through a tough time. What’s going on in their home life is more important than checking off a standard at school. It’s OK to be flexible as long as you keep your expectations high, and hold the student accountable for their work. In the case of a death at home, students should not have to be held accountable for their work.

Reduce Your Expectations

When a student’s life is in an upheaval, it’s fair to reduce your expectations. Take the student aside and discuss their needs with them. Real-life situations trump school, and to expect a student that is going through a traumatic event in their home life to complete a project or test at that time is unfair. Do not excuse them from their work, just lighten their load and give them more time to complete it.

Be Compassionate

Remember, these are children who most likely have no idea how to deal with what is going on in their home lives. Besides referring them to the school counselor for extra help, be compassionate. These children will need your empathy and love, especially dealing with issues in the home such as death.

Make Yourself Available

Offer to meet with the student before, during or after school. Make yourself more available than you normally would so the child in the situation knows there is someone that is on their side and there for them. An extra smile, hug, or even time with the child will do a lot for them.

Communicate with Parents

Be sure to have open communication with the parents. For students whose parents are going through a divorce, make sure to encourage parents to not criticize or degrade the other parent in front of the child. If a student is dealing with a death, make sure to keep in contact with the parents and update them on how the child is coping in school.

Your continued support and compassion, along with your flexibility, can help any student cope with any situation that they are having at home. Just think of the student in need as if he/she was your own. How would you want the teacher to handle the situation?

How do you help your students deal with these types of situations? Do you have any advice you would like to share? Please comment below.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com, as well as a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators