Listen, Don’t Judge: How Schools Can Help Those Orphaned by COVID

Listening is a skill that teachers need to learn for dealing with children who have faced loss.

5 min read

The second onslaught of COVID-19 has completely shaken the confidence of both adults and children, disrupted life in ways that has never been seen before. For many of us, it is a life-threatening prospect.

We have to realign our thinking for the sake of our children and find answers to the following queries.

  • How do we grapple with the new reality and bring renewed faith into our lives?

  • How do we become the voice in the storm but the calm for children?

Children are facing deep personal losses due to the passing away of their family members. Throughout the pandemic, schools have worked in a variety of ways through activities and processes to strengthen the coping mechanism of children.

The magnitude of personal grief and bereavement that children are facing has to be dealt with sensitivity and compassion.


Hope & Resilience

Today, every school has a child who has lost a primary parent and sometimes both within days of each other. In my own school, over 13 students have faced this loss. This brings into focus the fact that across rural and urban India millions of children are being orphaned and sometimes abandoned by their extended families.

Feelings of deep sadness, insecurity, intense grief, fear and anger overwhelms children. They need a lot of empathy and patience from the caregiver to make them understand that the person they loved and depended upon is never coming back.

At this point, children have periods of disbelief, shock and moments of denial. The anguish may take much longer for a child to comprehend because their losses feel bigger for them than they do for an adult.

Two very important sets of emotions have to be developed. Hope and Resilience. Resilient thinking will help sustain them through tragedy, trauma and adversity.

  • We need to create systems that encourage communication, connectivity, realistic positive action, inner-drive and emotional wellbeing. Schools and caregivers through various approaches have to help children cope with grief and loss.

  • If children are not helped during the bereavement period, the impact will be felt on their learning, performance, social development and emotional needs.

Grief Counselling Session for Teachers

Due to the pandemic, the line between the home and the school has blurred. These partnerships will help children manage their feelings and face the loss of the passing away of their loved ones.

Some suggestive measures would include the presence of teachers in the lives of children during distress.

The class teacher is the nodal point of contact for the student or the parent. He or she should disseminate the information to the leadership, counsellor, the support group and the peer.

Grief counselling workshops should be conducted for teachers in order to deal with children who are facing a crisis. Listening to the child, respecting its thoughts, accepting mood swings and most importantly not judging and giving unnecessary advice should be avoided.

  • Volunteering parents should be active on WhatsApp groups, who could pass on the filtered information to the school authorities in the event of a child losing his or her parent.

  • Mentor-Mentee groups can be created where each staff member is responsible for 10 students throughout the crisis. This will help to ensure that every child’s physical, mental and emotional condition is known to an adult support of the school. The family will be able to approach the mentor during a time of need.

Launch a Helpline

Helplines should be created consisting of the Principal, Academic head and the class teacher along with a parent-doctor for basic guidance, a school counsellor for addressing issues of anxiety supported by a pharmacist for in-house medical requirement and a dietician for advise on immunity and nutrition.

All members of the helpline should either be alumni or parents of the students. The class teacher should coordinate with the student or the family member through the helpline and respond at the earliest, to their requirements.

Children should be encouraged to express their feelings, and share their emotions, helping them to de-stress.

Children who faced loss must maintain normal routines because they benefit from the security of regularity and the knowledge that life must go on. Teachers who connect with children should avoid questioning and offer realistic and positive help.

The greater the loss a child or adolescent faces, the more difficult it is to recover. Support systems have to be established through leadership, caregivers, friends and peer groups.


Can Music, Art Take The Pain Away?

It is important to have age-appropriate conversations. Children are different from adults. Their questions and concerns need to be answered according to their age. Giving them too much information can overwhelm them. Listening is a skill that teachers need to learn for dealing with children who have faced loss.

Preparatory, middle level and senior students require different levels of engagement from their support group. Understanding child development at all ages is necessary both for cognitive and emotional help, in order to provide effective support.

Children should be engaged through co-scholastic programmes and encouraged to express themselves through poetry, creative writing or art which facilitates their connections with teachers and peers.

Other artistic expressions ie decorating a memory box or a calendar, creating a family wall, collage or an album will provide an emotional outlet to the child. Assigning writing prompts, creating memories through music will help them cope with their distress.

Flexible virtual classrooms with listening spaces helps children to express their thoughts and emotions and generates communication among classmates and family members by allowing one-on-one chats or group dialogues. That way, the child becomes a part of a larger whole and does not feel alienated.

Group-building activities, special talk time, designating quiet moments of reflection, sharing inspirational reading, poems help allay anxieties.

Children whose parents have passed and who had to relocate to different cities with their extended families are facing a dual sense of abandonment – their parents and their homes. Schools are partnering with the relatives to connect online with the children so that a semblance of familiarity can continue in their lives.

There are many children who are lost to us both physically and in cyber space forever.

Today, the school is a second home to the child. It takes its emotional cues from key adults in its life ie parents, teachers, in the case of adolescents, their peer. We must help them navigate their losses both big and small, find ways to respect their boundaries, allow them to live the version of the lives they were used to regardless of the circumstances.

(The author is the Principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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