Teaching students who have lost parents or grandparents to the pandemic

  • A startling number was released in a new study published in the Oct. 7 issue of the journal Pediatrics: At least 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary or secondary caregiver – either a parent or a grandparent – to COVID-19 between April 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021. And today, a little more than three months later, the number is estimated to be as high as 175,000.

    That’s about 1 in every 500 children under age 18 in the United States suffering such a loss. And the number is even higher in ethnic and minority communities: More than half of the children who experienced such a loss were either Black or Hispanic.

    Losing a parent is a life-altering trauma, and is among the most stressful Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). In addition to the grief they feel, children who lose a parent can experience many negative effects on their health and well-being, including mental issues such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress (PTSD); increased struggles in school; lower self-esteem; increased rates of poverty; and increased risk behaviors, such as use of alcohol, drugs, or sexual activity.

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    The consequences of losing a parent are so great that the study’s researchers used the term “orphanhood,” even when surviving parents or grandparents remain to care for the child.

    “The death of a parental figure is an enormous loss that can reshape a child’s life,” said Nora D. Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which helped fund the new study. “We must work to ensure that all children have access to evidence-based prevention interventions that can help them navigate this trauma, to support their future mental health and well-being.”

    All teachers need continuing education courses, and a group of online courses at Dominican University helps in two ways: It gets you those needed credits (take one course or all five), and it gives you tools to use with students who have undergone trauma:

    • Working Effectively with Traumatized Students – Understanding Trauma and its Effects: Do you know how to recognize signs of trauma in a student? And then to work effectively with that student? This course gives a good overview and uses reflection, resources, links, a Trauma Toolkit, and tips for creating a trauma-sensitive culture. (EDUO 9947, 1 credit)
    • The Brain Science of Regulation: Children who have undergone trauma often struggle with regulating negative emotions. In this course you’ll gain higher understanding of the trauma-affected brain, learn to analyze your students’ responses, and understand school-appropriate strategies. (EDUO 9950, 1 credit)
    • Creating Calm in Your Classroom: Does your classroom support that emotional regulation? Does it communicate a sense of calm to your students? Learn about the four pillars of setting up a trauma-informed classroom where all students feel safe. (EDUO 9948, 1 credit)
    • Considerations and Classroom Strategies for Every Student: While the pandemic has affected all of us, children who have lost a primary or secondary caregiver to COVID-19 may need extra help right now. This course will teach you how to use a trauma-informed foundation to support students who have experienced any kind of trauma, and how to help them become more resilient. (EDUO 9949, 1 credit)
    • De-escalation and Discipline: One student acts out, disrupting classroom activities and bothering other students. Another student withdraws, seemingly losing all motivation. Yet another is always angry. How do you help all these students? A trauma-informed classroom depends on your ability to de-escalate and manage negative behaviors in successful ways. (EDUO 9951, 1 credit)

    “Children facing orphanhood as a result of COVID is a hidden, global pandemic that has sadly not spared the United States,” said Susan Hillis, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and lead author of the Pediatrics study. “All of us – especially our children – will feel the serious immediate and long-term impact of this problem for generations to come. Addressing the loss that these children have experienced – and continue to experience – must be one of our top priorities, and it must be woven into all aspects of our emergency response, both now and in the post-pandemic future.”

    The loss of a parent or grandparent “may result in profound long-term impact on health and well-being for children,” Hillis said. In addition to the immediate emotional impact, “Adverse childhood experiences are associated with increased risks of every major cause of death in adulthood,” says Hillis.

    Even before COVID-19, the need for trauma-informed classrooms was large. In 2019, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente did a study of more than 17,000 patients and determined that as many as two-thirds of all children in the United States have experienced at least one serious childhood trauma, which can include physical or sexual abuse, loss, natural disaster, or disruption in their home.

    An article in NEA Today, a publication of the National Education Association, emphasizes a few of the methods teachers can use to make their classrooms be calm and supportive places for all their students. Such actions as dimming bright fluorescent lights, practicing mindfulness exercises, adding flexible seating, and making such things as audio headphones, fidget toys, stress balls, breathing exercises, and a cool-down corner available to students can all help.

    To explore all the Dominican trauma-centered courses, or to register for one or more, visit the site here. A full course catalog can be requested here.

    Photo via iStock images