Monday, March 7, 2022

How Can Afterschool Support Grieving Youth (Part 2)

Source: Ed Week

By Sam Piha

It is important that we understand more about the needs of youth who are grieving or experiencing loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic (deaths and illness, as well as the loss of “normal”), the opioid crisis, the rising gun violence and the racial violence that is plaguing the country. Below we continue our interview with Brittany Collins (read part 1 here), author of the book Learning from Loss: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Supporting Grieving Students

Q: What are the effects of grief on young people? Is it a different experience for younger vs. older?
A: There is much similarity between grief responses in all of our brains and bodies; neurologist Lisa Schulman writes in her book Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Grief, Loss, and Our Brain that grief incites a fight-or-flight response, as well as a depressive response, and impacts nearly every part of the brain. That impact may result in a number of changes in our behavior – from apathy and avoidance to perfectionism and connection-seeking, increased risk-taking to risk aversion. The spectrum is broad and manifests differently in everyone, but in consideration of the ways in which grief impacts young people, it’s especially pertinent to think about the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls higher-order functioning – things like forethought, impulse control, emotional regulation. Because children and teens do not yet have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, they may not have full control over these functions even without accounting for grief. But when grief enters the picture and dampens the functioning of the pre-frontal cortex even further, then, especially in adolescent populations, we may see things like an attenuated ability to regulate emotion, attenuated impulse control, increased risk-taking, etc. 

It’s critical to take an adaptation-focused, asset-based lens to these behavioral shifts. Nearly every behavioral change is not only a response to grief but an attempt, and often an innovative attempt, to fulfill an unmet need. For example, a student’s anger might serve them well in a loss context in which they have to defend a parent against an abusive partner; or another student’s connection-seeking behaviors might help them eke out the attention of a bereaved caretaker. In the classroom or afterschool setting, these same behaviors may not prove as helpful because the student is no longer in the context for which the behaviors were developed, but in a grief and trauma context, the brain doesn’t know that – it’s stuck in survival mode. 

Too often, we see grief and trauma responses (e.g. behavioral changes) reprimanded. If we think about issues of restorative justice in schools and the ways in which racialized violence, bias, and assimilation play a role in school discipline, then it becomes even more critical for us to view behavioral changes as adaptations to be respected, not liabilities to control or punish.

Q: What do you mean by "Grief Responsive Teaching"? 
A: Grief-responsive teaching is a pedagogical and interpersonal approach to teaching and learning that integrates science and stories of grief into actionable classroom and program practices that support students’ and educators’ well-being in times of loss.

Because grief impacts the brain, body, and behavior— and, by extension, teaching and learning— grief-responsive teaching seeks to support and empower the whole person, socially, emotionally, culturally, and academically. Recognizing that loss is the most commonly cited traumatic experience among young people, it’s an approach that integrates grief science– and stories of loss– into actionable pedagogical practices that support and sustain all members of a learning community— at and beyond school. For more info and resources, feel free to visit the Grief-Responsive Teaching website here.

Q: Can you give some tips or practices that might apply to afterschool educators?
A: Absolutely. First, I want to acknowledge how critical afterschool programs– and educators– are in grief support. In my book, Learning from Loss, I devote entire sections to the ways in which extracurricular activities like sports, theater, dance, the debate team, etc., can foster a sense of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow” (which can prove incredibly healing). It can offer students a sense of community and contribution, the attunement and synchronicity that come from working together with others toward a common goal, of feeling like a valued part of a “whole”. It can also provide outlets for positive risk-taking that support identity development and channel grief responses into health-promoting outlets that can serve students across a lifespan; and can restore students’ autonomy, sense of competence, and relatedness– the three tenets of Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory, all of which can be threatened in a grief context. 

To support all learners, implementing regulatory activities into the program—meditation and mindfulness activities, free-writing, activities that afford students choice or a sense of contribution—on a regular basis, not only in the weeks following a known loss, creates a grief-responsive environment. This offers students strategies that they may turn to in and outside of the classroom to activate their parasympathetic nervous system and enhance their ability to access higher cognitive functioning, from emotional regulation to problem-solving.

If afterschool educators keep the importance of their work in mind and seek to establish a sense of safety (physical and emotional), facilitate connection between students and peers, as well as students and caring adults, and empower students’ self-expression and leadership, they are already on their way to being grief-responsive.

Q: Should we think about how we can support young people beyond our program setting?
A: First, it’s important to recognize the ways in which a program setting can impact young people far beyond, and long after, their time in the program. I write in Learning from Loss:

Grief outlets might look like rugby, rap, meditation, or the debate team… It’s particularly important to introduce these alternative behaviors during adolescence because the teenage brain undergoes a period of immense neural development comparable only to that which occurs in the first year and a half of life (Spinks 2002). The brain begins ‘pruning,’ or eliminating extra synapses, and the activities and habits of mind teens most frequently engage in determine which synapses remain strong into adulthood (Di Ciacco 2008, 114). The malleability of our brains and our ability to form new neural connections throughout life by changing our behaviors is called neuroplasticity, and it is key in our ability to adapt to, and even recover from, early-life adversity.” 

So, the work that we do with students in our program can, indeed, support them far beyond it. As grief-responsive practitioners, though, whether coaches, youth workers or classroom teachers, it’s always important to consider how we can build students’ webs of connection. Grief support takes a village, so being mindful of the school-based resources and community-based resources available to you and your students, and working to facilitate furthered connection between students and colleagues, students and peers, students and their local communities, can both ensure that they are getting the support and connection they need while also steering clear of a savior mentality, or the idea that we alone must “fix” or heal young people. 

First, grief isn’t a problem to fix or solve or avoid; it is a lifelong process to support one another through. Second, students experiencing grief hold many strengths and insights; when we listen to them and their needs, and work collaboratively with them to widen their worlds, we position ourselves as a trusted teammate, and that’s critical, because, as I write in Learning from Loss, “without trust, attempts at grief support feel like trespassing.”

Brittany Collins
is an author, educator, and curriculum designer dedicated to supporting teachers’ and students’ social and emotional well-being, especially in times of adversity. Her work explores the impacts of grief, loss, and trauma in the school system, as well as how innovative pedagogies—from inquiry-based learning to identity development curricula—can create conditions supportive of all learners. She is the Founder of Grief-Responsive Teaching, a professional learning community and resource hub that supports students' and teachers' well-being in times of loss.

Below are links to purchase her upcoming book and to review some of her earlier writings:
Temescal Associates and The How Kids Learn Foundation will be conducting a webinar featuring a presentation by Brittany Collins and a panel of experts on Responding to Grief and Loss in Afterschool Programs, Thursday, March 17, 2022 from 10:00am - 12:00pm (PST). To learn more and register, click HERE.

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