Responding to Student Death/Trauma in Classroom

Tragedy and trauma, including war and the death of a leader, often affect the entire campus community. This is no truer than with the death of a student or students.

When a student dies, the effects of the death frequently make their way into the classroom, particularly in classes where the student was a member, or in classes where friends of the student are present. Regardless of whether or not class members knew the student, however, the effects of the loss can still be felt in many classrooms across campus.

The following is meant to offer suggestions for what you, as a faculty member, might do to help your students and yourself in the grieving and healing process. Be aware, however, that there is no "right" way to respond to loss: each person deals with loss differently. Different reactions can occur based on religious beliefs, personal experience, and an individual's own emotional state prior to the event.

Suggestions of What You Can Do

Get the facts. Students will be looking to you for information and knowledgeable support. Some students may not have heard about the death or recent tragedy, while others may be in a state of shock or confusion. Be prepared to make students aware of the news and be ready to dispel any rumours or confusion that may surface.

If the tragedy involves the death of a student or students, be certain to consider the following questions:

  • How well-known was the student?
  • Was the student in your class, or did the class members know the student?
  • Was the death expected?
  • How did it occur?
  • Where did the death happen?
  • Has the campus community experienced other traumatic events recently?

Deaths that directly affect class members are unexpected, on campus, or that follow other recent tragic events can be particularly traumatic and may require more in-class attention.

You may wish to emphasize that:

  • it did not have to happen
  • there are campus or community resources available to help
  • you wish the student had made use of these resources
  • you encourage other students to use these resources

If someone knew the student or students, do not ask or pressure him/her for details, but let him/her talk of s/he is willing to talk.

Consider opening class discussion by:

  • sharing your own feeling of loss
  • offering your own remembrances of the student(s)
  • allowing class members who choose to offer their remembrances
  • Make statements that clarify and reflect, and ask open-ended questions to foster discussion.
  • Focus on feelings rather than content (i.e., ask "How do you feel about that" rather than "What makes you think that?")
  • Try not to project your own feelings onto your students

Remember that you don't need to do anything - just be genuine and attentive, and listen.

Try to quell these fears; you may need to emphasize your expectations of respect and consideration in the classroom. If a student (or students) is unwilling to talk, don't pressure him/her to do so

  • Be willing to say little and just let your students talk, either to you or to each other

It may seem strange for "life to go on" after such a tragedy, but establishing normalcy can be a great comfort to yourself and your students.

Even while overtly returning to normalcy, be aware that the effects of the tragedy can remain (and possible affect class functioning) for an extended period of time. References to the tragedy may continue in class; if so, you may wish to keep these references brief or try to incorporate them into your course's subject material. Students who are more directly affected by the tragedy may need to ask for extra time to complete assignments, delay exams, attend memorial events, etc. Still, while making accommodations in response to the tragedy, be certain to maintain the professional nature of the faculty/student relationship and the consistency of academic expectations.

  • Identify and students you feel are particularly at risk because of their relationship to the tragedy.
  • If possible, talk individually and privately with any student about whom you are concerned.
  • Observe any noticeable shifts in students' appearance, behaviour, effort, and academic performance - marked changes may indicate a greater degree of trauma and that a student may benefit from additional, and perhaps professional, assistance.

In addition to being available to talk with any student who would like help in coping with the loss or tragedy, SCC staff members are also available to provide help to faculty on how to talk individually with a grieving or distressed student, or conduct class following a tragedy.

The SCC can also offer referrals for students and faculty wishing additional assistance in the healing process.

To contact a counsellor, please call 253-3000 (X4616). When speaking with a counsellor, be certain to relay the urgency of response you feel is necessary: whether the situation is extremely urgent (requiring immediate or within 24 hours attention) or moderately urgent (should receive attention within 2-3 days, or within the week).

This can include telephone numbers, pamphlets, brochures, etc.

If the tragedy involves the loss of a student or students in your class who was/were well-known by class members, consider giving yourself and your class the opportunity to express your sadness and condolences to the family of the student or students.


  • sending a card from the class as a whole
  • allowing students to write individual notes to the family which you gather and send
  • sending any coursework you have from the student(s) to the family/families

Please consult with your department chair about these responses to be certain they fall within the family's/families wishes.

Common Responses to Grief and Trauma to Discuss with Students

  • Feeling sad, numb, or in denial
  • Feelings of anger, irritability, guilt, or helplessness
  • Feeling overly anxious or frequently overwhelmed
  • Difficulty enjoying normal activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty with or increased sleeping
  • Appetite changes
  • A desire to withdraw from family and friends
  • A desire to increase use of alcohol or drugs

If a student is significantly experiencing any of these, encourage him/her to see assistance.

Suggest Students Try

  • Getting rest, eating well, and exercising
  • Taking time for yourself and leisure activities
  • Recognizing that your reactions are normal
  • Talking to family and friends about the tragedy
  • To remember that flashbacks are common and manageable
  • To realize that going on with your life does not mean you care any less
  • Meeting with a counselor if this would be helpful

Suggest Students Avoid

  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Drinking excessively or using drugs to combat reactions
  • Staying away from school or work
  • Being unrealistic in the expectations of their reactions, or expecting the tragedy not to bother them
  • Expecting easy answers

Adapted from information provided by the National Mental Health and Education Center, the National Association of School Psychologists, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Counseling Services, the Center for Instructional Development and Research at the University of Washington, and the Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching at Western Kentucky University, as well as UCC materials.