When You Can’t Understand

What students coping with challenges want you to know

By Kate Daneluk

Making decisions for a classroom full of students, all of whom have individual needs and circumstances, is a major challenge. This is even more difficult when a student’s life experience differs greatly from our own. If you grew up with two brothers, how do you understand what the home life of a family of ten is like? If your parents were happily married, how can you know the life of a child whose parents are divorcing? What about a child coping with a serious illness or the death of a parent?

We can all educate ourselves and try to be honest about the reality our students and their parents face. Be flexible and ready to implement changes and make exceptions in your classroom. Many students have complicated home lives and genuine physical, mental, and spiritual challenges.
Some differences you may encounter:

Big Family

Our society now favors smaller families, and this often includes school. While there are many benefits for kids being part of a large family, it doesn’t make more hours in the day for parents to devote to each child.

What kids in big families want you to know:
Sometimes I am late or tired because of one of my siblings. Please don’t blame me for it.
My parents don’t micromanage me, and I am going to make mistakes because I’m just a kid.
I have to share our home computer and other resources with other brothers and sisters.

What you can do:
Too much homework requiring parental assistance causes difficulties for parents of large families. Keep homework reasonable and practice-oriented. Require weekly, rather than daily, signatures for reports and forms.
Make sure class activities parents are expected to attend are also open to younger siblings.
Remember that a new baby in any family impacts sleep and time management. Give big brothers and sisters a little slack through these times and show support with a card or gift from the class. My fifth child has a beautiful blanket hand-knit by his sister’s kindergarten aide. We still cherish it, and it spoke volumes about the pro-life and pro-family environment of the school.

Sick Child or Family Member

For most of our students, school is the most important element of their lives and a top priority for their parents. For a child coping with a life-threatening or chronic illness, this just isn’t the case. Catching up can wait for a child in crisis and is not a priority for a terminally ill child. School adds stressors we can’t fathom to both students and their parents.

What kids coping with illness want you to know:
When I come back from missing school, I feel overwhelmed and wonder if I’ll ever catch up.
Much of the time, I am really tired.
I try not to think about (myself/my parent/my sibling) dying, but when I do think about it, I get upset, then embarrassed and more upset.

What you can do:
Ensure that there is a well-informed support team for the student including teachers, administration, and the school counselor. You might include social workers or therapists who are working with the child. Be sure to keep special subject teachers in the loop and communicate with parents.
Naturally, homework and projects add stress to the home. For the student in crisis, classify work into essential, important, and optional categories in case time or fatigue prevent work from getting done. Be prepared to offer customized assignments and assessments that are less time-consuming and limited in content.
For children with a sick parent or sibling, find a parent who is willing to volunteer as a classroom buddy when it comes to handling special days, volunteering, costumes and projects, and giving rides.

Death of a Parent or Sibling

The death of a parent is a short-term experience, but grief and recovery can take years. For children, the situation is more traumatic as their security is threatened during a time when they are still so dependent. The school days march ahead while their world is falling apart. How do we assist children through such a time?

What a grieving student wants you to know:
I feel like I’m living in a bad dream — it’s hard to believe this is real. It’s really hard to care about school right now.
I feel guilty if I am happy or laugh.
I am angry at life, at the world, even at God. Sometimes I just want others to hurt too.

What you can do:
All your students should be honestly informed in an age-appropriate way about the loss the grieving student has experienced. Your class should pray for the departed and the family. Especially with younger children, take time to review the Church’s teachings on death and the afterlife. With the school counselor, prepare your class for how to be a friend and talk to the student when he or she returns to school.
If at all possible, simply eliminate any work or assignments missed during the initial mourning period. Focus instead on catching up on concepts needed for a student to progress.
Report changes in behavior to the counselor and parents. Remember that grieving takes time; a student who seems resilient now may exhibit stress and grief later.

Divorce/Single Parent

When parents divorce, it can shake a child’s sense of self and safety. Different circumstances can make what the child is experiencing even more complicated: the level of animosity between parents, whether there are siblings to lend support, if there is infidelity, addiction, or abuse, or if one parent abandons the family.

What a child of divorce wants you to know:
I feel stress when I go to my “secondary” parent’s house, because he or she doesn’t really know as much about what I need for school.
I wish the other kids didn’t know about this. It’s embarrassing and I just want to fit in.
I don’t want to make my mom or dad more upset by telling them how alone I feel.

What you can do:
Maintain excellent communication between all parties when it comes to your student’s schoolwork and emotional well-being. Know where the child is going each day, and ensure that school bags are packed correctly. Don’t assume the parents are communicating well with one another, even if they have in the past. Be the lynchpin in school communication for the sake of your student.
When teaching the class about marriage and divorce, do so in a way that is sensitive to children of divorce. Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski offers guidance on this topic in When Parents Divorce or Separate: A Catholic Guide for Kids (Pauline Books).
If a child is upset or acting out, enforce consistent expectations and discipline, but use an understanding tone and try to get to the root of the problem. Work closely with the school counselor on a plan of action if this is a frequent issue.

You can never really understand what your student is going through if you haven’t been there. It can be easy to judge the student, parents, or others involved. Try to look at the situation with more compassion. If you hear yourself say, “I would have …,” stop. How do you know what you would do if you never felt the stress of divorce, death of a spouse, the fatigue of chemotherapy, or the overwhelming busy-ness of a large family? Bring your students to prayer and pray for wisdom and compassion.

Kate Daneluk is a former Catholic school teacher, early childhood music teacher, creator of the Making Music, Praying Twice music curriculum, and a homeschooling mother of six.