Category Archives: Staff Development

Dealing with Death

I want to preface by saying I am by no means an expert on this topic. The ways in which we as humans deal with death varies greatly by country, culture, religion, and even from region to region. This post is meant to serve as my own personal experiences with death through the lens of parenting and education. If it can impart some advice that makes sense for an individual reading it, then it has served a purpose. If you find yourself reading and thinking that your personal values and beliefs fall in start contrast then I ask that you respect this as one person’s viewpoint and I encourage you to continue to search the web for the information you seek.

Image result for griefRecently, I found myself facing the death of someone my youngest daughter cared for and respected in a very sudden and unexpected way. As a member of a team of girls who were facing the same loss, I found myself thrust into the middle of a dialogue that provided me tremendous insight on the struggles that can face people when it comes to dealing with death.

In many ways, I find my personal experiences with death and dying a blessing and a curse. Coming from a large family with an even larger circle of friends that spans multiple generations, death and dying are an inevitable part of life. Over the years, my family has helped me to navigate the complicated emotions and feelings that can surface during loss and in many ways has helped me to have a deeper understanding of the importance of facing the topic with courage and conviction instead of shying away from it.

I have become acutely aware that my approach to loss may seem cold and insensitive to others. It can at times be matter-of-fact and one that puts the business of death and dying above the grief. It almost seemed fitting that my cousins turned to me to deliver eulogies for both my grandfathers because in their hearts they knew I would throw up my walls and somehow be okay. I would argue it is my defense mechanism as grieving is something I would much prefer to do in solitude. I much rather be a means of support for others then cry publicly. But that is my approach and I appreciate that each person is unique in their response.Image result for grief and death statistics

Needless to say, when faced with the challenge of dealing with death and children a myriad of challenges presents itself including;

  • How do you tell them the person has died? What do you say?
  •  How do you explain that a person is dying? How do you explain that they will not get better?
  • How do you tackle the cultural rituals? Wakes? Burials? Funerals? Cremation?
  • What do you say when children ask questions about their own mortality? What is too much? What is too little?
  • How do you explain death under specific circumstances? Suicide? Accidents? Natural disasters? Terror?
  •  What does grieving look like? What is normal? What isn’t?

The list is seemingly endless and no two deaths are the same lending itself to countless ways in which we may have to help children understand something that as adults, we sometimes struggle to understand.

Of course, I would imagine most people Image result for griefwould say that in dealing with death their ideal would be to face the situation with someone who lived a long and healthy life and died peacefully while sleeping. In those beautiful moments, the celebration of a life fully realized. But all too often that is not what we are faced with.

Which brings me back to the situation that I most recently faced with the passing of a life that was way too short and way too sudden. The overwhelming sense of loss, confusion, grief, anger, and sadness was all too real and I found myself challenged with answering the questions of an 8-year-old who was sad and confused but not in the ways at which I expected. It was her handling of the situation that inspired me to share what I learned about children and death.

Death and dying is part of life

For my children, death is not a new concept. They have experienced death before. From accidents to sickness, to the loss of their terminally ill baby cousin, death has been a real part of their growing up. So when people asked me how my daughter was doing I most often responded with, “unfortunately, death is not new to her.” I do believe that, for the most part, when dealing with children we do our best to protect them from the world. But death is part of life. It is arguably the only certainty in life. So while no one wants to experience loss, is it really unfortunate that my children have an understanding of death?

Death is not always the challenge

As my 8-year-old started to grapple with her most recent loss, I did a lot of watching and listening. What I noticed was not so much how the loss was personally affecting her, but rather how it was affecting the adults around her and how that, in turn, was affecting her. She had tremendous concern for others and their loss.  She seemed to have a keen understanding of how the death affected others.  Granted this could be because of her age, but in watching her I learned that it is important that we as adults be aware of our emotions around children dealing with death.    Image result for grief

In my instance, the loss was not a family member, so my daughter was able to see and feel the loss but was aware that the family’s sense of loss was greater. What confused her was those whose emotion was more intense than those of the family.  She struggled to understand why a family member was not crying but someone not related was inconsolable.
I think it is important that we as adults do not exaggerate or understate our own emotions. This does not mean to shield them or hide them.  Rather, I learned that children watch and react based on what they are seeing and feeling.  They need the social cues and we should give it to them but in a way that mimics life when death is not at the forefront.

Children are different

My daughters handle death very differently. I did not realize the depth and breadth of these differences until this past week. Nor did I understand that difference has always been there. With my older daughter, a loss is something she prefers to work through alone. She does not find the customs and rituals of death something she wants to participate in. This does not mean she won’t (when her teacher’s father passed away she was one of the only students to attend the wake). But she does not find comfort in customs or rituals. For her death is a finality that can not be changed and the best way to handle it is to move forward.

In contrast, my other daughter finds comfort in the grieving process. She seeks people and wants to be around them. She looks for their support and guidance. She has, at times, insisted on attending the wake so she could see the person who passed. For her, she needed to seImage result for griefe that their body looked the way she remembered. The idea of having that memory be the lasting one is not an issue for her. She does not hold on to that moment, rather she holds on to the peace she finds in the life they lived. She only speaks of the memories in which she cherishes, not the ones around death and dying.

Understanding the differences in children and how their needs in dealing with death and dying may differ greatly from your own is important in helping them. Listening to them, asking questions and probing for answers. We do not always give children enough credit when credit is due. More often than not, I do believe that children know what they need.

Respect their wishes

When my 8-year-old told me somewhat abruptly that she did not want to attend the wake for the person in her life that just passed, I was confused and didn’t really believe her. She had been so insistent on going and I had spent so much time explaining and defending to others that the choice to attend was hers. I wasn’t mad she changed her mind, I was more concerned that her decision was the best one for her. After talking to her about it, I realized that the things we had done prior to the wake to remember the person was the closure she needed. In this instance, she felt as if she had spent the previous few days grieving and while society deemed the grieving time to be during the wake, she had, at least for the moment, reconciled her loss.

On the other end of the spectrum, it is just as important to respect when a child changes their mind. I had made lots of changes to my week to ensure that I would be able to get my daughter to everything she expressed she wanted to attend. So, when she decided, 5 minutes before we were going to leave, she no longer wanted to attend the wake, I was a bit taken back. My initial reaction was confusion as I personally had already made up my mind that we were going. However, in talking to her, I realized that she had in her own way grieved for her loss earlier in the week and while not being disrespectful, did not want to go through all those emotions again. It took a while to work through the conversation to ensure that she was making the best decision for her but it was a learning experience for me to understand how she felt.

Talking to others

Sometimes, the beImage result for grief and death statisticsst thing we can do as adults is to talk to others who are removed from the situation.  I was surprised at the spectrum of responses from adults who were in the middle of dealing with loss that I began to second guess my decisions with my daughter.  By turning to people who were otherwise unaffected and talking things out I found the advice to be much more objective rather than subjective.

Seeking expert advice

By no means am I am expert on this topic. When others were looking for advice to help their children through the grieving process my advice to them was to reach out to the school social worker. Even I did the same as I felt a social worker would have far more experience dealing with this then I did.Image result for grief

If a social worker is not available there are plenty of resources on the web. While I do not believe that the internet is a substitute for professional resources around you, the following articles did stand out to me as examples of some of the advice for helping children work through the grieving process.

If a book is better suited to meet your needs you will find that the list of titles around this topic is endless.  I personally have had a lot of success with  Dragonflies and Water bugs by Dorothy Stickney.  What’s your Grief has a list by age of other resources for talking to children about death.  Their list is quite comprehensive but by no means exhaustive.Image result for grief

Whether we want to accept that about death and dying neither here nor there.  Death is and will continue to be something that happens in our lives.  Helping children work through it in a way that makes them feel as safe and comfortable as possible is what is really important when children experience loss.  No matter what direction we take when dealing with death, I firmly believe that this teachable moment is not one to be ignored or brushed over.  We must help our children try to understand this confusing but very real part of life.


NPS Junior Ranger – Authentic Learning inside and outside the classroom

National Parks as a classroom

downloadMore often, in my role as a consultant I hear teachers talking about context and I could not agree more.  Recently I was working with a teacher who was using 4 Square writing strategy to help her students write an informational piece of the recent wildfires in Tennessee. She was passionate about the topic but was concerned that her students would not be able to grasp the content because of a lack of context.  I offered to support in the classroom as I have traveled to the area.  It got me thinking about the ways in which we as educators can build a bridge between the classroom and the real world. One such way is our National Parks system (NPS).

The US national park system is extensive, expanding (Stonewall Inn in NYC was just designated part of the NPS) and  can feel very overwhelming.  I myself still struggle sometimes in trying to figure out what is protected under the NPS. I believe that all too often when you hear NPS you think of places like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite, and rightfully so.  The reality is The National Park System touches every state in the US and many territories. Some with vast national parks and others with National monuments, historic sites, preserves, lakeshores, seashores, rivers, trails, wilderness, parkways, and memorials.  The list is as diverse as it is long, each place providing a unique opportunity to learn and absorb something amazing at the United States.


And while simply just finding yourself at an NPS site will open anyone up to a world of learning.  But as a lifelong learner when I find myself in a park, I immediately think how can I make this work for kids.  Fortunately, the NPS has already thought of that with their Junior Ranger Program.

What is Junior Ranger

Image result for junior ranger

At many of the places run by NPS is a program called Junior Ranger. While some may see as kitschy at first (even I was skeptical) a world of learning awaits. As an educator, what better way to tackle a learning opportunity than with a guide book that is interactive, engaging, and fun. Better still, for children who meet the requirements for their age, a badge is presented to them as a token to commemorate the learning experience and visit.
Each junior ranger book is unique to its park or park system. Often times parks along the east coast are historical in nature and the authentic learning experiences engage children in a myriad of activities. For example,

  • At Thomas Edison National Historic Park, students are provided the opportunity to talk with rangers inside Edison’s lab and ask questions.  They are able to see first hand the exact place that Edison invented the battery with the actual equipment he used. hqdefault
  • At Hopewell Furnace, students are encouraged to participate in a scavenger hunt (of sorts) that takes them all through the preserved community.  The exploration affords them the opportunity to gain deep insight into life at that time and what it meant working on an “iron plantation.”
  • At African Burial Grounds students will hear stories about the grounds, as well as complete activities that teach them the importance of symbols and artifacts and how they were used with language.

While parks in the western park of the US tend to be more geographical with the vast amount of land protected.  At these parks, the learning is often more focused on  the history of the Native People, animals, and  geography.  For example,

  • In Death Valley, students are encouraged to learn about animals that are native to the desert and how are engaged in activities on their survival in the vast geographical differences of the landscape.
  • At the Grand Canyon,  junior ranger exploration has more focus on how the canyon was formed.  Learning about the history of the canyon, animals that navigate the steep embankments, and the reasons behind the colors is also embedded in the guide
  • At Bryce Canyon exploration is on science, nature, and geography. Students are lead through a myriad of activities on how and why the Hoodoo’s are they way they are. Then they are given a great insight into one of the canyon’s residents – Prairie Dogs!

When a park is not an option

WWhile I believe every teacher wants to get their students out of the classroom to learn, sometimes that is not always an option.  Often times, we as educators, spend hours looking for ways to engage our students but again NPS has found ways to bring the parks to the classrooms through Junior Ranger programs that can be done remotely.  Topics for these programs include;

  • The Underground Railroad – a guidebook has been designed to help students understand the history and significance of the both those who were seeking freedom from slavery and those who were helping “passengers” on their journey to freedom.
  • Archaeology –  with two different books that focus on the science of archaeology and what it has taught us about the past.
  • Paleontology – a fossil lovers dream, this book touches on everything from the smallest to the largest fossils and the science around finding and preserving them.
  • Astronomy – a guidebook which has a myriad of activities around the stars, sky and the dark sky, movement.  The guidebook helps students understand light pollution and the importance of using light responsibly.
  • Speleology (cave exploration) – a detailed dive (no pun intended!) into caves and their importance of protecting them.  The learning activities provide real insight into the what lies inside the darkness and why they are so important to ecosystems.
  • Wilderness exploration – a great way for students with no context of the wilderness to gain some.  With so many kids in cities being able to learn about the wilderness
  • Oceanography – a closer look at the oceans, the ecosystems and why they are so important to protect.
  • Traveling Clara Barton – this opportunity is great for a class to learn about the Civil War, Clara Barton, letter writing and the US postal system with just a few stamps and patience!

Junior Ranger Resources

There are a number of websites that chronicle their experiences with Junior Ranger. Below are a few that I have visited to learn about their junior ranger experiences.

Additionally, many National Parks have their programs online so you can front load before going to a site.

Web Rangers

If all that is still not enough learning to be done, the NPS has gone one step further creating WEB RANGERS!

This interactive site breaks down activities by level and interest. Web rangers is an extension of the Junior RangerImage result for web rangers program, allowing students to reach learning experiences that may not otherwise be accessible for them. Broken down into categories, web rangers is highly interactive and packed with learning.   It does require the students to have a username and password so it can remember their progress towards earning rewards but it is worth the setup.

Essentially, as educators, an entire learning experience is already created for us at a location which exists, in part to educate.

All we have to do is find our park!

Image result for find your park logo

Restless Leg Syndrome – Why teachers should know the signs…


Why ADD and ADHD are not always the answer…

As a schleg-pain-symptomsool year begins in the US, teachers meet their new students and settle into their routines as they bravely tackle a year’s worth of curriculum.  Inevitably, it doesn’t take very long for many teachers to start to look at some of their students more closely and wonder if there is something they are missing.  Often times, we as educators turn to the “go-to” answers.  Do they have ADD? ADHD? Learning Disability? Counseling?  Speech?  Separation Anxiety?  We try to make the symptoms fit.  But sometimes the go-to  list does not have the right answer.

While some studies show that a child with ADHD may have RLS and a child with RLS may have ADHD, medical professionals are still not sure if they are linked.  That said, RLS and ADHD can look very similar in a child in a classroom.  Ever have a student who just gets up and walks around or is constantly fidgeting in their seats or can occasionally have random outbursts or may appear to be tired or seems too distracted?  Or ever have a child that is all of those things?  It is very easy as educators to think, “I wonder if he/she has been tested for ADHD?…”

As a parent of an 8 year old with Restless Leg Syndrome, when I encounter a child with those symptoms I also think, “I wonder if he/she has RLS…?”  But I consider myself fortunate.  When my daughter starts a new school year I do not give my daughter’s teachers a chance to ask those questions.  I am fortunate to have the answer for them, but it is easy to see why, after explaining her symptoms her teachers inevitably ask, “are you sure she does not have ADHD?”  And it is even easier to find yourself dealing with a parent who looks exhausted, feels helpless and is turning to their child’s teacher for help.  I personally know how desperate someone can feel when their 8 year old is going on her 6th night strait of four broken hours of sleep!

What is Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)?

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes classifies Restless
Leg Syndrome as a neurological disorder characterized by throbbing, pulling, creeping, or other unpleasant sensations in the legs and an uncontrollable, and sometimes overwhelming, urge to move them. Symptoms occur primarily at night when a person is relaxing or at rest and can increase in severity during the night. Moving the legs relieves the discomfort. Often called paresthesias (abnormal sensations) or dysesthesias (unpleasant abnormal sensations), the sensations range in severity from uncomfortable to irritating to painful.   NINDS goes on to say that, Childhood RLS is estimated to affect almost 1 million school-age children, with one-third having moderate to severe symptoms.

In other words, there is a chance that at some point you will probably work with a student that has Restless Leg Syndrome (whether or not they have been diagnosed or not).  While there is growing evidence that children with ADHD have RLS and vice versa, it is important to note that not all children with RLS have ADHD and not all children with ADHD have RLS.  Recent research by sleep specialists indicates that at least 25% of the children who have a diagnosis of ADHD may truly have Restless Legs Syndrome or Periodic Limb Movements or a combination of the two. That said, all children with RLS have an overwhelming desire to move in an effort to reduce the symptoms.

It is also important to know that children with RLS often have broken sleep and can often be tired and cranky during the day.  This can be very frustrating for everyone involved in that child’s life.  Living this first hand, I can attest to how difficult it can be for an 8 year old to function on four broken hours of sleep a night.  So much so that after many years of varying treatment plans, I vividly remember calling my daughter’s second grade teacher and asking her to tell me what my she was like in school as we were finally getting to meet her for the first time as she was starting to sleep for more than 4 hours a night consistently (and so were we!).  For more specifics on RLS symptoms  and sleep check out Cleveland Children’s Clinic.



RLS in Kid Speak

For many children with RLS, explaining what is happening to them can be difficult.  Often times, they will try to hide it (like my daughter) or be so uncomfortable that they have to move and will use different words (that may seem crazy).  Those words include;

  • WigglesRLS-Facts
  • Squiggles
  • Spiders
  • Creepy-Crawlies
  • Pins and Needles
  • Ouchies
  • Hurtizes
  • Itchy,
  • Pulling
  • Crawling
  • Cramping
  • Tugging
  • Tingling
  • Burning (nothing worse then a child telling you they feel like their legs are on FIRE!)
  • Gnawing
  • Coca Cola in the viens

They may also describe the feeling as numb, hot, or cold.  Sometimes they cannot even explain it other than having an overwhelming desire to move.  In my experience RLS can make a child hot one minute and cold the next.  My daughter often wears layers as she is freezing in the morning, hot in the afternoon and cold again at night.

But articulating that can be a challenge and often takes some detective work on the part of the adults.  When my daughter was really young, she would cry and grab her legs.  As she learned to speak, we found it easier for her to point on a drawing or draw the feelings herself.  During her pre-school age, she would  often refer to her pain as spiders, creepy crawlies, or just cry in pain.  Now she is able to articulate a pain scale, specific feelings and the severity of them.  She is even learning ways to self control her symptoms and knows is getting better at communicating that with her teachers.

What tooctopus-licensed2 do for wiggles, squiggles, spiders, creepy-crawlies, pins, needles, heeby jeebies, and ouchies…

There is a lot you can do for a child with RLS (or one that has similar symptoms) without anyone in the class ever knowing.  This can include;

  • Let them be the messenger and run an errand
  • Having them walk to what they need supplies wise instead of bringing it to them
  • Let them be the teacher’s helper
  • Let them stand, or sit, or move to the carpet area depending on what they need
  • Additionally the following “tools” have a big impact without a lot of investment;
    • Balance balls are always a great way to let them move without being a distraction
    • Bouncy Bands  around the desk for them to put their feet in is also a great way to get they “worms” out
    • Free-choice seating is another way to create an inclusive classroom
      • A contract for students and parents for free choice seating can be found here
      • A video on seating choices can be found here
      • Pins on free-choice seating can be found here

RLS foundation

The Restless Leg Foundation has a tremendous amount of resources to help people gain a deeper unRLSHOMELOGOderstanding of what RLS is, why people get it, and how to live with it.  Their work towards awareness and advocacy is my inspiration for this post.  As educators I believe it is important to always be learning.  This site can provide you with far more resources as well as answer specific questions about RLS.

Other Helpful Sites

While RLS has a wealth of knowledge, there are some other sites that are useful in helping to gain a deeper understanding of RLS.  They include;

Often times the key is knowing the signs as to not make it worse for the child.  Telling a child to sit still may have long term negative effects.While some children may be very vocal about their symptoms, others, like my daughter, go out of their way to try to make sure no one knows that she needs to move.  Her only giveaway is her toes curling all day long in her shoes!  That said, regardless of what it is that a child may be dealing with I firmly believe that an inclusive classroom is critical to having a positive learning environment..

Disclosure – I am not a doctor, nor am I an expert on Restless Leg Syndrome.  That said, I am a mother of an 8 year old who was diagnosed with RLS and childhood insomnia at the age of 4.  There is no question that my daughter has been living with RLS since birth, it just took 4 years and a lot of doctors to get to that answer.