In 2023, I presented a session at the SHAPE America National Convention & Expo in Seattle with Jessica Adkins, the 2022 SHAPE America Western District High School Physical Education Teacher of the Year. The session — titled “Death: Let’s Talk About It” — was based on our personal experiences navigating through the loss of loved ones.
The reality of death is that it is a natural and inevitable part of life — so why are we so uncomfortable (or afraid) to talk about it?
The reality of death within our classroom is that 1 in 12, or more than 8%, of children in the United States, will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the age of 18, and 7 out of 10 teachers currently have at least one student in their class(es) that have lost a parent/guardian, sibling, or close friend in the past year.*
These statistics showcase why it’s so important not to shy away from discussing this important topic within our classroom.
When we teach students about death in health education, we can help them understand life, empathy, and resilience. We also help them become more comfortable talking about other uncomfortable topics.
Here are five tips on how to teach students about death in the health education classroom (or any classroom).
1. Use Age-Appropriate Materials
For elementary students, simple stories or discussions about the natural life cycle can be a gentle introduction. For secondary students, the topics can become more complex, discussing subjects such as the meaning of life, cultural and religious beliefs, and ethical dilemmas surrounding end-of-life decisions.
Here are some resources that you might use:
- Sesame Workshop — What Happened? (Preschool)
- PBS Kids — When a Pet Dies (Elementary School)
- PBS Kids Go! — Dealing With Death (Middle School)
- Death With Dignity Debate — Use these debate prompts to help start conversations or to do a silent debate (High School)
2. Create a Safe and Supportive Learning Environment
It is important to create a safe and supportive classroom learning environment where students feel comfortable discussing death. As a teacher, emphasize that there are no right or wrong emotions or answers, and encourage respect for differing viewpoints. Be sensitive to students who may have experienced loss and provide additional support as needed.
3. Use Books and Art
Books and art are powerful tools for exploring the concept of death. Reading books or poems, studying paintings, or listening to music related to death can provide a more indirect and creative way to engage with the topic. These learning experiences can be a starting point for discussions and reflections.
Here are some ideas and resources I find engaging:
- The Invisible String by Patrice Karst (Preschool or Elementary School)
- Snowflakes from Eluna (Elementary, Middle, or High School)
- Analyzing Music Lyrics — Use songs like “7 Years” by Lukas Graham, “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan, “Gone Too Soon” by Daughtry, “How Do I Say Goodbye” by Dean Lewis, “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw, or “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton. (Middle or High School)
- The Dash by Linda Ellis (High School)
- Death in Art — Life’s Only Guarantee (High School)
4. Bring in Guest Speakers and Go on Field Trips
Utilizing experts in your community, such as grief counselors or those who work in end-of-life care, can provide students with different perspectives and insights on death. Field trips to places like cemeteries, hospices, or funeral homes can bring to light the practical aspects of death and encourage thoughtful questions.
5. Encourage Personal Reflection
Using projects that require personal reflection can be a powerful way to encourage students to be open to learning about the topic of death. Writing essays, creating art, or sharing personal stories can help them process their feelings and thoughts about death. Having students share their projects can facilitate meaningful class discussion.
Here are some projects that you may find inspiring:
- What Are You Feeling? from Art with Heart (Elementary or Middle School)
- Safe Storytelling from Eluna (Elementary, Middle, or High School)
- Grief Puzzle from Eluna (Elementary, Middle, or High School)
- Lifelines (Middle or High School) followed by Obituary (High School)
- Goodbye Letter Template from Eluna (Middle or High School)
Teaching About Death and Grief — Before the Holidays or Anytime
Hopefully these tips will empower you to teach about death in the health classroom. We have an opportunity to break the silence surrounding death, while helping our students become more understanding, compassionate, empathetic, resilient, and open to uncomfortable conversations.
If you’re not sure where it fits in your curriculum, consider early December, before students leave for holiday break. November is Children’s Grief Awareness Month, so that’s another good time. But really, teaching your students about death in health education can happen at any time that works best for you.
- Eluna Network
- National Alliance for Children’s Grief
- Rainbows for All Children
- Coalition to Support Grieving Students
Jessica Matheson, the 2022 SHAPE America National Health Education Teacher of the Year, has presented at workshops and conferences across the country. She thrives on writing curriculum and has developed eight different courses in high school health and physical education, as well as online physical education. Jessica shares lessons, assessments, and curriculum suggestions on social media (@CoachMatheson).