Helping Educators Help Grieving Children

The recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, which brought unimaginable sorrow to the Sandy Hook Elementary School community, provides a haunting reminder that when children face death, teachers are often on the front lines helping students cope with their grief.

While the horrific violence witnessed in Newtown is a relatively rare occurrence in a school setting, childhood grief is not. According to the first-ever survey about bereavement in schools, which was undertaken by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) with support from the New York Life Foundation, almost 70% of teachers say that they had at least one grieving student in their classroom in the past year. On average, these teachers report that they have interacted with eight grieving students over the course of the last year.

This groundbreaking survey confirms what many educators have long suspected: Childhood bereavement is a significant issue, affecting millions of children across the country. Complicating the matter is the fact that most teachers report that they do not feel well prepared to help grieving students.

"Childhood bereavement is poignant and powerful in its effects," notes Francine Lawrence, executive vice president of the AFT, which represents 1.5 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers and educational specialists. "The encouraging news is that teachers, paraprofessionals, and counselors alike are increasingly and profoundly aware of the problem," she says.

The majority of classroom teachers say that students facing grief over the death of a loved one usually experience academic difficulties, including trouble concentrating in class, withdrawal or disengagement, less classroom participation, absenteeism, and a decrease in the quality of their schoolwork. Studies also indicate that grief-stricken children can exhibit depression, withdrawal, and anger; are more prone to self-destructive behaviors; and are at increased risk for using drugs or alcohol.

 "When it comes to childhood grief, too many children grieve alone for far too long," observes Chris Park, president of the New York Life Foundation. "We can't eliminate their grief journey, but maybe we can ease the path. Educators can play a critical role in that journey."  To that end, the AFT and New York Life Foundation have partnered with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement to pilot bereavement training projects in select districts nationwide.

David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and a consultant on both the survey and the pilot training program, states that our society is uncomfortable with death and grief, particularly when it's a child who is grieving. "Grieving kids are often hesitant to burden their family with their grief," Schonfeld notes, "so they frequently suffer in silence. At home, these kids may feel compelled to put on a brave face to provide support for surviving parents who may be struggling themselves. But at school, they may not feel as constrained—they may feel safer speaking with school staff, who typically have some emotional distance and might be better positioned to answer questions and identify resources for support."

Whatever the reasons may be, the need and opportunity to support grieving children demonstrated by the survey data should, as expressed by Dr. Schonfeld, "serve as a clarion call for all who care about kids—both inside and outside of school—to give the issue of childhood grief the time, resources, and attention it so clearly deserves."

According to the survey, less than half of the teachers agreed that educators have the basic skills they require to support their students in need. They cited many reasons for this lack, but by far the most frequent was "insufficient training and/or professional development." On a more positive note, the survey demonstrated that grief training, when implemented among educators, had a measurably beneficial impact on the level of care that grieving students received.

Among the benefits cited for training were the following:

  • Trained teachers are significantly more likely to collaborate and communicate with students than are untrained peers.
  • Trained teachers more frequently contact the students' parent(s) or guardian(s).
  • Trained teachers are also more likely to collaborate with other staff members at their school, to seek out appropriate resources, and to refer grieving students to these resources.

Informed in part by the recent bereavement survey, both the AFT and the New York Life Foundation have developed web-based resources that offer teachers effective ways to deal with students in crisis and to help them attend to the academic, emotional, and psychological impacts on individual students and classrooms. The educational resources on New York Life Foundation's bereavement website (www.achildingrief.com) provide educators, parents, and students with knowledge and confidence to support grieving kids and to know when to refer them to professionals for help.  The AFT's bereavement website (www.aft.org/issues/childhealth/bereavement.cfm) places a special emphasis on helping teachers and school staff support students facing the challenges of grief. The materials include response guidelines and access to additional information.

"Loss can separate a student from peers just at a time when a child is desperately feeling a need to fit in," says Susan Kitchell, a nurse at Galileo High School in San Francisco who helped coordinate bereavement training for the AFT-New York Life Foundation project. "Educators can play a significant role in a grieving child's life by helping friends and classmates understand what is happening and how to be supportive."

Susan Kitchell is a pediatric nurse-practitioner who has worked with children, youth, and families for almost 40 years. She currently works with the Wellness Initiative, a program partnering the Mayor's Office of Children, Youth and Families, the Department of Public Health and the San Francisco Unified School District. She recently helped coordinate a bereavement-training session in San Francisco as part of the AFT-New York Life project to expand bereavement training.

"I became interested in childhood grief when I did my thesis on children's perceptions of death and dying," Kitchell says. "Grief-stricken children often find themselves in the role of supporting the adults around them -- without relieving themselves of their own sorrow."

Commenting on the ATF-NYL program Susan observes: "The program does not require that teachers become grief counselors. Rather, it helps them recognize the needs of a grieving child and offers resources to find and access the assistance. The website is very thorough and easy to use. It helps teachers build useful skills and includes videos of actual students sharing their grief experiences. Those real voices bring the point home."

Kitchell notes that helping grieving children by acknowledging what they are experiencing can make an important difference. "When a teacher reaches out to a child, as this program helps them to do, it offers the child a sense of security. Children take comfort in knowing that their voices are heard and their needs will be met. With the help of a teacher, children are freed to feel what they are feeling. Importantly, reassurance by the teacher lets children know that they have the support of one of the most important and constant people in their lives-their teacher."

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