Student Well-Being

Educators Often Overlook Student Grief, Experts Say

By Evie Blad — January 20, 2015 6 min read
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A teenage boy who survived a high-profile shooting was frequently missing school in the weeks after the incident.

School counselors had worked with him to address the trauma associated with the shooting, in which two people standing near him died, said David J. Schonfeld, the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, who later counseled the boy.

But the school hadn’t addressed the student’s grief. One victim was a longtime friend, and he didn’t want to go to school without her.

Many schools fail to properly assist grieving students, according to the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, a group of education organizations. The group recently launched a website of free materials to help schools address grief, which can be a barrier to engagement.

“For some reason with bereavement, it’s not a mental illness and it’s not something you diagnose, so it’s not something that you treat,” said Dr. Schonfeld, a pediatrician who specializes in developmental and behavioral issues.

While schools have increased their focus in recent years on nonacademic factors—like trauma, bullying, and mental-health issues—that affect a student’s ability to engage with classroom content, many still lag behind in efforts to help students as they deal with death and loss, child-bereavement experts say.

Resources for Educators

For the teenage boy dealing with the aftermath of the shooting, that meant his school focused on the more unusual experience of trauma rather than the more common experience of grief, said Dr. Schonfeld.

Grief is seen as a normal part of life, so it often isn’t addressed, he said.

And that’s problematic, the Coalition to Support Grieving Students said, because many students struggle with the loss of a friend or family member at some point in their K-12 experience. And the fallout from grief can make it difficult to focus in the classroom and connect with their peers, the group said.

To help remedy the problem, the coalition launched a website, grievingstudents.org, earlier this month. It’s the culmination of several years of work to develop resources to help educators understand and address student bereavement.

The website includes online professional-development modules—crafted in consultation with Dr. Schonfeld and the Philadelphia-based National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement—that address subjects like classroom discussions, consultation among educators to plan for students’ re-entry to school, funeral attendance, and the psychology of child grief.

The coalition, convened in 2013 by the New York Life Foundation, quickly identified a lack of educator training as a barrier to helping students dealing with death.

The coalition estimates that one in 20 American children will lose a parent by the time they reach 16, and “the vast majority of children will experience the loss of a family member or friend by the time they complete high school.”

In a national survey administered in 2012 by the New York Life Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers, 69 percent of responding teachers reported having at least one grieving student in their classroom, but only 7 percent said they had received any training on how to support grieving children.

How to Talk to Grieving Students

Because many educators fear saying the wrong thing to a grieving student, they don’t say anything at all, the Coalition to Support Grieving Students says. Here are examples of what not to say, pulled from the coalition’s new online training resources.

DON’T SAY THIS

“I know just what you’re going through.”
You cannot know this. Everyone’s experience of grief is unique.

“You must be incredibly angry.”
It is not helpful to tell people how they are feeling or ought to feel. It is better to ask. People in grief often feel many different things at different times.

“At least he’s no longer in pain.”
Efforts to “focus on the good things” are more likely to minimize the student or family’s experience (see above). Any statement that begins with the words “at least” should probably be reconsidered.

“I lost both my parents when I was your age.”
Avoid comparing your losses with those of students or their families. These types of statements may leave children feeling that their loss is not as profound or important.

SAY THIS INSTEAD

“Can you tell me more about what this has been like for you?”

“Most people have strong feelings when something like this happens to them. What has this been like for you?”

“What sorts of things have you been thinking about since your loved one died?”

“Tell me more about what this has been like for you.”

That may be because dealing with death is seen as a common experience, Dr. Schonfeld said.

But an experience doesn’t have to be unusual to affect student learning, he said.

Dealing With Death

Students trying to cope with the death of a parent, for example, may have lost the person who drove them to school every day. Students adjusting to the loss of a sibling may be facing the dual challenge of dealing with their own emotions while trying to support their grieving parents, and the loss of a beloved family pet can cause a student to read words over and over again without understanding the concept of the text.

The death of a friend or loved one may also make students more aware of their own mortality, researchers say.

That can lead teenagers, especially those with repeated experiences of loss, to engage in risk-taking behaviors like drug use and violence just to prove to themselves that they will survive, Dr. Schonfeld said.

At an event held in Washington last week to announce the coalition and release its materials, Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT and a former teacher in New York City, described her experience working with a student whose father had been killed.

“The fact that she came to school said something about her feeling safe in my classroom, which made me feel responsible,” Ms. Weingarten said.

Teachers and administrators, afraid of saying the wrong thing to a hurting student, sometimes don’t say anything at all, Dr. Schonfeld said.

“They don’t know what to do, but also, it’s painful to watch a kid grieve,” he said. “They’re afraid to get too close or to start something they don’t think they can finish.”

So the new guidance includes a module on “what not to say” that addresses some common conversational missteps and suggests alternatives.

Coordination and Support

The guidance also recommends that teachers coordinate with one another to ensure that a student returning to school isn’t greeted by a pile of homework and tests in every class. Schools should also establish a point of contact with families to help monitor a child’s progress, it says.

Moreover, the guidance includes materials on how to foster positive peer support for classmates of those who are grieving.

“Children who are uninformed or unprepared may unintentionally isolate or even tease a grieving classmate,” the guidance says.

Organizers in the coalition also are working to complete materials on special circumstances, including grief after a suicide.

In addition, a module on “cumulative loss” may be helpful for students in high-crime areas, who may experience several deaths of family or community members in a short span of time.

The coalition will continue to develop and add new documents and videos to the website, members said.

David Esquith, the director of the office of safe and healthy students at the U.S. Department of Education, said it’s important for schools to address issues like grief through ongoing training so that teachers and administrators can be ready to meet the needs of all students.

Grief and mental-health issues are too often overlooked until there is a large-scale crisis or tragedy, such as shootings and natural disasters, he said.

“The bad news is that we tend to be very reactive as a nation to the nonacademic needs of our students,” Mr. Esquith said.

Busra Aydin, a 4th grade teacher at Noyes Education Campus in the District of Columbia, said she sees the need for more resources to address student bereavement. “It can be really uncomfortable to talk about this,” she said. “It can be really difficult to determine how your audience is going to react.”

Ms. Aydin recalled teaching a boy who struggled emotionally and behaviorally after his father died. The experience was confusing for the student, who hadn’t known his father well, she said.

A group of teachers and school staff members met to figure out a plan for how to support him. They found a mentor, a male physical education teacher with whom the student could relate.

The group also gave the student a journal to document his thoughts and a pass to take a daily 15-minute break from class when he was feeling emotional.

“Teachers should be equipped [to discuss death],” Ms. Aydin said. “How else are they going to support their students and meet their needs so they can actually focus on instruction?”

Members of the Coalition to Support Grieving Students include the AASA, the School Superintendents Association; the AFT; the National Association of School Psychologists; and the National Education Association Health Information Network.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Educators Tend to Overlook Student Grief, Experts Say

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