Student Well-Being What the Research Says

Students Need More Support From Schools When a Caregiver Dies

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 12, 2022 4 min read
Illustration of child holding missing adult hand.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

More than 211,000 children and teenagers have lost their primary caregivers due to COVID-19, and experts argue that schools need long-term supports to keep those students on track academically and emotionally.

The New York Life Foundation, which tracks child bereavement through a partnership with Judi’s House/JAG Institute, found that after the first year of the pandemic, the number of children who lost a parent or sibling before age 18 jumped from 1 in 14 to 1 in 13.

An international study published last week in the journal JAMA Open finds that losing a parent was associated with lower grades in school, even after accounting for other potentially negative issues such as family poverty. The researchers used 25 years of sibling data from Sweden to compare grades for siblings whose caregivers died before or after they reached the end of their compulsory schooling age.

“Schools do think about the short-term things like, how do I welcome the child back to the class; how do I show that the other children and myself are supportive,” said Irwin Sandler, a psychologist who studies supports after caregiver loss at the REACH Institute in the Arizona State University Tempe, and wrote a commentary accompanying the JAMA study. “But the domain of long-term support is a somewhat more difficult issue.”

That’s because, although the death of any family or friend can be traumatic, students who lose a caregiver are at risk of a “cascade” of trauma, according to Dan Treglia, associate professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Losing a parent could also mean losing financial stability, having to move to a different school or home, and experiencing the stress and grief of their remaining family.

“And so, suddenly, you have yet another disruption,” Treglia said. “They experience social isolation as they’re moving away from family and friends and their community.”

Catherine Jaynes, senior director of the COVID Collaborative, which tracks caregiver loss during the pandemic, said there is no widespread system for identifying children who have lost a caregiver, and social distancing during the pandemic has limited many of the informal ways schools find that out. “Funerals and a lot of faith-based rituals have not been able to be completed,” Jaynes said. “And now we’re hearing, there’s some stigma about those individuals that have died ... so there might be an inclination to not let folks know.”

Students of color at risk

“It is important to note that racial disparities in COVID caregiver loss are even larger than the disparities in nonwhite populations when they’re dying from COVID-19,” Treglia said.

People of color have died from the coronavirus at disproportionately higher rates and at younger ages than their white peers, which means they’re more likely to have had children still living at home. Moreover, children of color are more likely to live in a multigenerational household, in which grandparents play larger caregiving roles, and in multifamily households.

While COVID-19 has caused a sudden spike of caregiver deaths, students also regularly lose parents to cancer and other illnesses, military service, and the ongoing gun violence and opioid crises, among others, Jaynes noted. “Across the age spectrum, we know the importance of having a support system for that child to include the home, the school, the community faith-based organizations ... as they go through their grief process.”

New York Life’s Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative provides grants and training for a network of schools and districts around the country to develop clearer crisis and bereavement plans and more-holistic supports for students.

Here are some recommendations from experts on how schools can support grieving students:

  • Identify students systemically. Teachers are the “eyes and ears” for finding the children and teens in trouble and providing the first line of help, said Treglia, but they need training in identifying students. Jaynes and Maria Collins of the New York Life Foundation also call for adding a question on family loss to standard school registration forms to ensure more students are found and making that information part of a child’s permanent record if they change schools or districts.
  • Provide supports beyond grief. Schools should consider long-term mentoring and academic tutoring in addition to counseling and other mental health supports, Jaynes advised.
  • Consider the whole family. Sandler noted that support from surviving caregivers is the most important factor in a child’s resilience after a caregiver’s loss. “You have to remember the surviving caregivers are grieving, too. So they’re very busy, they have a lot on their plate, both practically and emotionally,” he said. “Direct outreach from the school can be helpful.”
  • Make sure the student doesn’t feel alone. Sandler recommended schools connect students to others who have lost family members.
Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2022 edition of Education Week as Students Need More Support From Schools When a Caregiver Dies

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
Future of the First Amendment:Exploring Trends in High School Students’ Views of Free Speech
Learn how educators are navigating student free speech issues and addressing controversial topics like gender and race in the classroom.
Content provided by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Start Strong With Solid SEL Implementation: Success Strategies for the New School Year
Join Satchel Pulse to learn why implementing a solid SEL program at the beginning of the year will deliver maximum impact to your students.
Content provided by Satchel Pulse
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Webinar
Real-World Problem Solving: How Invention Education Drives Student Learning
Hear from student inventors and K-12 teachers about how invention education enhances learning, opens minds, and preps students for the future.
Content provided by The Lemelson Foundation

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being FDA Ban on Juul E-Cigarettes Draws Praise From Youth Vaping Opponents
More than 100 school systems have sued Juul and other e-cigarette makers.
5 min read
Packaging for an electronic cigarette and menthol pods from Juul Labs, in Pembroke Pines, Fla., pictured on Feb. 25, 2020.
Packaging for an electronic cigarette and menthol pods from Juul Labs, in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
Brynn Anderson/AP
Student Well-Being What the Research Says Are Children Getting to Bed on Time? Here's What New Data Show
A CDC study finds that more than 1 in 4 children in poverty don't have set bedtimes on school nights.
2 min read
Image of reading at bedtime.
nattrass/E+<br/>
Student Well-Being Bipartisan Bill Would Extend School Nutrition Flexibility, But Not Universal Free Meals
The proposal would help nutrition workers navigate supply-chain issues, inflation, and staffing shortages affecting school meal programs.
3 min read
Carl Hall, 8, drinks apple juice he received as part of a free bagged breakfast at the Jefferson County Upper Elementary School on March 3, 2021 in Fayette, Miss.
Carl Hall, 8, drinks apple juice he received as part of a free bagged breakfast at the Jefferson County Upper Elementary School on March 3, 2021 in Fayette, Miss.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Student Well-Being Thousands of Students Will Face Long COVID. Schools Need to Plan Now
The issue is not yet on most educators' radar screens, but should be.
7 min read
Illustration of a young boy holding his hands against his temples with his eyes close. Clouds and virus pathogens circling around him.
iStock/Getty Images Plus