Student Well-Being

Teachers Struggle With Helping Students Who Are Grieving

By Nirvi Shah — December 20, 2012 2 min read
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Recently in this space, and across Education Week, we’ve shared a number of resources on how to talk with children about grief.

The entire nation is still more than burdened with the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

But as much as teachers want to help students who are grieving—and often the circumstances are far different—teachers and school staff say they need better training and more support to do this well, a new survey from the American Federation of Teachers and the New York Life Foundation shows.

About 70 percent of the teachers surveyed reported having at least one student who had lost a parent, guardian, sibling or close friend in the past year. On average, teachers said they had interacted with an average of eight students in the last school year who were dealing with a loss. But nearly all teachers said they have never received bereavement training and fewer than half work at schools where there is a protocol for when a student experiences the death of a loved one.

But half of about 1,250 AFT members—most of whom are classroom teachers—gave their school a C for the job it does in helping them support grieving students. And about two in five said their school pays more attention to how students are dressed than to student grief.

“No one is suggesting that we need to turn educators into grief counselors,” said AFT Executive Vice President Francine Lawrence. “But for kids, much of life is all about school, which means that teachers and counselors have a huge opportunity to lend support. Sometimes help is as simple as the act of inquiring, lending a word of support or encouragement, or creating a little greater understanding and awareness in the classroom, lunch room, or schoolyard.”

Societal attitudes play a major role.

“The fact is our society is uncomfortable with death and uneasy with grief, particularly when it’s a child who is grieving,” said David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and a consultant on the survey. He has been in Newtown since the day after last week’s shooting.

“Grieving kids are quick to pick up on that. Afraid to burden their family with their grief, they frequently suffer in silence,” he said. “The result can be a painful range of emotional, psychological, and behavioral difficulties. The data are a clarion call for all of us who care about kids—both inside and out of school—to give the issue of childhood grief the time, resources, and attention it so clearly deserves.”

My colleagues Lesli A. Maxwell and Jaclyn Zubrzycki just wrote about how principals struggle with putting schools back together after an episode of intense violence. Their actions can have a profound effect on students’ recovery.

“When it comes to childhood grief, too many children grieve alone for far too long,” said Chris Park, president of the New York Life Foundation, which underwrote the survey. “We can’t eliminate their grief journey, but maybe we can ease the path. Schools can play a critical role in that regard.”

Photo: A child peers through firefighters standing as a procession heads to the cemetery outside the funeral for school shooting victim Daniel Gerard Barden on Wednesday in Newtown, Conn. According to firefighters, Daniel wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up and they honored him at the service.—Charles Krupa/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.