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Coalition Aims to Help Educators Address Student Grief in Schools

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David J. Schonfeld recently recalled counseling a teen boy who'd been frequently absent from school after he survived a high-profile shooting.

Counselors had worked to address the trauma associated with the shooting, in which the people standing to the left and the right of the student both died, said Dr. Schonfeld, a child grief expert and the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.

The student said that after a few sleepless nights, he was on the path to recovering from the adrenaline-filled experience.

So, if he wasn't haunted by the sounds of gunshots or the memories of that night, why was he skipping school?

What no one had addressed, the boy said, was that one of the people who died in the shooting was his long-time childhood friend. He was struggling not with the more unusual traumatic event he'd been a part of, but with the more common experience of grief, Dr. Schonfeld said.

"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," he said.

Too many schools fail to properly assist grieving students, a group of education organizations called the Coalition to Support Grieving Students said. 

Schools have increased their focus in recent years on non-academic factors—like trauma, bullying, and mental health issues—that affect a student's ability to engage with classroom content, but many still lag behind in efforts to assist students as they deal with death, child bereavement experts said.

And that's problematic, Dr. Schonfeld 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 peers, he said.

To help remedy the problem, the Coalition to Support Grieving Students launched grievingstudents.org Tuesday. 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—created in consultation with Dr. Schonfeld and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement—that address subjects like classroom discussions, consultation between educators to plan for 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 two million Americans under the age of 18 have experienced the death of a parent, 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 2012 survey administered 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 seven percent said they had received any training on how to support grieving children.

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. Students dealing 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 even the loss of a close pet can cause a student to read words over and over again without understanding the concept of a text.

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."

Adults are afraid of saying the wrong thing to emotionally vulnerable children.

Here's a quick primer from Dr. Schonfeld:

  • Reconsider making any statement that begins with "at least." ("At least he's not in pain anymore," or "At least you got to have Christmas together.")
  • Don't try to cheer students up, Dr. Schonfeld said. "They don't want to be cheered up at that moment, he said. "That says, 'if you express any of your grief, it makes people uncomfortable and you shouldn't do it.' "
  • Don't say "I know exactly what you're going through" or compare your own experiences. If you mention something that pales in comparison, it's insulting, and if you mention something worse, it takes the focus off of the grieving person.

Beyond navigating tough conversations, the guidance recommends that teachers coordinate to ensure that a returning student 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.

The materials will also include a module on "cumulative loss," which 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. Organizers are working to complete that module, along with materials on other special situations, like suicide.

These experiences are common.

Busra Aydin, a 4th grade teacher at Noyes Education Campus in the District of Columbia, said she sees a 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 after his father died. The experience was confusing for the student, who hadn't known his father well.

A group of teachers and school staff met to find the student a mentor, a male physical education teacher he related to. 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 AASA, the School Superintendents Association; the American Federation of Teachers; the National Association of School Psychologists; the National Education Association Health Information Network; and several others.

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