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Three Things Schools Should Know About Student Grief

Grief is a universal experience. But too often it goes unacknowledged, which can make it more difficult to cope, psychologists say.

Schools can play a key role in changing that dynamic for students as they process the death of a family member, a traumatic community event, or the loss of a family pet, said Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

And, as classmates observe their peers expressing and processing grief, they pick up skills they can apply later in life, he said.

“Being able to cope with major loss is an important part of promoting mental health,” Schonfeld said. “Ninety percent of kids experience the death of a family member or friend by the time they finish high school. It’s a difficult thing, and it’s going to happen to everyone.”

Schonfeld spoke to Education Week recently after New Jersey enacted a new law that requires schools to include lessons on grief in 8th through 12th grade health classes.

While direct instruction may be helpful, educators should also be prepared to help students facing loss through both formal and informal interactions, he said.

Here are three things schools should know about student grief.

1. Children begin to understand death at a young age

Across cultures, children tend to develop a conceptual understanding of death around age five to seven, Schonfeld said. And children with chronic illnesses may understand the concept deeper or earlier, he said.

So, while adults may be intimidated or afraid to say “the wrong thing,” they should assume the idea of death is a new concept for students, even if they haven’t had a personal experience with it.

Schonfeld’s own early research included testing classroom lessons on grief with children as young as four. What he discovered: Compared to students in a control group who did not receive the lessons, those who learned about grief were quick to offer appropriate support to peers, like offering a tissue or asking Schonfeld to pause a lesson to process their emotions.

That may be unexpected to adults who believe young children aren’t ready to discuss the topic, Schonfeld said. But ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.

“The bottom line is, while there are developmental limitations” in talking about death, “we are nowhere near those limitations, at least in American society, because we don’t really talk about it,” he said.

Read tips for communicating with grieving students from the Coalition for Grieving Students, a group of child advocacy and education organizations that offers resources for schools.

2. Teachers, staff appreciate support and preparation for helping grieving students

Educators and school employees are often intimidated by conversations with grieving students because they don’t know what to say or they are afraid of making things worse, Schonfeld said.

He advocates for practical professional development for teachers about how children approach grief developmentally and how adults can best support them.

Schonfeld evaluated such professional development in 2020 with New York City educators who completed training online as the city became the U.S. epicenter for COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic. Among their questions: How do I support a grieving student when I am grieving myself?

“They found that, if they were given the language and knew what to say, they really wanted to say it,” Schonfeld said. “They wanted to be helpful.”

In follow-up interviews, many teachers called training on grief necessary and important. And some said better preparation may be helpful to stem the caregiver fatigue they experience when supporting students during difficult life experiences.

3. It’s not unprofessional for adults to show emotion

Schonfeld has also worked with support staff, like bus drivers, who can identify when students are struggling and point them towards assistance from staff like school counselors.

“It’s okay if [educators] get a little have choked up, if they become tearful,” Schonfeld said. “If they show their humanity, that’s actually appreciated by grieving kids and families, and it’s not unprofessional.

“We also need to them have realistic understanding of what their goals are when they’re supporting grieving children. It’s not to make them happy, and it’s not to take away their distress; it’s to help them learn to cope with it,” he said.

Read more on “what not to say” in this resource from the Coalition for Grieving Students.

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