Nine out of 10 children experience the death of a family member or friend by the time they complete high school, yet a recent survey indicates that only 7 percent of AFT members have received the type of training that can help them support students at these difficult times. That is a terrible mismatch of challenges and supports, a problem the AFT is working to fix in partnership with other groups that make up the Coalition to Support Grieving Students.
On Jan. 13, the coalition debuted GrievingStudents.org, a groundbreaking multimedia resource designed to help educators and school professionals do their best when it comes to offering support to grieving students. The new resource was unveiled at a Washington, D.C., press event. AFT President Randi Weingarten took part in the launch, telling the crowd the deep pride she felt in the union's role as a founding coalition member and a partner in a project that has yielded a bereavement resource for educators that is as useful as it is unprecedented.
"More than 2 in 5 teachers say schools pay more attention to how students are dressed than to student grief," Weingarten said. "As a teacher, I encountered students regularly who were grieving. I was glad I could be there to help but also was able to refer them to resources in the school for support.
"All of that has changed with the loss of guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists in schools. As they do in community schools, we should be wrapping mental health services around schools to help address grief."
The coalition's new flagship resource is free and captures best practices for addressing grief at school in videos and downloadable modules, materials informed by the work of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. With GrievingStudents.org, educators can engage in self-directed professional development that provides the information, insights and practical advice needed to better understand and meet the needs of grieving students. Topics addressed include grief triggers, talking with students, peer supports, connecting with families, impact on learning and what not to say.
The Washington, D.C., event showcased the deeply personal value of this work. Deborah Pannell, who lost her husband when her son Josiah was 6 years old, spoke of the value of a supportive school environment for a grieving student. Support from the school let Josiah know that it was OK for him to go through the emotional experiences related to his father's death. She said that teachers encouraged her son to talk about his dad—he didn't have to feel like it was a secret—and the educators' sensitivity and willingness to give him those opportunities made a big difference.
We should be wrapping mental health services around schools to help address student grief #griefcoalition— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) January 13, 2015
The founding member organizations of the Coalition to Support Grieving Students include the American School Counselor Association, National Association of School Nurses, National Association of School Psychologists, and National Education Association. The lead founding members are the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and the New York Life Foundation. The website was created in partnership with Scholastic Inc.
"Educators are in a unique position to provide support to grieving students," said Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and a professor of pediatrics at the Drexel University College of Medicine. "Schools are a place for bereaved children to receive support from trusted adults who have a safe emotional distance from their loss."