Our members share how to help grieving students

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As school reopens, AFT members are encountering students burdened by grief from the loss of loved ones.

"Grief is something our students have experienced more than our staff ever even fathomed was possible," says Daisy Mundt, a school social worker in Deer River, Minn. This harsh truth inspired her to learn how to support bereaved children, something she says all school staff can do, and now she takes the lead in preparing her colleagues.

Last year, Mundt and 15 other AFT members gathered in Washington, D.C., to become trainers in skills promoted by the Coalition to Support Grieving Students. The coalition's members, which includes the AFT, share a conviction: grieving students need support at school. The materials and resources at www.GrievingStudents.org can help all school personnel better address bereavement and help them create grief-sensitive schools. During the two-day training, school nurses, social workers, psychologists and counselors explored strategies they've since shared back home.

Grieving childMundt was the first to host a session, training 34 paraprofessionals in her district last fall. Like the other trainers, she led the paras in a discussion that provided strategies to support students. For instance, she offered tips for not focusing too relentlessly on the positive, which often starts with the words "at least" and may downplay the loss. Instead, she suggested trying to find out what a student is feeling or thinking.

"Many staff who've been working as paras for years felt this information changed the way they look at their role and how they approach students," Mundt says.

Julie Ford Taylor, a school counselor in Oregon, Ohio, trained 30 educators, counselors, teachers and school psychologists. One teacher said the training made her feel more comfortable with grief and helped her work with a sixth-grader who'd lost his dad. Not only did it prepare school personnel to spot bereaved kids but it taught them to acknowledge loss.

Now Taylor is invited to train counselors this November at a statewide conference in Ohio. Through video, role-playing and handouts, she will highlight the best research-based practices and provide strategies for creating grief-sensitive schools.

"By simply being there for students, acknowledging their losses, expressing concern, inviting them to talk, listening with empathy, and offering advice and reassurance," Taylor says, "I know I can help foster students' recovery and resiliency."

This past year was incredibly challenging for Dwan Bailey-Yelder, a social worker and member of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers in Louisiana. In just one week, both her school principal and a physical education teacher died. Bailey-Yelder is on the school's crisis team, and she believes her colleagues felt better equipped because of the information she shared.

Anna Pyron, a school counselor and member of Oklahoma City AFT, says grieving students tend to internalize their pain and become self-destructive if it's not addressed. After several kids lost family members, the staff at her school became more observant and talked more openly about bereavement. One student whose father died had been to a grief counselor only once and seemed fine until his teacher noticed he'd started chewing off his fingertips. Pyron credits that teacher with alerting staff who could help. Her colleagues also grew more aware of anniversary dates, referring parents to free services staffed by professionals who specialize in loss through death or divorce.

The AFT has increased access to self-paced professional development through posts on Share My Lesson. For classroom lessons and other resources, you can search for "grief" and "bereavement" on the Share My Lesson website. For more on the AFT's broader work on children's health and well-being, see the AFT's "Helping Children Thrive" report.

Here are some other ways to prepare for student loss this school year:

  • Run articles in your school or local union's newsletter, or post on social media. Email childgrief@aft.org to receive a collection of coalition-prepared articles on topics such as coping with bereavement during holidays.
  • Order coalition materials.
  • Ask school health professionals about the best ways to prepare all school personnel to address childhood bereavement.
  • Find out if your district includes grieving and bereavement in its crisis plan. If not, help connect school officials to coalition materials.
  • In an emergency, contact coalition experts directly at the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement: 877-536-2722 or info@grievingstudents.org.
  • Invite an AFT trainer to present at your state conference or convention. Contact childgrief@aft.org to identify a trainer in your region.

The coalition's work is based on a 2012 survey by the AFT and New York Life.

[Chelsea Prax, Tyra Hinton, Annette Licitra]