AFT members train in how to help grieving students

Listen. Show empathy. Don’t be afraid of feelings.

THE DESIRE TO HELP students grapple with strong emotions as they face the death of a close family member or friend is something nearly every school employee has faced. Now AFT members have begun a process of training their colleagues in research-based strategies to help ease the effects of grief so that children can continue to grow and learn.

With guidance from the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, more than a dozen members from around the country gathered in Washington, D.C., for two days in July to train as trainers, using as their curriculum, a multimedia resource developed specifically for school personnel. The website was launched earlier this year.

An AFT/New York Life survey in 2012 revealed overwhelming interest in helping support grieving students—along with strong demand for training—and served as an impetus for the session. In the survey, educators said they did not feel appropriately trained in providing support to grieving students.

By exploring strategies and tools during the AFT seminar, members geared up to train at least 25 employees in their schools or districts on how to interact with individual children and how to promote the creation of grief-sensitive schools. This train-the-trainer session is another in a series of trainings and one of the ways the AFT is responding to the needs of our members.

Helping children cope

Interacting with students helps them get through the natural grieving process so they can begin to focus on other aspects of their lives. But some educators aren’t sure what to say, afraid they’ll cause the child more pain. It’s important to know that a student’s grief is caused by loss, not by talking about it. Saying nothing actually communicates a lot to children, telling them you may not care about them or that you’re incapable of providing the support they need. They may even think you disapprove of their grief.

At the training, the AFT members prepared for working with their schools to spread the word about understanding grief or loss—from a parent’s death to incarceration or military deployment—and providing support over time.

Cultivating a grief-sensitive classroom starts with understanding. Four safe things you can say are that death is irreversible, that all life functions end (for children who wonder if the deceased is cold, hungry or lonely), that every living thing eventually dies, and that people die for specific physical reasons.

Here are some practical strategies: Be present and authentic. Listen more, talk less. Don’t try to cheer people up. Accept expressions of emotion. Show empathy. Don’t be afraid to show emotion. Step in to stop harmful behaviors if safety is a concern. Postpone tests or assignments as necessary.

Grief is not a disease

Loss and bereavement are natural aspects of life and should not be “pathologized,” or treated like a disease, says Tom Demaria, who helps run the coalition, which includes the AFT, the National Education Association, and groups representing counselors, psychologists and school administrators. Training can help school employees recognize any symptoms of trauma or depression, and it also can help provide the skills needed to avoid pulling students out of class at a time when the structure and regularity of school can be comforting.

Finally, school staff should deal with feelings first. Don’t rush to create scrapbooks, memorials or a Facebook page—although it’s fine to start planning them. Go to the wake, funeral or shiva call. Make yourself available. You will want to become aware of holidays, birthdays and other dates that can trigger grief, and to learn how both you and your students can manage them.

Don’t forget yourself, either. Self-care is important when tragedy strikes the school community.

For the full complement of videos and teaching modules, see the coalition’s materials at For resources for parents and families, see

PSRP Reporter, Fall 2015 Download PDF (2.59 MB)
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Supporting Your Student

Learning what to say and what not to say

Don’t say:           
“I know just what you’re going through” or “You must be incredibly angry.” We can’t know what anyone else is feeling, and the student
may be feeling many things at once.

Just ask: 
“Can you tell me what this has been like for you?”

Don’t say:           
“Remember the good things in life, too.”

Just ask:
“What memories do you have of him?”

Don’t say:           
“At least he’s no longer in pain.” In fact, reconsider any statement
starting with “at least” because it seems like you’re minimizing the pain.

Just ask: 
“What have you been thinking about since he died?”

Don’t say:           
“I lost both my parents when I was your age.” This is not a competition. Avoid comparing your losses with somebody else’s.

Just ask: 
“Is there any way I can help?”

Don’t say:           
“You need to be strong for your family.” This puts even more pressure
on a student.

Just ask:  “How is your family doing?”