Press Release

Training Gap Limits Educators' Ability to Help Grieving Students

For Release: 

Monday, December 10, 2012


Tom Lansworth

While Childhood Loss Is Common, Few Classroom Teachers Are Prepared to Assist

America's teachers are keenly interested in helping the large number of grieving students in their classrooms but express a strong need for more training and resources regarding child bereavement, according to the results of a groundbreaking survey released today by the American Federation of Teachers and the New York Life Foundation. 

Seven in 10 (69 percent) reported having at least one student in their class(es) who had lost a parent, guardian, sibling or close friend in the past year. Those teachers said they had interacted over the past year with an average of eight students who had experienced such a loss. 

Unfortunately, losing a loved one is an all-too-common childhood occurrence—typically with a profound impact. In a New York Life Foundation general population survey of 1,006 adults conducted in late 2009, 1in 7 respondents reported losing a parent or sibling before the age of 20. Specifically among adults who lost a parent growing up, more than half (57 percent) said they would trade a year of their life for one more day with their parent, and 73 percent believe their life would have been "much better" if their parent hadn't died so young. In addition, it's been estimated that 9 in 10 children lose a family member or close friend by the time they finish high school. 

"Childhood bereavement is poignant and powerful in its effects, and remarkably common yet woefully under-addressed," said AFT Executive Vice President Francine Lawrence. "America's schools reflect this dynamic. The encouraging news is that teachers, paraprofessionals and counselors alike all have profound awareness of the problem and a heartfelt interest in helping grieving kids. But as our survey clearly demonstrates, they are generally not receiving the training, encouragement and resources they need to support a student who has suffered a loss." 

Societal attitudes play a major role. "Putting the survey in context, the fact is our society is uncomfortable with death and uneasy with grief, particularly when it's a child who is grieving," said Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and a consultant on the survey. "Grieving kids are quick to pick up on that. Afraid to burden their family with their grief, they frequently suffer in silence.

"The result can be a painful range of emotional, psychological and behavioral difficulties," he added. "The data are a clarion call for all of us who care about kids—both inside and out of school—to give the issue of childhood grief the time, resources and attention it so clearly deserves." 

Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted the survey of 1,253 AFT members, including 813 classroom teachers. Interviewing was conducted online from Oct. 8-27, 2012. 

"When it comes to childhood grief, too many children grieve alone for far too long," said Chris Park, president of the New York Life Foundation, which underwrote the survey. "We can't eliminate their grief journey, but maybe we can ease the path. Schools can play a critical role in that regard." 

In a project that began earlier this year, the AFT is partnering with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and the New York Life Foundation to evaluate a program for providing bereavement training to educators at six AFT affiliates across the country. The two-year project is supported with a grant from the New York Life Foundation. 

"No one is suggesting that we need to turn educators into grief counselors," Lawrence said. "But for kids, much of life is all about school, which means that teachers and counselors have a huge opportunity to lend support. Sometimes help is as simple as the act of inquiring, lending a word of support or encouragement, or creating a little greater understanding and awareness in the classroom, lunch room or schoolyard." 

Among the survey findings: 

  • 92 percent of educators—including teachers, teacher assistants, counselors and staff—say childhood grief is a serious problem that deserves more attention from schools.
  • 50 percent of classroom teachers gave their school a grade of C or lower for the job it does in helping them support grieving students.
  • More than 2 in 5 teachers say their school pays more attention to the way students are dressed than to student grief.
  • 93 percent of classroom teachers say they've never received bereavement training; only 3 percent say their district offers it.
  • Less than half of educators report that their school has a protocol for how to respond when a student experiences a close personal death. 

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The AFT represents 1.7 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; nurses and healthcare workers; and early childhood educators.