Helping the Grieving School Child
Most children experience the death of a family member or friend by the time they complete hig
h school; and one in 20 children face the death of a parent by age 16.1 The sadness and sense of loss that results from the death of someone close can impact significantly a student’s social and emotional health as well as his or her ability to learn at school. As such, bereavement is a very common experience among school-age children that holds important educational significance.
Unfortunately, school staff, including school guidance counselors and other mental health professionals, often receive little training in this area. School personnel who feel unprepared or uncomfortable to help students cope with death may miss a critical opportunity to provide needed support or misinterpret learning or behavioral difficulties.
This issue of ERCMExpress highlights the range of impact death can have on a school community; addresses the importance of emergency management planning; offers suggestions for responding to a loss; discusses strategies for recovery; and suggests resources for further information.
Range of Impact Death can have a significant impact on the abilities and behaviors of members of a school community. The degree of impact differs depending on whether the death is that of a staff member or student, the age of the student who passed away, the nature of the death, the time of year the person passed away (i.e. during summer break, at the end of the school year, during first semester), the location of the death (e.g., 1 Mahon M: Children’s Concept of Death and Sibling Death from Trauma. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 1993: 8(5): 335-344. on-campus or off-campus), and the number of family members, such as siblings, cousins, or children, who attend the school of the deceased. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the death of a school-based individual, students, teachers, and staff may be impacted in a variety of ways. Academic performance may decline if a student has difficulty concentrating to learn new material. Social and emotional challenges for students or adults may result from feelings of sadness, depression, or anxiety or from withdrawing from fellow classmates, students, teachers, or staff. Young students in particular may be fearful to leave family members, resulting in school avoidance and increased absenteeism. Students may find it difficult to learn or teachers may struggle in the classroom if they experience physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, or exhaustion as a result of restless sleep. Behavioral changes such as irritability, acting out, or increased risk-taking may ensue. For younger students this could be manifested in class outbursts or bullying while substance abuse could be an issue for some older students. Coping with the Death of a Student or Staff Member 2 Providing both immediate and long-term support to grieving students, faculty, and staff as early as possible can support academic progress and the social, behavioral, emotional, and mental health of all members of the school community. Barriers to Effective Bereavement Support Within Schools Schools could be a logical and effective site for the delivery of supportive services such as additional tutoring as needed, individual counseling, or bereavement support groups. Schools have ready access to a sector of the impacted community and long-term ongoing relationships with staff, students, and families, but, despite this, there are still some barriers to providing effective bereavement support within school settings, including: limited staff expertise and training; funding constraints for mental health personnel; concerns about family privacy; and the persistent stigma associated with mental illness, which may contribute to students’ reluctance to disclose their reactions or seek services. Emergency Management Planning Partnering With Community Mental Health Providers Schools can prepare for responding to and recovering from the death of a student, staff, or faculty member by actively partnering with their community mental health providers prior to an incident and establishing a crisis response team that includes school social workers, psychologists, and guidance counselors. All districts and schools should create an emergency management plan in collaboration with community partners, including mental health professionals. Developing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with area mental health organizations that includes activities such as providing ongoing training of school personnel in bereavement and crisis response, supplying professional counseling services, when necessary and appropriate, to students or staff in need of assistance, and offering relief to schoolbased guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists when needed could all minimize some potential barriers to recovery. Training for teachers and staff might include: an appreciation of the impact bereavement can have on learning, behavior, and development; developmental understanding of death; and age appropriate responses to support grieving students. Elements Related to Bereavement to Include in Emergency Management Plans Schools should develop emergency management plans that foster an open and supportive school climate and active parent involvement, and demonstrate a strategy, including clear staff roles and responsibilities, for responding proactively to losses that impact students and staff. Losses range from the death of a preschool classroom pet to a high school student suicide to a weather-related disaster that takes the lives of several school members. Plans should include policies for managing and screening community volunteers who may show up at school to lend support. Protocol for memorials should be defined in a school’s emergency management plan. School plans should also include policies and protocols for handling the media. If the death is likely to result in attention from the media such 3 as might be expected in a murder, suicide, or other sudden and dramatic loss, school policies and procedures should limit direct access of the media to solely the media spokesperson for the district and the school. Students should be advised to speak with school staff and their parents or guardians if they receive inquiries from the media such as phone calls, e-mails, contacts through their personal Web pages, or in person, while staff and parents should direct all media to the spokesperson. The goal is to protect the students and the school from any unwanted media attention while facilitating accurate and appropriate information regarding the incident. Responding to the Death of a Student or Staff Member The type of information schools should or should not share or can or cannot provide in the case of death varies based on the specific incident. Exhibit 1, Illustrative Examples of Sharing Information for Specific Incidents, offers a few examples for schools to consider regarding information sharing.
When the cause of death is particularly sensitive, such as suicide or drugs or alcohol, it is important to contact the family to identify what information they wish shared with the school community and to help them understand the benefit of open discussion with students in order to help identify other students who may be at risk of, or already considering, engaging in these life-threatening behaviors. It is not necessary to obtain parent permission to share information that is widely available publicly, for example, if suicide as the cause of death has been announced in public media.
Special effort is needed to:
Identify students at increased risk of adjustment problems, especially students who may have been aware of the suicide plan or who may become scapegoats, such as the former boy or girlfriend if the suicide occurred after a couple broke up;
Provide education to students, parents, and staff about the warning signs and symptoms of suicide or risky behaviors and how to access school and community support services; Encourage students to seek help and reduce the stigma associated with seeking and accepting mental health services;
Avoid romanticizing the cause of death while at the same time acknowledging the individual who died;
Minimize media coverage; and
Communicate with community mental health providers and agencies and the police to monitor possible additional deaths from high-risk behaviors that could occur within the community. Verification of Information When a student or staff member passes away, school personnel may want to share the news of the loss with the school community.
Verification of information is one of the initial steps in this process. Potential sources of accurate information include family members, local police in certain circumstances, or disaster relief agencies in the event of a natural disaster. In the death of a student or staff member, school personnel should contact family members to determine what they would like to have disclosed to the school community.
Once the death and the appropriate details surrounding the incident have been verified, activation of the school crisis team, initiation of the emergency management plan, and notification of the school community can occur