5 best practices for embedding bereavement and grief support in schools

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The loss of parents or other primary caregivers — among the most tragic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for students — has sparked a need to provide bereavement support in schools.

The pandemic underscored the importance of supporting grieving children in school settings as well as in medical and behavioral health ones, said David J. Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which coordinates the Coalition to Support Grieving Students.

More than 167,000 children in the United States — roughly 1 in 450 — lost at least one caretaker to COVID-19 as of December 2021, according to a report from the COVID Collaborative and Social Policy Analytics. Worldwide, an estimated 10.5 million children lost a caregiver or were orphaned due to the pandemic, with the greatest losses in Africa and Southeast Asia, according to a study published in September 2022 in JAMA Pediatrics.

“No child should grieve alone, and we should come together as a community and become better at supporting them,” Schonfeld said.

As schools continue developing strategies to help students who are grieving due to COVID-19 or other traumatic events, Schonfeld and other experts recommend the following five best practices.

Understand grief and bereavement

It’s essential to ensure school staff are supportive and empathic and that they provide accommodations where warranted, Schonfeld said. But bereavement shouldn’t be treated as an illness, because most people will at some point experience the loss of parents or caregivers, he said.

Scenarios where one-on-one counseling may be particularly beneficial include when a student’s grief is compounded by depression or substance abuse and when they belong to marginalized groups that experience more violence and loss. It’s also important to provide native language support for children who are more comfortable expressing grief in a language other than English, Schonfeld said.

Teachers should make temporary accommodations for grieving children, such as lightening their homework load or avoiding major assignments around the timing of memorial events, Schonfeld said. Schools can assign a staff member to examine the grieving student’s overall schedule and be mindful of things like the parent who used to drive them to activities no longer being there, he said.

Teachers should be cognizant of avoiding triggering lesson plans during class, such as Father’s Day activities when a child lost their father, or reading assignments that include topics like, say, suicide when a student is experiencing that particular trauma, Schonfeld said. 

It’s important to put in place a plan for grieving students, such as allowing them to safely leave the classroom if they feel overwhelmed or even placing a tissue box by the door, Schonfeld said. Everyday gestures like checking in and asking “How are you doing?” and “What can I help you with?” also make a big difference, he added.

Train all school staff

The pandemic prompted Dallas Independent School District to ramp up its efforts to offer programming and support for grieving students, said Tracey Brown, the district’s executive director of mental health services.

The district provided grief support training to all clinical staff and included it in professional development for teachers, Brown said. All of that was done in partnership with the Dallas-based Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, she said.

“We make it a priority,” Brown said. “Our goal is to make sure we are constantly providing information and a deeper level of understanding of grief.”

Besides staffing enough clinicians to provide individual counseling for students, it’s important to empower all staff members to spot signs that students might be struggling with grief, Brown said. 

“We need our teachers and staff to be the eyes and ears for us,” she said. “Many of our kids are coming to school daily struggling with grief and trauma for various reasons. They are just trying to figure out, ‘What do I do with this?’”

This article originally appeared in www.k12dive.com

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