Interview: Francine Lawrence AFT and Dr. David Schonfeld National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement

Dec 14, 2012 by

National Center for School Crisis and BereavementAn Interview with Francine Lawrence, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and Dr. David Schonfeld, Director, National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1)      First of all, how common is childhood grief?

Dr. Schonfeld: About 90 percent of children experience the death of a family member or friend by the time they complete high school. Research from the New York Life Foundation indicates that 1 in 7 Americans lose a parent, guardian or sibling by age 20. Clearly, childhood loss is more common than generally perceived.

2)      I understand you recently polled your membership on the issue of how well schools cope with grieving students. Why did you do the research? 

Francine Lawrence: Childhood bereavement is one of society’s most widely experienced — and least understood — phenomena. Early loss of a loved one takes an enormous toll on a child.  During the week, most children spend as many waking hours at school as they do at home.  A child’s school becomes an important frame of reference for his or her grief, especially as kids are generally pretty attuned to the reactions of friends and teachers. We think schools can be uniquely helpful to grieving children.

The survey of 1,253 AFT members was conducted in conjunction with the New York Life Foundation.  We conducted this survey to learn more about the relationship between grieving children and their schools.  We believe a survey represents an especially powerful way to access educators’ voices and experiences.  We want insights from the survey to expand awareness and understanding of childhood bereavement within the school setting – and, ultimately, to develop insights and programs with which to better support these kids.

3)      What did you find?

Francine Lawrence:  The survey found that although childhood grief is common, it is often overlooked by school systems.  Nearly 7 in 10 teachers (69%) currently have at least one student in their class(es) who has lost a parent, guardian, sibling, or close friend in the past year, yet 93 percent of classroom teachers say they’ve never received bereavement training and only 3 percent say their district offers any.

Educators strongly agree this is an issue deserving of more attention.  In fact, 89 percent of teachers agree that there should be a greater focus on training educators to support grieving students and 92 percent of educators – including teachers, aides, counselors and staff – say childhood grief is a serious problem that deserves more attention from schools.

The bottom line is that educators recognize and express substantial and abiding concern for the grieving students in their midst, but often lack the necessary training, resources and public support needed to help their students through their grief journey.

4)      Most schools have guidance counselors, but how prepared are they for children who experience a death in the family?

Francine Lawrence: Simply by the nature of their professional training, school counselors may be better prepared to respond to grieving children than many teachers and other school staff. However, as our survey showed, more than 90 percent of educators said childhood grief needs more attention within the school community. And less than half of those surveyed said their school has a protocol for responding to a student who experiences the loss of someone close.

5)      How well prepared is the average teacher to help a child cope with the death of a grandparent or parent?

Francine Lawrence: It is difficult to be exact about the “average” teacher. But the survey results give us some insight into the preparedness of a representative sample of classroom teachers. And the results reveal a real training gap when it comes to helping kids cope with the death of a parent, sibling or close friend. Educators really want to help – they just need the resources and training to do so.

At the same time, helping students deal with this kind of devastating loss is a responsibility that can also be shared with the wider community of people and organizations who come in contact with children. So our efforts to assist these kids can be enhanced by the community schools concept that the AFT supports. This is the idea that neighborhood schools are the centers of their communities and can become a base not only for educating kids but also a place where children and their families can access an array of services that address other needs. The community partnerships that are fundamental to this approach can be brought into play to help teachers who are trying to assist grieving students, as well as support individual children and their families.

6)      Often, an aunt or uncle is very close—but the child is not able to attend the funeral. How should parents handle this?

Dr. Schonfeld: Parents should seek children’s input about what they would like to do and what would be meaningful to them.  It’s important to find out what the child would hope to gain from funeral attendance (for example, the chance to say goodbye, the ability to convey their concerns and empathy to other family members, the opportunity to see cousins and find out how they are doing, etc.) and see how else you might be able to accomplish those goals.  Options might include videotaping the funeral or parts of the ceremony, having the child write or draw something that could be incorporated into the ceremony on behalf of the child in his/her absence, creating a different “ceremony” or activity for the child that the child finds meaningful, setting up another time to meet with cousins, etc.

7)      When a child DOES travel, say to another state to attend a funeral—is this a legitimate absence? And should the child be penalized when he or she returns by having to do additional work?

Francine Lawrence: What qualifies as an excused absence depends on the policies and rules within each school district. But most classroom teachers will work with the student and his/her family to make appropriate travel possible—and to help the student get back into the school routine as soon as they can.

8)      I often use the phrase “preaching to the choir.”  The press release on the survey is telling me — and, I am sure, millions of teachers — what they already know:  that kids are impacted by death, loss, illness and the like. BUT what are the schools doing? And what should they be doing?

Francine Lawrence: In a very real sense, answering that question is what our Bereavement Project is all about. First and foremost, it seems clear that school systems, teachers and other staff can work together to try to close the training gap that the survey has identified. And the great news is that teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors and other school staff all express an awareness of the problem and a heartfelt interest in helping grieving kids within the school community. So one of the things that more schools can be doing is joining with teachers and staff to make available the training and other resources that are needed.

9)      How much time should a child be allowed to be absent from school for the death of a parent—a week? Two weeks? Are there any guidelines out there?

Dr. Schonfeld: I am not aware of any such guidelines.  It varies a great deal on the situation, cultural and religious practices, the ability of surviving family members to provide necessary support, and other secondary losses (for example, if the family needs to relocate), among other variables.

Overall, it’s good to figure out how to get children back to school as soon as they feel ready to do so, and provide modifications to their schedule and academic requirements as needed until full participation becomes feasible.

10)     Last, but most difficult question—if the child has experienced the loss of a parent—should the schools be forcing the child to grasp a No. 2 lead pencil and spend a week of their lives taking these high stakes tests?

Francine Lawrence: Well, you referred to “preaching to the choir” in an earlier question. Classroom teachers understand that learning is more than a test score, and the AFT is actively trying to restore some balance to the growing fixation on high-stakes testing in our schools. It has become clear that such testing is damaging our efforts to improve schools. More information about that campaign can be found at http://www.learningismore.com/take-action.

So, there is no question that teachers would be inclined to accommodate the needs of a student who has just suffered the loss of a parent—before sitting that child down to take another standardized test.

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Note to Readers:  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. Additionally, there are tremendous online resources available for children, parents and educators including AChildinGrief.com, HelloGrief.org, ChildrenGrieve.org, and AFT’s bereavement focused resource page.

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