Grief-Sensitive Schools: Building Healthy Coping Skills

Adopted May 2021 – Health & Community Concerns Commission

California State PTA understands that everyone copes with death and grief differently. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), grief is a normal response to loss. California State PTA understands that people experiencing grief can be influenced by developmental level, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, mental health, disabilities, family, personal characteristics, and previous experiences.

According to Dr. David Schonfeld, Director of National Center For School Crisis And Bereavement Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, common grief reactions include:

  • Fears and anxiety; school avoidance
  • Sleep problems; change in appetite
  • Difficulties with concentration and academic performance
  • Sadness and depression
  • Anger and irritability; distrust and suspiciousness
  • Alcohol and other substance use
  • Physical symptoms
  • Grief
  • Guilt

The CDC maintains that children may have a particularly hard time understanding and coping with the loss of a loved one. California State PTA believes that parents cannot protect children from loss and the pain it may cause, but parents can play a major role in helping children feel secure and cope in the healthiest way possible. It is important for parents or caregivers to engage with their children over their grief to promote healthy coping and acceptance. Parents may also need to obtain mental health services for the adolescent and family to deal with grief.

Ways Parents Can Help a Grieving Child:

  • Take care of you. Grieving children do better when they have a healthy adult providing support and understanding to them.
  • Be honest with your child. Discuss the tragic event with your child in a simple, direct and age-appropriate manner. Be honest and share clear, accurate information about what happened. Children need to hear the truth from someone they love.
  •  Let your child share their story about what happened. Let them ask you questions and answer their questions as best as you can. Do not be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
  • Acknowledge your child’s grief. Recognize that your child is grieving. Be careful not to impose your grief on your child. Allow them to grieve in their own way. It is normal for children to move in and out of grief reactions.
  • Tell your child stories about your own life — times you were afraid, sad or angry. Tell them how you dealt with these situations and what you learned
  • Be creative. Give your child a creative outlet to express their feelings. This can be done through drawing, writing, doing crafts, listening to music, or playing games.
  • Maintain clear expectations. Keep rules and boundaries consistent. Children will often use their pain as an excuse for inappropriate behavior. While you should always acknowledge the grief your child is experiencing, you should also teach them to be accountable for their choices, no matter how they feel.
  • Reassure your child. Remind your child that they are loved and that you are there for them. Children often fear that you or other people in their life might die. Let your child know the plan if such an event occurs.
  • Create rituals and new family traditions. Rituals can give your family tangible ways to acknowledge your grief and honor the memory of those who have died. Lighting candles, recognizing special occasions, sharing stories about those who have died or volunteering with a local charity as a family are some of the ways you can incorporate new traditions or rituals.
  • Be patient. Grief changes us in many ways. Be patient as you and your child experience your grief. Be patient with your child with repetition. A child often has to come back to the same details and questions.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, school-based support and increased understanding are essential when a student experiences the death of a loved one. While each student will be affected differently depending on their developmental level, cultural beliefs, personal characteristics, family situation, and previous experiences, there are some strategies that can be helpful in supporting bereaved students.

California State PTA believes that schools have a unique and essential role to play in supporting grieving students. According to the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, many educators feel under-prepared to help. A study conducted by the American Federation of Teachers revealed that only 7% of classroom teachers have received any amount of bereavement training and 92% of them said childhood grief was a serious problem that deserved more attention from schools.

According to the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, students often have difficulty concentrating or learning while they are grieving. For grieving students, just being at school can be a challenge. The school can work with grieving students to adapt their course demands—postponing a test, allowing a student to complete a paper instead of taking a final, providing alternative activities that better match the student’s current state of mind.

California State PTA supports the Grief Sensitive School Initiative which is defined as an accredited K-12 public or private institution that commits to help provide a supportive environment for students who have experienced the death of a love one. Schools implementing the Initiative provide specific professional learning opportunities, share information with the school community about Grieving, increase awareness of the issue of grief at school, and review relevant school policies and procedures.

Schools can be the best setting to provide services to students and staff after a loss that affects the school community:

  • Schools provide a familiar environment
  • Large numbers of students can be served
  • Many children will benefit from supportive services that can be readily provided in a school setting
  • Students coping after the loss can be monitored over time and referrals for clinical services can be facilitated as needed
  • Parents may be more willing to accept services provided in school settings, where the stigma associated with mental health services may be decreased

According to the School Crisis Center schools should listen, acknowledge feelings, and be nonjudgmental to students experiencing grief. School personnel should express feelings in an open, calm, and appropriate way that encourages students to share their feelings and grief. Some fairly simple interventions can help students navigate their experience more successfully and better manage school, friends, family and their own emotions. Taking the time to listen and acknowledge feelings in a nonjudgmental way, encouraging students to share their feelings and grief, and avoiding making assumptions and imposing their own beliefs on students creates a safe school environment for students to express themselves and cope more effectively.

To assist schools in helping students cope with grief, the California Department of Education has provided some helpful resources that are applicable for coping. For more information, contact your school district’s coordinator for crisis response or your county office of education. Counseling and student support specialists (school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers, and school nurses) and local mental health specialists can assist in working with individual students and staff.


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