Dr. Schonfeld Shares Expertise on Supporting Grieving Students


Dr. David Schonfeld, whose expertise on student grieving was essential in creating the 14-member Coalition to Support Grieving Students, told the morning plenary of AFSA’s 14th Triennial Convention that AFSA’s support for the coalition has been critical.


Schonfeld shared survey data on the pervasive need among educators for training on how to deal with grieving students. This expressed need results, because “loss is common among children.”


From their early years, children are taught not to talk about death, which predisposes bereaved children to repress their grief. They often are very distressed by the grief their parents are experiencing, which leads them to withdraw emotionally. They also fear being overwhelmed emotionally in public settings. They keep their loss, and the extent of its impact on them, private.


These repressed feelings often have a negative impact on a child’s ability to concentrate academically. Schonfeld shared a video of a child who was diagnosed as having a learning disability after his father had been murdered, when, in fact, he was challenged to concentrate and learn because of his grief.


“Crisis and loss have a number of impacts on grieving children, including a negative impact on cognitive functioning,” he explained. Absenteeism and social regression may result, which leads to the need to “take time in school to help children adjust to crisis and loss.”


Schonfeld offered a series of examples of things not to say to children who have experienced a loss, including not trying to “cheer up” survivors or “encourage them to be strong or cover their emotions.” Children should be encouraged “to share their emotions,” he avered.


“You should not fear that you feel human emotions; that allows you to connect with people. Showing human emotions is not something you should ever regret.” He counseled caution on sharing one’s personal experiences with a grieving student, for such comments are likely to be considered comparisons and inherently competitive to the aggrieved child.


“You need to allow the child or the parent to be upset and tolerate them,” suspending any judgment. Children’s inherent egocentrism, and their capacity for magical thinking limits their ability to react emotionally to loss, death or crisis.


In almost all instances, children assume they share some guilt for the loss of a loved one, because they are ill-equipped to cope with causality. He therefore encouraged reassuring children that they lack of responsibility for the loss.


Children in communities that experience violence do not get used to the loss of their peers. “Kids don’t get used to loss, they just see it as futile to ask for help,” he said, when they repeatedly experience violent death in their community.


He suggested that valid expressions of support include attending the family’s funeral, being aware of community resources and offering them to the family, such as assigning a mentor to the grieving child, and providing follow up, as grieving is a long-term experience.


Schonfeld addressed the issue of “grief triggers,” which he said are common among grieving students, and can be almost anything that reminds them of the person whom they have lost. Procedures should be set for the student to obtain support, such as calling a parent or being allowed to visit a nurse.


“We need to allow children to deal with their grief in a way that is not emotionally destructive,” he said. “We too need to recognize that it’s distressing for us to witness children who are in distress.”


“It’s an honor and a privilege to care for children when they have experienced loss, he concluded, and encouraged attendees to visit the coalition’s website, www.grievingstudents.org.