The Total Child

Back to School: Remember That Transitions Can Be Tough for Grieving Students

(National Awareness) Permanent link


 A guest post by Dr. Tom Demaria from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, who develops a number of topical articles on bereavement for the Coalition to Support Grieving Students. 

Summer break is ending. Students are returning to school with a range of feelings and reactions. Some are delighted to be back in the social world of friends. Others are apprehensive about their upcoming classes. Some are excited to mark one more step forward as they grow and mature, especially if they’re moving up to middle or high school.

In all of the bustle of the year’s start, one group that can easily be overlooked is students who are grieving the loss of a parent, sibling or other close family member or friend. Most education professionals would expect children with a recent loss to face some challenges in their academic focus. However, the ongoing experience of grief is often less recognized.

Here are three key features to remember about grief over time for children and teens.

  1. Grief proceeds on its own terms. Grief does not end at a fixed point. In many ways, children never get over a significant loss. It is a life-changing event.
  2. As children grow and develop, normal transitions and changes in their lives will remind them of their loss. A boy in elementary school whose father died may miss him acutely years later as he enters puberty. A girl navigating the new social intricacies of high school may wish more than ever for the guidance and advice of her mother who died several years prior. As grieving children see peers enjoying support from families, they may feel their loss deeply, even years after the death occurred.
  3. As children develop, they become more capable of understanding and adjusting to their loss. As time passes, the work of grieving becomes less difficult and requires less energy. It begins as a full-time job, but becomes more of a part-time effort that allows other meaningful experiences to occur. Grieving lasts a lifetime, but it does not need to consume a life.

An Ideal Time to Make a Difference

 The beginning of the school year is an ideal juncture for education professionals to remind themselves of steps that can help recognize and support grieving students over time. 

  1. Teach about death and grief. Use developmentally appropriate lessons about death and grief to normalize the experience of grief for all students. Talk about losses that have impacted the community. Such lessons and discussions also help peers understand how to offer appropriate support to grieving students.
  2. Offer options for family activities. Many students do not have a parent to turn to for family-based homework activities. This can be due to death, divorce, military deployment, a parent in prison, mental illness in a parent or other reasons. Always offer options—“Talk to your parent or another adult you know and trust. If you’d like any help identifying someone to talk to for this assignment, please see me.”
  3. Recognize that grieving children are often more vulnerable at times of transition. This can be the start of the school year (new teachers, new classmates, new classroom). It can involve a change in schools or a change in the family—someone moving in or out. It can include the changes of puberty, the start of dating or a breakup with a romantic partner. If you’ve been working with a grieving student who is transitioning to a new school, ask the student and parents if they would like you to notify the new school of the circumstances. Often, this creates a safer and more welcoming setting for the student. Families may appreciate being relieved of the need to contact the new school about the student’s situation. If you learn that one of your new students has experienced a death, reach out early in the year. Acknowledge that this can sometimes create challenges for students and let the student know you’re available to talk, or listen, if any concerns arise.
  4. Support high school juniors and seniors in their college and career aspirations. After a death, teens may hesitate to move forward with plans to go to college, join the military or attend a trade school. They may feel the family needs them nearby. Sometimes they are expected to contribute financially to the family. While there is no single “correct” solution in these situations, the support of a trusted teacher or other school professional who can listen to a student’s concerns can be invaluable.

When educators make the effort to be available to grieving students in these ways, they have the opportunity to experience some of the most rewarding moments within their profession.

The Coalition to Support Grieving Students was convened by the New York Life Foundation, a pioneering advocate for the cause of childhood bereavement, and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, which is led by pediatrician and childhood bereavement expert David J. Schonfeld, M.D. The Coalition has worked with Scholastic Inc., a long-standing supporter of teachers and kids, to create, a groundbreaking, practitioner-oriented website designed to provide educators with the information, insights, and practical advice they need to better understand and meet the needs of the millions of grieving kids in America’s classrooms. 


School-Based Health Providers Celebrate National Health Center Week

(National Awareness) Permanent link

Andrea Shore, Director of Programs at the School-Based Health Alliance wrote this week’s guest post on National Health Center Week. The post focuses on Outside In, a community health organization dedicated to serving young people who are at risk of homelessness, alienation and school failure, that sponsors the school-based health center in Milwaukie High School in North Clackamas School District in Oregon.

 Jenn’s pretty pumped about going back to school. Every August brings the promise of a new school year—an opportunity to get caught up with returning students and meet the newcomers. Jenn is a nurse practitioner at Milwaukie High School in North Clackamas School District ( Ore.) The high school’s health center is sponsored by Outside In, a community health organization dedicated to serving young people who are at risk of homelessness, alienation, and school failure. The center provides care for the entire student body—everything from sports physicals and immunizations to birth control and food insecurity screens. Jenn provides counseling, guidance, mentoring, and healing in a setting that’s familiar, friendly, and safe for Milwaukie High students. It’s a setting that guarantees unparalleled access to health care for some of the most underserved and high-need young people. And it’s a setting Jenn wouldn’t trade for anything.

As teachers and students prepare to kick off a new school year this month, so too are thousands of school-based health center (SBHC) providers like Jenn. SBHCs are a powerful investment in the health and academic potential of children and adolescents. They provide comprehensive primary care and mental health care (and sometimes even dental services!) in an environment that students trust: their school. By being located on school grounds, SBHCs embed themselves in the lives of the children and adolescents and are a mission-critical partner with the school, not just a guest in the building.

 The model has a long—and growing—history of support from community health centers like Outside In. According to our 2013-14 Census, 43% of SBHCs are sponsored by federally qualified health centers (FQHC). The unique partnership between our nation’s community health centers and public schools are transforming schools into hubs of wellness, socialization, emotional development, and leadership.

“Our mission to educate is incredibly enriched by our long-time partnership with Outside In,” said Mark Pinder, the Principal at Milwaukie High. “And it’s been amazing for the students, many of whom have never been to a doctor, dentist, or mental health counselor.” By providing an array of services directly on campus, the health center helps Milwaukie High students feel supported at school—and that translates to higher academic achievement. The proof is in the outcomes, and Pinder reports the attendance and graduation rates have been climbing steadily. Most impressive, I think, is that the achievement gap that is so often associated with socioeconomic status and race has all but evaporated in this high-poverty school.

 The School-Based Health Alliance celebrates National Health Center Week by saluting Outside In, and the thousands of health center staff working in 2,300+ public schools across the nation. These advocates bring hope and healing to the asthmatic student who can’t breathe, the opioid drug user who’s on the brink of academic failure, the chronically-absent teen whose mom died recently, and the young girl who courageously reveals abuse by family members.

 I thank you for your tireless efforts to ensure that all children and teens can thrive in the classroom—and in life.

 If any education leaders are interested in how to create a school-health partnership, visit our website for more information.

EQUITY SERIES: Together for Tomorrow – A Partnership Designed for Student Success

(National Awareness, Equity Series) Permanent link

The following guest post was written by Donald A. Murk, PhD, Chair of the Education Department and Professor of Early Childhood Education at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. He is beginning his 35th year at the college.

Dr. Murk writes about the Together for Tomorrow Project, and how it has impacted Downey Elementary School in Harrisburg School District (PA). Dr. Sybil Knight-Burney, Superintendent of this school district, is an AASA member.

 We learned about TFT at the  June 2016 “Every Student, Every Day National Conference: Eliminating Chronic Absenteeism by Implementing and Strengthening Cross-Sector Systems of Support for All Students,” sponsored by the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice.  

AASA Children’s Programs Department organized and moderated a panel at this conference entitled Together for Tomorrow: Top Down Leadership to Address Chronic Absenteeism. This panel featured AASA member Dr. Sybil Knight-Burney, superintendent of Harrisburg School District (PA), alongside Mr. Travis Peck, principal at Downey Elementary and this week’s guest poster, Dr. Donald Murk. Department member, Kayla Jackson, moderated this session.

(Pictured L-R): Travis Peck, Principal, Downey School, Harrisburg, Pa.; Dr. Donald Murk, Chair, Department of Education and Professor of Early Childhood Education, Messiah College, Mechanicsburg, Pa.; Kayla Jackson, Project Director, AASA, Alexandria, Va; Dr. Sybil Knight-Burney, Superintendent, Harrisburg School District, Harrisburg, Pa..

By Donald A. Murk, PhD

 If the future of this nation is to be secure, we must all come together on behalf of the children (Boyer, 1991)** 

School reform/renewal is a hot topic in education. What helps failing schools improve? How do we get children engaged in their learning? How do we get the community involved in public education? Research suggests that partnerships between schools and nearby universities/colleges are one way toward reaching these goals.

The partnership described in this article has been in the making for 34 years. You see, I did my student teaching at Downey in 1978/79. Some might say the stars aligned, or that the timing was right.. However you define it, this dynamic partnership benefits all parties and the excitement from the teachers, parents, and students is contagious. Businesses, churches, and individuals are beginning to recognize the power of this partnership and want to be connected.

 Togetherfortmrw logo

 Together for Tomorrow (TFT) is a national initiative of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships together with the U.S. Department of Education and the Corporation for National and Community Services (CNCS) that recognizes community-led partnerships to support struggling schools. TFT is aimed at changing the relationship between schools and community partners so everyone feels a shared responsibility to improve low-performing schools. At the heart of this effort are three key goals:

  1. Celebrate and inspire community and family engagement in education and strengthen a community culture of education success;
  2.  Foster the capacity of low-performing schools to manage school-community partnerships; and
  3.  Focus community partnerships on boosting key measurable student outcomes – Attendance, Behavior, Course performance, and College access (the ABCs) – as a means to improve low-performing schools.

Our local initiative is a collaboration between Messiah College (Mechanicsburg, Pa.), Harrisburg School District and Downey Elementary School (Harrisburg, Pa.). This partnership would not be possible without the support of Dr. Sybil Knight-Burney, Superintendent of the Harrisburg School District, Mr. Travis Peck, Principal at Downey, and the Harrisburg Public Schools Foundation.

 Downey Elementary is the first Harrisburg site for TFT . Teachers lead three focal point groups so that they are able to ensure the TFT efforts are supporting student achievement. The development of initiative objectives with help from students, parents, and the community, are focused on boosting key measurable student outcomes, closing the achievement gap and supporting overall student success. The focal point groups contain talented individuals who wish to support the effort through attributes in their field of involvement. There is a steering committee of Downey School representatives from each focal point group. Student Achievement is the main goal of the TFT initiative. By participating in the decision making process, students are empowered to become leaders who are aware of their importance and contribution in society.

 The community partnerships that are being established will help to strengthen the school. As the community becomes involved in the school, more opportunities will open up for the students. Not simply monetarily, but through community involvement in the school through mentoring and classroom participation.

 Downey is also a “Leader in Me” school and the habits fit well into the goals of the school. The Leader in Me is Franklin Covey’s whole school transformation process. It teaches 21st century leadership and life skills to students and creates a culture of student empowerment based on the idea that every child can be a leader. The 7 Habits is a synthesis of universal, timeless principles of personal and interpersonal effectiveness, such as responsibility, vision, integrity, teamwork, collaboration and renewal, which are secular in nature and common to all people and cultures.

 Measuring success is difficult. People want dramatic results. Here are a few measurements that show improvement.

  •  Parent teacher conferences went from 35% participation in 2013 to 80% in 2016;
  •  Over 1800 parents/guardians attended various school events this year;
  •  Discipline referrals are down, and attendance is up (92.3%);
  •  Teacher morale is at an all- time high;
  • The news media is reporting the positive instead of the negative; and
  •  Students are excited about coming to school and more importantly, they are excited about learning!

Innovative and exciting things are happening at Downey. I cannot wait to see the promise of success for the new school year!


** Citation: Boyer, Ernest Ready to Learn: A Mandate for the Nation. New Jersey: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1991.