When a school shooting occurs, there are usually grief counselors in place and a variety of support services to help the faculty and students cope with the loss. It is a tragedy of mass proportions that effects the whole community.
But what about the child returning to school, who has suffered a profound, personal loss, such as that of a parent? How does the surviving parent, teachers, school counselor, and administrators help the student readjust to the routine of school, the homework demands, the focus required during this time of deep sadness?
“I think it’s amazing that people often don’t know that there is a school psychologist, nurse, and social worker on staff,” says Sheila Ostrander, MA, NCSP (Nationally Certified School Psychologist). “The schools do an excellent job of communicating that there is a support staff, and who they are, at back to school nights, orientations, and via brochures. However, parents are often overwhelmed with so much information that includes the schedules, curriculum etc.”
Sheila retired in 2007 after 30 years as the school psychologist in the Madison, CT public schools. She is currently one of three therapists at the New Hope Center in Guilford, CT where she works with children from preschool through middle school. She has advanced training in anxiety disorders and is a certified sand play practitioner.
Sheila has lots of valuable suggestions for how adults can help grieving school children in their healing process.
First and foremost, parents need to let the teacher know about the loss before the student returns to school.
“It shouldn’t be a big secret,” she says.
And, the parent or caretaker needs to keep lines of communication open.
“It’s really important to talk to your children—I really want to emphasize listening,” Sheila says. “Sometimes in our desire to protect our children, we’re so quick to find a solution and aren’t really hearing what the problem is [in order] to do problem-solving with the child.”
She gives an example of a child thinking the death was all his or her fault: “I did something wrong, that’s why I’m being punished,” is the magical thinking.
This gives the parent the opportunity to comfort the child and explain that it was the disease or the accident that caused the death, not anything the child did.
The role of the teacher, she says, isn’t to be doing therapy with the child in the classroom, but to acknowledge the death and its impact on the child.
“This may seem obvious, but unfortunately it’s not,” she says. “Not acknowledging is creating such a void for that child—loneliness and isolation.”
Sheila suggests that the teacher can do such things as offer the child some tutoring and allow more time for an assignment.
It’s really important not to push too hard in terms of having a child talk about the death, she advises, and saying something as simple as “I’m so sorry that happened,” can be enough.
She notes that holidays like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day are often acknowledged in the school environment and can be painful for a child whose parent is deceased.
“It’s an opportunity for the teacher to talk to the child about favorite memories of their mom or dad,” she says, and maybe write a poem or story about the parent.
Sheila’s suggestions for grieving adolescents (13 and up) is to understand that they will protest the loss by acting out or withdrawing and that they may feel like life has been unfair to them, which can result in depression and/or regression.
“So, the question becomes, ‘What do you do?’” she says. “You can encourage them to talk, but it’s a careful balance because you shouldn’t be controlling.”
The best things adults can do, she says, is be available, offer lots of listening, and try not to take the teen’s grief away.
She says it’s important for adults to realize withdrawal is normal in the short term after a profound loss, and also to tolerate acting out in the short term, as long as the teen isn’t hurting themselves or someone else.
Re-establishing a routine before school starts in September will help a grieving child—and all children—make an easier transition from the relaxed summer days to the structure of school, Sheila says. She suggests starting an earlier bedtime about two weeks prior to the first day of school, noting that the number of hours of sleep needed for elementary school is 10 hours, middle school is 9 hours, and high school is 8 hours.
She also suggests freeing the bedroom of distractions, noting that
“So many kids are on their tablets and playing video games after they’re in bed at night.”
Having a backpack ready to go in the morning with homework completed and packed will make the a.m. less stressful, she says. And make sure the child eats breakfast.
“It’s mind boggling how many kids go to school without eating breakfast—even if it’s offered,” she says.
When to Seek Professional Help
If the teacher isn’t sure what to do, it’s very appropriate to come to people like myself and say, ‘Here is the situation,what can I do?’” Sheila says. “Then the school social worker, guidance counselor, etc. can meet as a Student Support Team (SST) to talk, brainstorm about what we can do to help.”
Sheila explains that for some bereaved kids, a couple of sessions with a school staff support person, such as the school social worker or psychologist, as well as meeting with the parent, can be very helpful, and may encourage the child to move on to the next step.
But, some kids may start refusing to go to school, display regressive behaviors, start having stomach aches and other aches and pains and end up in the nurse’s office and want to go home.
This is the time, Sheila says, to suggest an outside therapist to the parent. Most communities, she points out, have Youth and Family Services with licensed counselors on staff that can be of assistance to the parent. There are also support groups for grieving children and their families in many communities.
Above all else, Sheila stresses that the most important thing a parent or other adult can do for a grieving child is to have patience.
“It’s a process. It takes time,” she says.
“While parents are going through various stages of grief, for a child, it takes a lot longer, so the tendency for the parent is to want to cheer up the child. And school personnel want to do that, too.”
But, she stresses, “I think to be present for the child, to offer the child a safe environment and a listening voice, is critical.”
“Libraries are great resources for books on grief at different developmental levels,” Sheila says, and a particularly helpful online resource is the National Association of School Psychologists website: www.nasponline.org. Sheila can be contacted at New Hope Center for therapy in Guilford, CT: 203-458-2480 or online, www.newhopeguilford.com.