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Sandy Hook students return, putting spotlight on need to help children cope (+video)

Counselors are at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but a survey finds that 93 percent of US teachers say they’ve never received training on how to support students who have lost a loved one.

By Staff writer / January 3, 2013

A woman hugs a child before he boards a bus on the first day of classes after the holiday break, in Newtown, Conn., Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. Children from Sandy Hook Elementary School returned to school Thursday in the neighboring town of Monroe.

Jessica Hill/AP

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Mental-health counselors are just a few steps away if children are struggling as they start school Thursday at the new Sandy Hook Elementary School location.

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But for thousands of students across America who have lost a loved one recently, help with grief is not so easy to come by.

About 7 out of 10 teachers report having a student who has lost a parent, guardian, sibling, or close friend in the past year, according to an early December survey by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the New York Life Foundation. Yet 93 percent of teachers say they’ve never received training on how to support bereaved students.

Many children “carry grief alone,” says David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement in Cincinnati, who is one of the survey authors. While teachers can’t be expected to be grief counselors, he says, “helping students understand how to cope with [loss] is a role schools can play.”

About 9 out of 10 teachers say there should be more training for educators to support grieving students.

They see the effects of grief on their students. Two-thirds of teachers say that students who have lost a parent or guardian experience a setback academically: Typically, they have difficulty concentrating and are absent from school more. Many teachers also observe these students becoming depressed, withdrawn, or angry, and about a third of teachers see increased behavioral problems.

Teachers that have received bereavement training are more likely to communicate with a parent or guardian, collaborate with other staff to help a grieving student, and refer students to community resources.

Nearly half of teachers say students come to them wondering how to respond to a classmate who is grieving.

“Loss can separate a student from peers just at a time when children desperately feel the need to fit in,” said Susan Kitchell, a nurse at Galileo Academy of Science & Technology in San Francisco, in a press release about the survey. But “[e]ducators can play an important role ... by helping friends and classmates understand what is happening.” Ms. Kitchell helped coordinate bereavement training in San Francisco as part of an AFT-New York Life project to expand such training.

On Wednesday, many Sandy Hook students and parents attended an open house at their repurposed school building in nearby Monroe, Conn.

Vinny Alvarez thanked his third-grade daughter’s teacher for locking her classroom door and keeping the children in a corner during the Dec. 14 mass shooting, the Associated Press reports. “The fear kind of kicks back in a little bit, but we're very excited for her and we got to see many, many kids today. The atmosphere was very cheerful,” he said.

Both the AFT and New York Life offer free resources for educators and other adults who want guidance in helping children cope with grief (go to  http://go.aft.org/bereavement and www.AChildInGrief.com). Another resource is the Children’s Grief Education Association.

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