A weekend interview with Dr. David J. Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement
Tampa area schools have experienced several tragedies in the past few weeks, among them a suicide and a death still under investigation at Pasco Sunlake High, the murder of two New Tampa siblings who attended Hillsborough Liberty Middle and King High, and a traffic-related death of a Pasco Mitchell High student. Counselors headed to the schools to support students and staff members who were hit hard by the news. Dr. David J. Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about how schools cope with sad events.
Are there dos and and don'ts when it comes to dealing with a crisis in a school?
Well, there are some preferred ways of doing it. ... The overarching issue is that schools are communities, and when there is a significant loss of a member of the community, or when there are significant crises or losses impacting members of the community even if the disaster is outside their area, schools need to come together and provide a venue for supporting children. It goes to informing them, helping them understand it, providing support and assistance, and helping them cope. What you shouldn't be doing is ignoring it or pretending it doesn't impact them. There is plenty of research and a lot of experience that says it is very difficult for children to pay attention and to learn and progress in their educational course if they are grieving unsupported, or if they are dealing with a crisis event.
When I talked to a couple of teachers, they said that their students ... were just sitting in their classroom with their iPod headphones on, not paying attention with tears running down their cheeks. Is that what we need to do, just let them let it out? Is that really letting it out?
Well, I don't think it's useful to sit in class with your iPod on. I'm not suggesting that you just allow them individually to deal with this in a group setting while you're teaching something that is not related. I think more what you need to do is see that school communities have the capacity to help children understand and cope with this as a group. Part of this is that schools need to address these issues.
Not talking about a crisis or a loss actually says a lot. It says either that you think the children aren't impacted by it, which is not the case, or that they are unable or unwilling to cope with it, which we would not want to be the case, or that the school and its staff is unaware or unable to figure out how to provide assistance, which also isn't a good message. And so when things of high importance happen to kids and it's very relevant to their everyday life, we need to have schools step in and provide assistance otherwise the schools become irrelevant to the lives of children. We don't want that, either.
Is it enough to just send counselors and say, go see them if you need to?
No. I think part of it is there should be, generally, some message that comes from the school. For example, if there's been the death of a member of the school community, that there be notification usually by teachers in classrooms as opposed to large assemblies or the P.A. system, which are quite impersonal. ... And that there be some opportunity to help the children understand what happened and share some ideas with each other about how to cope with that, and that there be some offer of assistance and support that come with that. I don't think it's just, go to a counselor and deal with it, because if it's affecting the whole school then that would mean everyone would have to go, and so the question would be, why don't you do it in the classroom? Beyond some of the general discussions It's not appropriate for teachers to provide counseling ... but we are suggesting that teachers learn more about how to be supportive to children. ...
How is it different when you are dealing with an elementary vs. a high school?
Children's capacity to understand is less at younger ages. But to be quite honest, elementary school aged children are capable of understanding death. They are able to benefit from support provided to others, and to offer support. Twenty-five years ago I did a project on prekindergarten to second graders' understanding of death and school based interventions. I taught a curriculum to kids starting in prekindergarten. And what was striking was that these kids actually wanted to discuss this. They were eager for the presentations. They actually did have a teacher who they thought had a heart attack, who was in the ICU during the middle of the project. And I didn't want to go in and teach the lesson that day, but the school said No, you definitely need to. They need to talk about this. And they actually brought in the kids who weren't in the project ... because now they needed it, too. And the kids wanted to talk about it. And the ones who had been through the previous lessons were at such a different place than the other kids. ... They were able to talk about, I felt guilty, they had concerns, how they could provide support to her. And the rest of the kids who hadn't participated in the discussions before were at a real disadvantage in trying to catch up.
We had one situation where the mother killed her two children. That's been a big discussion here for the whole community. Do you have to deal with that differently in the schools than, say, if a student had been hit by a car?
Different types of events obviously raise different questions for children. The issue is, if it's publicly known, if it's in the public domain, then the children have already heard about it. Not to discuss it isn't helpful, because it doesn't change the reality of what happened. And it doesn't change the fact that they know about it and are wondering what it means for them personally and what to do about it. You do of course say different things in different situations. ... But in all of those situations it needs to be addressed. I've heard of people who remember from their own childhood being at an assembly and the principal was speaking and had a heart attack and died on the stage. And nobody talked about it. It was witnessed by the entire student body, and they didn't even mention it afterward. Now that is a horrible lesson for children. It suggests that you could die in front of everyone and no one would even talk about it. It's an extremely powerful and horrible message for kids to hear.
We've progressed beyond that. Now we do more to acknowledge what happened. But I think that it's uncomfortable when upsetting things happen. And being with children when they are in distress is distressing, so it's understandable that adults don't readily embrace the opportunity to be with grieving children. But if you don't talk with them about how they're feeling, it doesn't change their feelings. It just makes them deal with their feelings alone. ...
Is this something that schools can get over? Or is it something that lingers for a very long time?
What I tell people is that major disasters or crises are life changing events. So that's what they do, they change your life. You don't get over them. I don't know if really you get past them. You learn to incorporate them and move forward with your life. That's life changing events, whether they're good or bad. ... When kids have major losses or there are major disasters or crisis events, we always revisit it, we always try to come to a better understanding of it. We just had the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster and people were talking about that experience. For most people, they just watched something in the sky. It didn't have that much direct impact on them. But if one of your classmates is murdered, that is going to have an impact on you. And you will revisit that when other difficult events happen in your life or as you get older and understand things more. ...
And what I will say is, although these are some very important tragedies, you also have to appreciate that kids come to school every single day with personal tragedies. And they've had personal losses. Probably 90 percent of kids have experienced the loss of someone close to them by the time they have finished high school. Death is a universal experience and what you do also find out is that when one death occurs or one crisis occurs, it uncovers for kids and also for adults concurrent stressors and prior losses. I went into one school where there was a shooting and I was talking with teachers and one teacher started sobbing during a workshop with teachers on how to talk to the kids. And she disclosed that she had miscarried 20 years ago. She hadn't shared it before. These kids may be talking about a parent that shot someone and thinking about their mother who might die from cancer. And the school might not even be aware of that. ...
Are these things that schools should be asking about?
In general what you want to do is create an environment where children feel comfortable coming forward when they are having personal issues that are impacting their day to day functioning. That doesn't mean, again, that the teacher is going to provide counseling on this, but might be able to say, I'm so sorry your brother was in a car accident. Let me refer you to someone for counseling. ... I am not suggesting that at the beginning of each day everyone share the worst thing that has happened to them. ... We have to realize that loss and crisis impacts kids. And we tend to underestimate how much it does because we don't give them license to talk about it or show it.