Many children will experience the death of a loved one, and naturally this can affect the performance of a child in school. School social workers can play a critical role in helping bereaved children to process their grief. However, the impact of the death of a loved one on a child is often not fully appreciated by school personnel. Children have been called “the forgotten mourners” and too often they do not get the opportunity to express their grief openly.
While there is a great deal of information in various disciplines on grief and loss, there is not as much on how to school social workers can help students who are grieving. In a recent issue of Children and Schools, Lisa Quinn-Lee, PhD, MSSW, LICSW, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, has published her findings in a study she did of school social workers handling situations of grief. The research was aimed specifically at answering this question: what are school social workers’ experiences working with grieving children? She surveyed school social workers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, first asking if they had worked with grieving students. Those who answered affirmatively received follow-up questions.
Dr. Quinn-Lee identified several barriers to efficacy in helping students who are grieving, including resistance from parents, resistance from teachers, a lack of allotted time in the school day, a lack of resources for grieving students, and difficulties in addressing spiritual issues in a secular, public school setting. She discusses these issues and others, and makes suggestions for improvements in practice and research. Specifically she calls for:
- Increases in services for grieving children
- Education of parents and teachers about children’s grief
- A facilitation of communication between community and school social workers
- Collaboration with families
- Informing school social work degree programs about the preparedness of their graduates
- Using the skills of listening, encouraging, and problem solving to help grieving students
- Providing ideas to support the research that states intervention is necessary for grieving children
- Viewing parents and teachers as part of the service delivery system
- Collaborating with teachers
- Addressing the issue of time as a barrier
- Finding creative ways to address spirituality
Overcoming the barriers to effective practice with bereaved children is critical for school social workers. Dr. Quinn-Lee states:
Social workers should be reminded that it is acceptable to not have the answers and that, in fact, they should not have the answers. Instead, they should listen and ask students questions, support them, and keep the dialogue open. They should encourage students to continue talking about spiritual issues and to talk with their family. School social workers can take on roles that best address the needs of bereaved students.