Kim Roppa, a teacher at State Street Elementary School in the Ambridge Area School District, knows what it's like to deal with a child who has experienced the death of a close family member.
"We have these children in our classrooms all of the time, whether it's parents or siblings or grandparents who have passed away. We come across them on a daily basis and they need special care. People tend to think they will bounce back because kids are resilient, but that's not always the case," Ms. Roppa said.
The issue of recognizing and dealing with children's grief is one that is being taken up by the American Federation of Teachers, which recently released the results of an October survey of 1,253 union members nationwide that found that 69 percent reported having at least one student in their class who experienced the death of a close friend, parent or sibling in the past year.
However just 7 percent reported receiving any formal training on the topic of childhood bereavement.
"The fact is our society is uncomfortable with death and grief, particularly that of a child. Kids are quick to pick up on that. So they suffer in silence, but that creates emotional difficulties," said Maeve Ward, vice president of Hart Research Associates, which conducted the study.
One in 7 Americans report losing a parent or sibling by age 20, a major factor in why the AFT is now embarking on an awareness and training campaign surrounding the issue of childhood grief.
In addition to the national teleconference in December in which it shared its survey results, the union has been piloting training presentations in San Francisco and Charlotte County, Fla., and has one planned for New York City after recovery efforts from Superstorm Sandy are complete.
Three more districts will be chosen in the fall with the hope that the initial presentations can lead to a training program that can be used long term in any school, said Tom Lansworth, an AFT spokesman.
"I think this will be very helpful for teachers and very valuable training," said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. She said it also fits with Pittsburgh teachers' desire to have more training on community and parent outreach.
Based on teacher responses to the AFT survey, students who experience the death of a parent or guardian are more likely to face emotional challenges, are prone to anxiety or loneliness, often need more support in school, and lack a sufficient support network to deal with their grief. They also tend to have more difficulty concentrating in class, higher absentee rates and experience a decrease in the quality of their schoolwork and frequency of completing homework.
In Pittsburgh Public Schools, while no formal grief training for teachers has been held, each building has at least one social worker or counselor available, said Linda Voytko, a licensed clinical social worker at Sunnyside PreK-8 in Stanton Heights. She said schools are often notified about a death in the family by a parent or guardian. But in some cases, the school is not notified.
She said the district's students services department has created an online and hard copy tool kit for teachers to use to identify students who may be experiencing grief and other emotional difficulties but are reluctant to talk about it. Students identified are referred to a counselor or social worker and a supportive plan is put in place.
At Sunnyside, students having emotional difficulties receive what is called a "free pass," which they can show to teachers where they are feeling overwhelmed. The pass allows them to leave the classroom and to visit with designated professionals in the building who can help them through the difficult time or simply allow them to "hang out or cry or just be still" until they are ready to get back to the learning environment, Ms. Voytko said.
In the Ambridge Area School District, all schools have an ongoing relationship with the Highmark Caring Place, which was founded in Pittsburgh in 1997 to help grieving children. Ambridge children and their families use its services at a satellite office in Warrendale and students in the district participate in fundraising and training activities with the caring place.
Terese Vorsheck, director of the Highmark Caring Place, said her organization has partnerships with 471 schools across the state and 235 in the Pittsburgh region.
"We work directly with the schools on many levels. We work to raise awareness in the schools on the impact of death on children and what schools can do to help them," Ms. Vorsheck said.
She said students deal differently with their grief at different ages.
"At the elementary level, a child will be concerned about more concrete things like 'where did that person go?' and 'who is going to take care of me, who will cook my breakfast?' At the high school level, they understand the impact of death in the present and the fact that they may have to help the surviving parent out more. They also understand about the impact in the future -- that Mom won't be there for my wedding or the birth of my child."
Children who lose one parent often become worried that something will happen to their surviving parent as well, and "they need to have some constant reassuring about that," Ms. Vorsheck said.
When it comes to student peer interaction, Caring Place staffers recommend that children simply continue to be a friend to those who have lost a loved one rather than avoiding them because they are uncertain of what to say or do.
"We tell the kids the most important thing is to not worry about what they might say. It's more important to let your friend know that you are there and are willing to listen if they want to talk," Ms. Vorsheck said.
"Grief is a natural reaction to death. If we don't have some outlet for that it will build up and come out in other ways. For children, it can be acting out in school or home," Ms. Vorsheck said.
For children who experience a loss at a young age, grief often resurfaces throughout their lives at significant events such as graduations, marriages, births of children or when it's time to learn to drive or leave for college. "It comes back to them that Dad is not there to teach them to drive," Ms. Vorsheck said. "Grief is a lifelong process."
On Nov. 15, the Downtown Highmark Caring Place marked the fifth annual Childrens Grief Awareness Day by erecting a whiteboard on an outside wall on Stanwix Street as an outlet for those who have suffered a loss to write a message to their loved one.
People of all ages have left messages expressing their love for deceased parents and grandparents and announcing such accomplishments as graduation or decisions on a college major. The messages portray raw emotion. One note asks a parent to forgive the child for never measuring up to expectations by "not being the kid you wanted." Another reads: "If I could tell you one more thing, it would be 'I love you, Mom, and miss you every single day.' "
Mary Niederberger: email@example.com or 412-263-1590.