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Grief Counseling in Elementary Schools

by Kathryn Rateliff Barr

A school grief counselor assists students and staff to cope with loss -- usually loss on a large scale, but sometimes at an individual level. Grief can impact elementary students and staff through a local or national event. When a school chum dies in an accident or succumbs to a fatal illness, her classmates might mourn the loss together. The death of a beloved teacher or administrator could impact an entire school.

Events Triggering Grief

Most kids will experience grief through the loss of a friend or family member by the time they graduate high school, and approximately 5 percent will lose a parent by age 16, according to the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. A friend or family member could die due to natural causes, accidents, suicide or murder, or the child could lose the individual through divorce, incarceration or a move. In some areas, elementary children are familiar with gang violence although loss never becomes commonplace, according to the NCSCB. Newsworthy events, such as school shootings, can also trigger grief and fear in children far removed from the actual event, according to Julie Kaplow, director of the Trauma and Grief Clinic for Youth at the University of Michigan. A school grief counselor is prepared to deal with these events and other causes of grief.

How Grief Counselors Respond

If the grief counselor knows that a child or a group of children and staff is experiencing grief, the counselor can alert school staff to be prepared for signs of grief. She could meet with faculty and administration prior to school to establish a plan that includes a quiet place to send grieving students and a visit to the classroom to talk to students and teachers as a unit. The grief counselor lets the grieving student know "It's OK to be sad because someone is gone or dead. You can talk about it and cry. You might even be angry because the person is gone. All these feelings are normal when you lose someone you love." The counselor will send home letters to let parents know if she has talked to their child individually and if the grief relates to the death of a classmate or school staff, according to the NCSCB. If the family notified the school of a student’s loss, the counselor will let the family know if the student shows signs that he isn’t handling things well.

Grieving Children

Elementary students usually accept death as final, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. A grieving child could act out, withdraw, exhibit anxiety or depression, become angry or aggressive, have difficulty concentrating and coping with emotions, and grades could drop. If the child exhibits extreme fear, refusal to attend school, difficulty eating or sleeping, a desire to die or a deep drop in academic performance, the counselor could recommend additional counseling for the student or the family.

Additional Support

If your child experiences a serious loss, you can call the school and notify the grief counselor. The counselor could notify your child’s teacher and necessary staff so they can offer appropriate support. If the school offers grief support groups, your child could attend a group that speaks to his specific type of grief. You might also receive referrals for family support and a list of reading material to help you better support your child.

About the Author

Rev. Kathryn Rateliff Barr has taught birth, parenting, vaccinations and alternative medicine classes since 1994. She is a pastoral family counselor and has parented birth, step, adopted and foster children. She holds bachelor's degrees in English and history from Centenary College of Louisiana. Studies include midwifery, naturopathy and other alternative therapies.

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