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Unions and district collaborate to help grieving children

Teachers and support staff in the Charlotte County (Fla.) Public Schools, along with principals, counselors, psychologists and representatives of community agencies and organizations, came together on Aug. 21-22 to learn more about helping grieving children.

Over the two days, teams from each of the district's schools, centers and support departments participated in training led by Dr. David J. Schonfeld, an internationally recognized authority on children's needs during times of loss and the director of the Cincinnati-based National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB).

The Charlotte County training is the first of three programs around the country planned this fall by the AFT and the NCSCB as they launch a two-year project to extend the reach of techniques developed by Schonfeld to support children adjusting to a death in the family and other personal losses.

"We know that children facing such a crisis often turn to their teachers and other school staff for support," says Patrick Keegan, president of the Charlotte Florida Education Association (CFEA). "Most educators have very limited training and experience in helping grieving children. This program is a great opportunity to be better prepared to assist the kids in our classrooms."

The training program was organized by the CFEA, which represents the district's teachers, and the Charlotte County Support Personnel Association (CCSPA), the support staff union. The two AFT affiliates collaborated with the school district to schedule the program and arrange for substitutes to fill in for those in training.

"We're trying to involve everyone in the school system who works with students. Classroom assistants, bus drivers, food service staff can all be part of the support network for children trying to cope with personal loss," says Bonnie Bistarkey, president of the CCSPA.

During the training, teams of principals, counselors, teachers and staff from each school attended sessions led by Schonfeld, who heads developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, where NCSCB is located. He has worked on issues involving pediatric bereavement and children in crisis for 25 years, and he started a program at Yale in 1991 that led to establishing the national center in 2005.

"The goal of this project is to create a culture of understanding in schools, where addressing the needs of grieving students is seen as part of the professional role of educators and other school personnel," Schonfeld says. "The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement is collaborating with the AFT to enhance the professional development of teachers and other school staff so they can better support children dealing with personal loss."

Charlotte County school officials say they welcomed the opportunity to work with teachers and support staff to present the training. "Grieving children," says CCPS superintendent Douglas Whittaker, "become distracted by their loss and find it difficult to learn or focus on assignments and tests. It's great for all of the adults in the school setting to be working together to help our students through these situations, to focus on our mission of student success."

The project between the AFT and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement will present two more training programs this fall—one in San Francisco and the other in New York City. Their work won the backing of the New York Life Foundation, which is active in supporting programs to help grieving children.

"A recent survey of bereaved children revealed what an important role teachers and school personnel play in helping to restore balance to a child's life. At the same time, we hear that teachers seek training and resources on how best to serve bereaved children," says Chris Park, president of the New York Life Foundation. "The training offered by the AFT and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement will provide teachers and school personnel with critical resources needed to help students as they struggle to cope with the death of someone close to them. The New York Life Foundation is pleased to be the supporter of this program."

Teachers and staff participating in the training will carry what they have learned back to their schools, where they will present an overview of the presentations and distribute resource materials during meetings with their colleagues. [AFT press release]

August 22, 2012