Grief in Schools: A Funder’s National Push to Expand Support for Childhood Bereavement

Syda Productions/shutterstock

Syda Productions/shutterstock

When children lose a loved one for any reason, their grief isn’t just confined to the home and kept within the family. Instead, they carry their grief into schools, where educators are often unequipped to support young students grappling with the implications of death. In fact, a recent survey revealed that only 7 percent of teachers have received bereavement training, despite the fact that about one in 15 kids will experience the death of a parent or sibling before reaching age 18.

When it comes to childhood bereavement, the New York Life Foundation inevitably enters the conversation. This foundation is the largest corporate sponsor of childhood bereavement programs, and in October, it launched a new effort called the Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative (GSSI), a national program that aims to make an impact in K-12 schools all across America.

What sets the initiative apart from New York Life’s past work is that it is specifically addressing the grief training gap in local schools. The funder’s pilot program took on this issue in hundreds of schools in 30 states already, and it’s expected to reach 1,000 schools by the end of the 2018-2019 school year.

So how does this new initiative work in practice?

To start, the New York Life Foundation is training thousands of its own employees and agents to make presentations about childhood grief in schools and share free online resources with educators. These resources also include state-by-state guides to find local grief camps and organizations nearby. Next, if the schools work to become more grief-sensitive and take these training sessions to heart, they have the opportunity to receive $500 grants to support school-wide bereavement efforts.

Taking matters a step beyond the local level, the foundation has also partnered with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement with goals of larger-scale impact. That organization’s director, David Schonfeld, will be working with school districts over the next three years to establish broader district-wide support as the next phase of New York Life’s current commitment. The goal here is to make models of district successes and adopt them nationwide.

Heather Nesle, president of the New York Life Foundation said:

Although student tragedies and acts of violence strike our communities all too often, creating urgent concern around issues of death and grief at school, grief is an issue that educators encounter in the classroom every single day. Our new initiative is designed to empower educators and school community members to act on a critical opportunity to provide support to their grieving students.

New York Life’s interest in student grief isn’t new. The funder established the Coalition to Support Grieving Students back in 2013, and GSSI is an extension of this work. Local teachers have already been using the foundation’s ideas and resources to prepare teachers for grief-related situations, hold group therapy sessions, and offer referrals to social workers as needed.

The foundation is looking for even more schools to support right now, and the process is as simple as making an online pledge and waiting for a New York Life representative to respond and schedule a school presentation. While the grants aren’t huge, they’re highly targeted and accessible; they stand to benefit local children when they need the most support.

Beyond this new initiative, the New York Life Foundation accepts applications for grants by invitation only. Since 1979, the New York Life Foundation has contributed over $250 million to nonprofits in New York and nationwide.