Catching Up With Nationally Renowned Grief Expert Dr. David Schonfeld

Note: The New York Life Foundation has worked with Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and a leading childhood grief expert, on several initiatives to raise awareness and understanding of the needs of grieving children across the country. In this Q&A, we explore some of Dr. Schonfeld’s most recent activity and plans for the Center.

You run the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. What is the center’s mission and primary focus?

The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB) aims to promote an appreciation of the role that schools and school professionals can play in supporting students, staff and families at times of crisis and loss. In the aftermath of a crisis event and/or when children experience the death of someone close to them, their learning, behavior, and development may be significantly affected. The importance of schools to be prepared to assiststudents in the aftermath of these events remains an urgent and growing need. In order to help schools become better prepared to meet this need, as well as to respond effectively in the aftermath of a crisis event, the NCSCBprovides a range of consultation and technical support services, training, and educational resources through a team of medical, mental health, and school professionals.

Last year, the Center moved to the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work. What difference has that made for the Center’s work?

After conducting a national search, we chose the USC School of Social Work as the Center’s new home because of the strong alignment of mission, USC’s desire and capacity to support the Center’s growth and widening reach, and the institution’s strong academic environment. While continuing and growing our service delivery, we are now able to accelerate the growth of our research, academic, and training components. The Center has felt strongly that we do our best work when we work behind the scenes – helping schools and school districts develop the internal capacity to support its own students and staff – but a goal of the coming year is to let more people know about our work so that we can have greater impact nationally and internationally. USC will provide us that opportunity.

Together with New York Life, you’ve led the efforts of the Coalition to Support Grieving Students to make grief resources available to educators across the country. Please share some of the ways the Coalition has been able to reach educators over the past year.

The Coalition to Support Grieving Students is a unique collaboration of the major K–12 professional organizations, collectively representing more than 4.5 million school professionals. With the Coalition, the NCSCB has createdthe practitioner–oriented website, launched in January 2015, which provides free, comprehensive, video–based training modules, handouts and reference materials geared toward empowering schools in their ongoing support of grieving students. This year, the Coalition members and Center have continued the process of making all school professionals aware of these important resources through vehicles including members’ professional meetings, publications, and organizational communications.

You also recently consulted on the Amazon TV series Gortimer Gibbons' Life on Normal Street. What message does the show impart about childhood grief?

The show contacted me when they decided to have one of the main characters experience the sudden death of a parent. I consulted with the creative team so that they could develop a story arc that realistically illustrated not only how children grieve, but also how peers and adults can provide effective support over time. The death of someone close to you may occur in seconds, but adjusting to that loss spans a lifetime. They approached the topic directly with honesty and sensitivity and allowed the characters (and their audience) to deal with the loss throughout the season. One of the episodes in the story arc won the 2016 Writers Guild Award for a children’s episode.

You are often called on for expert guidance following a tragedy at school (such as a shooting). What are some of the first steps you suggest educators take in the wake of a school tragedy?

We often help support school leaders and other school professionals in the difficult role of leading in the midst of crisis and in supporting children and adults who are distressed. We remind them that although people are likely to remain upset, there is still a lot they can do to provide critical support that will assist in both short- and long-term recovery. We help them figure out how to best stabilize the situation, bring the school community and local community together to create an effective recovery strategy, anticipate and minimize challenges to the adjustment of students, staff, and community members over time, and identify the resources needed to implement the recovery plan. We remain engaged with the school system throughout the recovery period – often spanning many years.

As children head back to school in the upcoming weeks, what advice would you offer to teachers and other educators who find themselves with a new grieving student in their classroom?

Educators have told us clearly that the primary reason they don’t identify and support their grieving students is that they don’t know what to say or how to help. Our goal is not to prepare teachers to provide bereavement counseling, but rather to provide support to grieving students and their families – a skillset that can be easily learned with limited training and support. Educators should acknowledge their students’ loss; demonstrate empathy; and offer educational and other supports to minimize the negative impact of bereavement on learning. For those students who would benefit from additional resources and assistance, educators can help identify other professionals in the school and community who can provide further support.