A review of the literature reveals few articles that deal with social work with grieving children in the public school setting. The purpose of this research is to describe and analyze the services that school social workers provide to grieving children. Grieving children are defined as those who have experienced loss through death of someone significant (e.g., parent, sibling, grandparent, friend). This research addressed the following questions: 1) What are school social workers' experiences working with grieving children? 2) What services are provided? 3) Which interventions do school social workers utilize? 4) To what community resources do school social workers refer grieving students? 5) How prepared do school social workers feel to provide support to grieving children? 6) How and by whom are grieving children identified and assessed? 7) Are other disciplines providing services to grieving children in schools? If so, what services are they providing? and 8) Do barriers exist in providing school social work to grieving students? If yes, what are they?
A purposive sample of 105 school social workers was selected based on the following criteria: (a) currently licensed in Minnesota as a school social worker, (b) currently employed as a school social worker in the Twin Cities, and (c) currently a member of the Minnesota School Social Workers Association. One hundred five school social workers were invited to participate in two parts of the study. Fifty-nine agreed to participate in the preliminary e-mail survey. Subsequently, of the 59, 22 school social workers were interviewed in-person for approximately 45-60 minutes.
This exploratory study required an open-ended, inductive approach using qualitative methods. Interviews were transcribed and coded through NVivo qualitative analysis software. Major codes were developed using the guided interview questions. Constant comparison was also utilized. The data analysis identified four main themes in the responses: (a) barriers to helping grieving students, (b) limitations placed on how grief is defined, (c) social workers' wide range on preparation for dealing with grief and loss issues, and (d) referring grieving students to outside resources. Subthemes were developed under each theme.
School social workers faced various barriers in helping grieving children, including parents' privacy and confidentiality concerns, teachers' lack of support, lack of time, lack of resources, being limited on what can be discussed in public schools related to religion and spirituality, and no private space to meet with students. School social workers reported that the definition of grief encompassed much more than grief over the death of a family member. Grief for children comes in many forms, including death of a parent, death of extended family member, student death, divorce, and pet loss. All school social workers interviewed recognized that they could not be available to students at all times and could not provide all the services that grieving students need. They realized that it was necessary for them to have good referral sources for the students, including various outside agencies and community resources. School social workers are not always receiving the type of training that is necessary to work with grieving students. They believed that they received little preparation in assisting children with grief and loss issues, and that they only received education on this topic if they sought it out themselves and took elective courses or continuing education.
Implications for practice: (1) School social workers' education should include courses that look at the types of grief experienced by children and be provided specific training in how to deal with grief. (2) School districts need to reconsider the budget allotted to hiring school social workers and to the resources they need. School social workers' roles should be expanded so they can respond to new and emerging needs of grieving students. (3) Social workers in the community and social workers in the school should communicate more with each other about their roles in helping grieving children, and this could help decrease duplication of services.