Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Educational Studies


College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Doyle Stevick

Second Advisor

Peter Moyi


This study employed qualitative methods to learn what understandings, practices, and interventions were used by educators from one elementary school to support bereaved children in the classroom and as members of a school community. Educators reported uncertainty about how children grieve, how to talk with children about a deceased parent, how to talk with the bereaved child’s peers about parental death, and how to balance the bereaved child’s emotional and academic needs. Educators were also uncertain about how to recognize and intervene when a parental death was remote in time and the child’s grief response was attenuated (e.g., anxiety, disengagement, diminished self-efficacy). Even though instructional decisions were not grounded in a firm understanding of childhood bereavement or resiliency research, interventions created a culture of caring, communicated high expectations, encouraged engagement, and provided the bereaved child meaningful and successful opportunities to participate in the school community.

These educators drew upon their own grief journeys, their experiences as parents, and their understandings of the grief experiences of others when making decisions about how to support a bereaved child. Educators reported that they observed grieving children, made decisions intended to minimize grief responses and encourage students to re-engage in learning. Educators vigilantly observed bereaved students, looking for emotional struggle and healing. When distress was observed, educators adjusted the learning environment to provide “just enough” support to allow the student to use his or her own resources to re-engage in learning. When the child began to successfully navigate through instructional tasks independently, teachers seamlessly withdrew from the interaction, but remained vigilant and ready to intervene again. These teaching moves occurred within a finely tuned synchronicity between teacher and student.

Both school principals led educators to develop a shared vision that it was both the school’s and each educator’s personal responsibility to actively respond to the emotional needs of its students. Additionally, through the implementation of a school-wide positive behavior intervention program, educators encouraged students to value caring behavior and discourage uncaring behavior. Educators also explicitly taught social skills and coping strategies, developing a strong school-wide culture of caring among students, families, and staff.


© 2013, Sandra Kerr Ray