TEACHER INTERVENTION WITH ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILDREN
IN DEATH-RELATED SITUATIONS:
AN EXPLORATORY STUDY
Trudie L. Atkinson
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Trudie L. Atkinson
I am indebted to a great number of persons for the successful
completion of this research. Primarily, I am grateful to the many
hundreds of teachers in New Orleans schools who participated in this
study and to the many other teachers with whom I have been associated
over the years. They have provided the inspiration and motivation to
plan and execute the work. I trust that the results will provide similar
inspiration for them in their continuing work with children.
I wish to thank Ellen Amatea, Larry Loesch and Hannelore Wass who,
as members of my supervisory committee, taught me invaluable lessons
about precision in thinking and writing. I could not have endured the
many months of solitary work without the constant love and support of
the members of my religious community: Valerie Riggs, Marie Yestadt,
Jean Lynch, Anna Troisi, Ada Missler and Lurana Neely. For them and for
my parents, Mr. and Mrs. Theron C. Atkinson, I shall always be thankful.
No complete list can be made of all those others who assisted me in
developing my research plans and bringing them to completion; however,
special thanks goes to Barbara Doles, Lillian Pawlik and Carol A. Brown.
I wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Southern Fellowships
Fund for providing the opportunity to complete the doctoral degree. These
many supporters and friends of mine deserve a great part of the credit
for the value of this research. The errors and omissions are entirely
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS . . . . .... . . . . .. iii
ABSTRACT . . . . . . .... . . . . . .. vi
CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION . . . . . .. . .. .. 1
Elementary School Counseling and Death Education . . 1
Purpose of the Study . . . . . .... .. . ... 2
Rationale . . . . . .... ............ 3
Definition of Terms . . . . . . . ..... . 10
Research Questions . . . . . . .. . . 10
CHAPTER 2. REVIEW OF RELATED LITERATURE . . . . ... 13
Children and Death Education . . . . . . .. 13
Teacher's Attitudes and Behaviors Concerning Death . .. 22
Measurement of Death Attitudes and Behaviors . . ... 26
CHAPTER 3. METHODOLOGY . . . . . . . .... . 30
Research Questions Operationally Defined . . . ... 31
Sample . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
Instruments and Procedure . . . . . . ... 33
Data Analysis . . . . . . . . .. . ..... 39
Limitations . . . . . . . ... ..... . . 41
CHAPTER 4. RESULTS . . . . . . . . . . 44
Attitudes toward Death . . . . . . . ... .44
Awareness of Death-Related Situations . . . . ... 44
Modes of Response to Real Situations . . . . ... 49
Response to Hypothetical Situations . . . ... 61
CHAPTER 5. DISCUSSION A)N RECOMMENDATIONS . . . . .. 76
Theoretical Intervention . . . . . . . ... 77
Awareness and Attitudes . . . . . . . ... 80
Recalled Intervention . . . . . . . . .. 83
Recommendations . . . . . . . . .. . . 84
Conclusion . . . . . . . . ... . . . 86
APPENDIX A. DEVELOPMENT OF THE QUESTIONNAIRE . . . ... 87
APPENDIX B. GUIDELINES FOR RATING EFFECTIVENESS
OF INTERVENTION . . . . . . . ... . . 89
APPENDIX C. INSTRUMENTS . . . . . . . . ... . 91
APPENDIX D. POPULATION AND SAMPLE CHARACTERISTICS . . .. 98
BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . .. . . . . 102
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . . . . . . . . ... . . 115
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate Council
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
TEACHER INTERVENTION WITH ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILDREN
IN DEATH-RELATED SITUATIONS:
AN EXPLORATORY STUDY
Trudie L. Atkinson
Chairperson: Ellen S. Amatea
Major Department: Counselor Education
This exploratory research was designed to study teacher inter-
vention with elementary school children faced with death-related
concerns or problems. Teacher intervention was considered under four
aspects: (a) reported recall of death-related school situations
affecting children, (b) point of view with regard to death, (c) modes
of intervention in recalled situations, and (d) choice of response to
hypothetical death-related calssroom situations. Instruments employed
were the Hardt Scale of death attitudes and a questionnaire developed
for the study.
Six hundred five elementary school teachers from public and non-
public schools in a Southern metropolitan area participated in the
study. Low to moderate, although statistically significant, relation-
ships were found between several factors. (a) Reported recall of
classroom death situations was associated with a more favorable point
of view with regard to death on a chi-square test. (b) A Pearson
product-moment correlation coefficient indicated a positive relation-
ship between reported intervention behaviors in recalled death
situations and choice of response in hypothetical situations.
(c) Under multiple regression analysis, choice of response in hypo-
thetical death situations was found to be associated with ethnic
identity, educational level, guidance or counseling education, and
reported recall of death-related situations. In all these relation-
ships large percentages of variance were unaccounted for. No rela-
tionship was established between point of view with regard to death
and teacher intervention in either recalled or hypothetical situa-
Results of this study, along with the related literature, suggest
the need for future research which will focus on the following areas:
(a) ethnic differences in teacher behavior towards children with death
concerns, (b) personal experience with death as a factor in teacher
intervention with children, (c) training procedures which encourage
positive intervention with children facing death situations, and
(d) relationships between change in intervention practice and change
in attitude toward death.
The impact that the reality of death has on the lives of their
counselees is becoming a concern of a growing number of counselors, a
concern reflected in the number of articles carried in the professional
journals. One entire issue has been devoted to this topic (School
Counselor, May, 1977) and twelve other articles have appeared in three
APGA publications (Personnel and Guidance Journal, Elementary School
Guidance and Counseling, and School Counselor) during the past five
years. Counseling the bereaved and the dying fits well into the
profession's awakening concern with life-long career development and
life-span counseling (Sinick, 1976a). No limit is placed on oppor-
tunities for growth; no limit except the finality which is inherent
to the human condition of counselor and counselee alike: death. And
even death can be viewed as the "final stage of growth" (Kubler-Ross,
Elementary School Counseling and Death Education
Elementary school counselors have a particular charge to create
a climate in which all children can develop fully (Dinkmeyer &
Caldwell, 1970; Faust, 1968). Developmental counseling, which Dinkmeyer
and Caldwell advocate, is "more than a remedial service and is concerned
with providing all children with access to a resource which helps them
cope with normal developmental problems," (p. 85). Children with
questions or problems related to death need to be served just as surely
as children with the need to learn to make friends or to develop a
sense of self-mastery.
Children of elementary school age often learn patterns of coping
behaviors from observing adult behaviors. Significant adults in the
life of a child teach styles of coping by their very responses to death
situations--or by their apparent nonresponse. This is death education.
Counselors and teachers in elementary schools have no choice about
whether they will teach about death; they are doing it regularly, if
As professional helpers, counselors and teachers have placed them-
selves in positions to mediate a sense of their environment and of
themselves in that environment to children. They have a vital role in
establishing the psychologically safe atmosphere each child needs to
come to terms with this sensitive and highly personal issue: the mean-
ing of death. The elementary school teacher in particular is a key
person in bringing the developmental counseling approach to the class-
room where children's needs may be met "in context" as they arise.
Purpose of the Study
The elementary school teacher is a key person in promoting the
development of children's concepts and attitudes (Gordon, 1971; 1975)
and often has access to them when they are trying to cope with the
reality of death. This research was designed to extend the prelimin-
ary work of Hawener (1974) and Atkinson (1977) to explore teachers'
interventive behavior with elementary school children as they learn
about death. This behavior was to be studied under three aspects:
(a) awareness of children's death-related concerns, (b) willingness to
intervene, and (c) knowledge of helpful response. These aspects of
intervention were investigated by measuring (a) attitudes of teachers
toward death, (b) their recall of death-related situations affecting
children in school, (c) their mode of intervention in the real death-
related situations which they recall, and (d) their choice of response
in hypothetical death-related situations. These aspects of teacher
intervention are explained in more detail in the "Rationale" below.
This study was designed to explore teacher intervention in real
and conjectured situations involving children and death. Two broad
objectives of such intervention, inferred from the related literature,
are (a) to obviate or dispel unrealistic fears and (b) to facilitate
the grieving process. The second of these is probably more difficult
and may, in fact, not be possible for many teachers to engage in
personally. Corr (1978) cautions that "the case of the bereaved or
dying child, with its many ramifications, is . the most stringent
test of our successes and failures, our human and professional
frailties, in the whole area of death and dying" (p. 449).
School climates may be more or less supportive of teachers in
this regard. Much depends upon the administrator as well as the mood
of the parent community and the school board members. Nevertheless,
evidence suggests that the classroom is the place to handle most
effectively children's reactions to death encountered in the school
setting (Keith & Ellis, 1978). In spite of the difficulties, those
teachers who promote the grieving and healing process by their
intervention provide a service to children which is often neglected.
Counselors should be able to encourage and supplement the teachers'
efforts in this regard.
A pilot study (Atkinson, 1977) was carried out by the writer to
explore teachers' awareness of their opportunities for intervention
in death-related situations as well as their preparation to involve
themselves in it. The 90 subjects, teachers in elementary schools, were
asked to recall real incidents in which they had been involved with
children affected by death, and to consider other possible situations
they might confront. In both their written responses and their discussion
afterward, the teachers showed a high degree of concern and desire to
be able to help children in such situations. Their responses provided
an impetus for this study.
As explained earlier, education for death is viewed as a natural
outgrowth of developmental approaches to counseling and is becoming
a common focus of professional writing and research. But as natural
as death education may be, it seems to be a very difficult thing for
many adults to involve themselves in effectively (Fulton, 1976a;
Gorer, 1965; Kastenbaum & Aisenberg, 1972; Weisman, 1972). The American
society's response to the idea of death has commonly been one of denial
or avoidance (Feifel, 1977b; Kubler-Ross, 1969). Educators, as members
of this society, are likely to share this general behavior.
An exploratory study of kindergarten teacher candidates' attitudes
and behaviors with children in classroom death situations (Hawener, 1974)
supports the assumption that this group tends to avoid direct reference to
death with children. The subjects did not seem to be aware that death
situations would arise in the classroom or that children's concepts and
feelings about death might differ from their own. On the other hand,
the pilot study (Atkinson, 1977) with elementary school personnel
found evidence that many of them were aware of helpful modes of inter-
vention. These subjects appeared to be more knowledgeable about
approaches and more willing to involve themselves with the death concerns
of children than the teacher candidates in the Hawener study. Hawener's
teacher candidates had very limited experience as compared with the
regular teachers in Atkinson's study. The disparate results of the
two studies may indicate that classroom experience is a positive factor
in adult intervention. These appear to be the only two studies which
have explored elementary school teachers' attitudes toward death and
their intervention with children in death-related situations. Further
research is needed to clarify relationships between teacher attitudes
and behavior with regard to death (Atkinson, 1977; Bell, 1975; Eldredge,
1975; Hawener, 1974).
The death taboo may be losing its terror (Brim, Freeman, Levine &
Scotch, 1970) as have other fears (religious supersitions, sex) faced by
human beings over the course of time (Schrank, 1971). At the present,
however, death dread is still strong and the reality is treated with
secrecy (Kliman, 1968; Wolfson, 1975); therefore, death education is
advocated by mental health professionals as a means to help children
face the concept and reality of death with less destructive anxiety than
their parents may have experienced (Berg & Daugherty, 1973; McLure, 1974;
Moss & Moss, 1973). But if death education is to be instituted in ele-
mentary schools the potential death educators (primarily teachers,
although counselors as well) and their readiness for the task need to be
Death education courses and curricula are proliferating for high
school and college age students (Bensley, 1975; Hollis, 1975; Ulin, 1977;
Wass, 1978). A paucity of such approaches exists for elementary age
children, although bibliotherapy is strongly endorsed (Baruth & Phillips,
1976; Bernstein, 1977; Griggs, 1977; Wass & Shaak, 1976). Reluctance to
initiate discussion of death with children may be one aspect of a
protective stance which adults take to keep a painful reality away from
children as long as possible (Feifel, 1977a; Fulton, 1976a; Kastenbaum,
1974). Formal approaches to death education in elementary school may
not be of great importance, however, if it is true that the most
helpful way for younger children to learn about death is in context
with life experiences, as research suggests (Crase & Crase, 1975;
1976; Leviton & Forman, 1974).
Most studies indicate that children are aware of death at a very
early age. Sensitive parents have found their children trying to
cope with a death experience as early as 18 months of age (Kastenbaum &
Aisenberg, 1972). Four- and five-year-old children have been identified
whose concept of death already included universality and irreversibility
(Beauchamp, 1974; Leviton, 1977). It seems evident that children
simply cannot be prevented from becoming aware that death exists in the
plant, animal and human orders for no matter what adults may wish, death
goes on happening and children are regularly involved. A pet dies,
children see news of disasters in the mass media, a child's grandmother
dies, the school bus passes an obviously fatal accident, and so on.
Statistics of death rates indicate that in a school of 600 students, about
four students per year will experience the death of a parent, and every
second or third year a student in that school will die (from U. S. Bureau
of the Census figures in Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1977).
Experience with death seems to have an influence on one's
attitudes toward future death experiences, depending on the meaning
brought to the first situation (Lester, 1967a). There is much evidence
of "mismanaged" response to death in America today which suggests that
such meanings may be problematic. For example, it seems that among
children fear of bodily injury, physical danger and death are widespread,
frequent (Joseph, 1974) and growing in frequency (Bauer, 1974). Such
fear seems to be part of the complicated picture of violence and man-
made disasters in the second half of the Twentieth Century. There is
also a trend in this country to view death as an external phenomenon,
as the enemy "out there" (Kastenbaum & Aisenberg, 1972). This attitude
sparks retaliation-- "I'll get you before you get me"-- and is hypothe-
sized to be one of the influences which encourage suicide and other
forms of self-destructive behavior, such as environmental pollution, war
and violent crime (Feifel, 1971; 1977a; Kastenbaum & Aisenberg, 1972;
Leviton, 1977). Suicide is becoming more critical as a cause of death
among adolescent and college age populations (Sartore, 1976). While it
is not common among preadolescents, suicide does happen, and seems to be
increasing in frequency even among children under twelve (Kastenbaum
& Aisenberg, 1972; Paulson & Stone, 1974; Renshaw, 1974). A relation-
ship also has been found between "inadequate" notions of death and
suicidal thoughts (Mclntire, Angle & Struempler, 1972). The investigators
found that children with most frequent thoughts of suicide were most
likely to deny death as final.
This evidence suggests a critical need for more effective manage-
ment of death situations involving children than the kind which has been
common in the past. It is often within the province of the elementary
school teacher to be with a child who is confronting a question or prob-
lem situation related to death, a situation where a child sends out
signals of curiosity, concern, or distress. Certain modes of response
are considered most helpful to children who are attempting to cope with
death in their lives. These include honestly giving information the child
can understand, sharing one's own grief or experience of loss, and facili-
tating the child's expression of grief (Bernstein, 1977; Bertman, 1974;
Crase & Crase, 1975; Nelson & Peterson, 1975). In order to provide help-
ful intervention to a child, three factors seem to be crucial. A teacher
must (a) be aware of the child's needs, (b) be emotionally prepared and
willing to intervene, and (c) know what to do (Hawener & Phillips, 1975;
Ulin, 1977; Yudkin, 1968). Awareness, willingness and knowledge are
then the three aspects of teacher readiness to intervene which are
considered in this study.
Kastenbaum's work (1974) indicates that many adults simply do not
believe that children think about death. Such adults would not be
likely to see that children are affected by death. There was evidence
of this fact in the pilot study (Atkinson, 1977) where two or more
teachers faced the same death-related situation in a school but only
one of them reported that children were thus affected. It was assumed
in the present study that a teacher's ability to recall actual death-
related situations in the classroom might provide a measure of the
adult's awareness of children being affected by death.
A teacher may be aware of a situation, but feel unwilling or unable
to initiate any helpful intervention because of the feelings evoked
(Hawener, 1974). Attitudes toward death are assumed to be factors in
one's willingness to intervene in death-related situations. Most death
attitude instruments seek to measure fear or anxiety about aspects of
death (Boyar, 1964; Collett & Lester, 1969; Dickstein, 1972; Nelson &
Nelson, 1975: Templer, 1970). However, one's approach to death may
include other feelings as well, neutral and favorable as well as negative
(Hardt. 1974; 1975; Vernon, 1970; Weisman, 1972). One's point of view
or attitude toward death is assumed to affect one's behavior, although
research has not shown what point of view or attitude is associated with
most helpful behavior.
Lack of knowledge of what may be helpful prevents some adults from
effective intervention (Crase & Crase, 1976; Hawener, 1974; Ulin, 1977).
In fact, no study has shown that any one way is always best. Neverthe-
less, guidelines have been established in the light of which judgements
about the probable helpfulness of a response can be made (Bernstein,
1977; Clark, 1974; Clay, 1976; Kliman, 1968; Yudkin, 1968). One measure
of teacher knowledge is self-report of what they actually remember doing
in death-related situations. Further, it is assumed that given hypo-
thetical situations related to death with which teachers might be con-
fronted in the classroom, along with a variety of typical teacher
responses, a measure of what they believe should be done can be obtained
by their choice of response.
Definition of Terms
"Elementary school" in this study refers to grades kindergarten
through six. Such children range in age from approximately five years
to twelve years.
"Teachers" refers to any adult (age eighteen or above) who is
engaged in any instructional capacity in the school. The subjects were
part-time, substitute and itinerant, as well as full-time classroom
"Death-related situations" are those in which a child is overtly
concerned with questions about death or with experiences involving death.
Evidence of such situations included a child actually asking a question
related to death, some sign of anxiety which the teacher's investigation
linked to an experience with death, or a substantiated report that a child
had suffered the loss of a loved person or significant being.
"Hypothetical situations" are five specific incidents based on real
classroom events reported by teachers. The subjects were asked to
respond to the situations by choosing from a number of possible inter-
ventions the one they believed to be most important.
"Attitude toward death" is defined as a point of view about the
concept of death on a scale from very unfavorable to very favorable
This study attempted to answer questions about four aspects of
death-related behavior outlined previously, that is, (a) teacher
attitudes toward death, (b) teacher awareness of death-related situa-
tions, (c) teacher mode of intervention in real death-related incidents,
and (d) teacher choice of response in hypothetical death-related
Teacher attitudes toward death were the focus of the question:
1. What was the point of view with regard to death reported by
Teacher awareness of death-related situations was the focus of the
2. What situations related to death were recalled by teachers?
3. Are there relationships between the reported recall of death
situations and teacher attitudes toward death?
Teacher mode of intervention in real death-related incidents was
the focus of these questions:
4. What responses to incidents which they recalled did teachers
5. How effective were teacher responses to the real incidents?
6. Are there any relationships between reported responses and
attitudes toward death?
Teacher choice of response to hypothetical death-related situations
was the focus of these questions:
7. What responses did teachers choose for the hypothetical death-
8. How effective were teacher choices of response to the hypothetical
9. How do their choices of response to hypothetical situations
compare with their reported responses to real situations?
10. Are there any relationships between choices of response in the
hypothetical situations and attitudes toward death?
11. Are there identifiable factors (age, race, marital status,
education, exposure to guidance or counseling education or death
education, years of teaching, professional role, school system in which
they teach, age of children they teach, belief in afterlife, attitude
toward death and recall of death-related incidents) which characterize
teachers in their choices of response to the hypothetical situations?
REVIEW OF RELATED LITERATURE
This chapter reviews the literature relevant to the study. The
review is divided into topic areas as follows:
1. Children and death education. This section includes:
(a) rationale for death education, (b) development of the concept of
death, and (c) children's reactions to death.
2. Teacher attitudes and behaviors concerning death. Included are:
(a) teacher attitudes toward death, and (b) helpful teacher behaviors in
3. Measurement of death attitudes and behaviors. This part
includes: (a) variables related to death attitudes, and (b) instrumen-
Children and Death Education
Rationale for Death Education
Evidence is growing that death is a matter of great interest in the
United States today. As an academic field death education had its
origins in the early 1960's (Pine, 1977) about the time Jessica Mitford
was writing her best seller, The American Way of Death (1963). The year
her book was published Robert Fulton taught the first regularly offered
course in an American university whose focus was solely on death (Pine,
1977). Today more than 1,000 colleges and universities offer such a
course (Wass, 1978).
Mass media carry feature-length and brief articles on attitudes and
approaches to death (Faden, 1974; McCurdy, 1974; Shneidman, 1970a; 1971;
Wilson, 1977; Woodward et al., 1978). Television documentaries (Roemer,
1976) and movies with death themes are becoming common. The public is
interested--perhaps with a certain frightened fascination, but interested
--indeed. For some, death awareness may be the new fad (Kastenbaum,
If all this is happening, why is there concern about bringing death
education into the elementary schools, where teachers are already
burdened with a difficult task in trying to teach the basics? Three
reasons may be given. First, modern American living does not readily
allow for the informal learning of the birth-life-death cycle which was
once more accessible to children. Wide use of hospitals and "retirement
communities" diminishes the possibility that children will view the two
ends of the life span (Berg & Daugherty, 1973). At the same time,
distorted images of death are readily available in films and on tele-
vision, while adults generally communicate by their silence on the topic
an unwillingness or inability to provide a realistic picture (Kolls, 1977).
Secondly, there are indications of growing and mismanaged anxieties
about death among children.' Bauer's (1974) review of research on
children's fears over a 40-year (1933-1973) period indicates increasing
mention of bodily danger and death. Joseph (1974), after two years of
intensive work with preschool children concluded that there was much
fear and preoccupation with death expressed through their play and
verbal interaction.' Another sign of mismanaged attitudes toward death
is an increasing incidence of suicide as a cause of death among the
young (Sartore, 1976). In a study of suicides and suicide threats of
latency-age children, Paulson and Stone (1974) concluded that children
need to be able to talk about their death wishes and fears.
S. Finally, death education is appropriate in schools because it
generally fits the criteria for curricula as Berg and Daugherty (1973)
describe them: the discipline has universality of application, intrinsic
interest, intellectual challenge, personal and social relevance, and is
preparatory for life. On this last point, a sober look at statistics
reveals that kindergarten may be none too soon to help children learn to
cope with loss and grief. The losses of toys, pets, friends, siblings
and parents are increasingly painful realities and they affect all
children at some time. 'One marriage in three ends in divorce and one
family in five moves each year (Bernstein, 1977). Moreover, by the age
of 18, about one person in 20 will have lost a parent through death
(Bernstein, 1977; Fulton, 1977). Further, in low income families, more
than five percent of kindergarten age children will have suffered the
loss by death of at least one parent before beginning school (Kliman,
1968). In a school of 600 students, one child may be expected to die
at least every third year and, on the average, four students each year
will experience a parental death (from U. S. Bureau of the Census figures,
1977). These facts do not go away even if they are ignored.
Death education and counseling. Developmental counseling is
strongly advocated in the role definition of the elementary school
counselor (Dinkmeyer & Caldwell, 1970; Faust, 1968). Death education is
viewed by many as preparation for life (Clay, 1976; Green & Irish, 1971;
Nelson & Peterson, 1975; Ulin, 1977), and in that way its relationship to
developmental counseling is obvious. Counselors have two important
roles--consulting with adults and counseling with children--in which they
need to be aware of the impact of death on children (Lamb & Deschenes, 1974).
Death seen as a fact of life can add a richness to one's view of existence
as both fragile and precious (Feifel, 1977b; McLure, 1974). For children
as for adults this realization grows gradually, through understanding
one's experience. The teacher is in a position to be an effective
mediator of such experience.
When developmental needs are not met, or crises arise, then inter-
ventive death education or counseling may be needed. Helping a child
express sadness over a loss is an important way to prevent displaced
grief (Clark, 1974) and forestall negative consequences in school adjust-
ment as well as in the child's total development (Felner, Stolberg &
Informal death education. Teachers are generally not trained death
educators and at this time most public elementary schools are not
embracing formal death education as a part of the stated curriculum.
However, what may be termed "informal death education" is frequently
both available and appropriate in schools. This can happen whenever a
child has a question or concern related to death if the teacher is aware
of it and able to meet the need effectively. The elementary school
teacher's availability and importance in the life of a young child make
this person a primary resource (Gordon, 1975). As Leviton (1977)
advocates, death education should begin whenever the child in any way
indicates an interest.
Development of the Concept of Death
Investigators have attempted to study conceptual development of the
idea of death since the pioneering work of Anthony (1940) and of Nagy
(1948). Vore (1974) offers one framework for understanding stages of
development based on the work of Erikson (1963) and of Piaget and
Inhelder (1969). The first four of Erikson's eight "ages of man" with
their counterpart concepts of death are: (a) basic trust (birth to two
years)--no understanding of death; reaction to separation as loss of
comfort; (b) autonomy (two to four years)--differentiation of self from
others, anticipation and fear of loss; (c) initiative (four to six years)
--being assertive and aggressive, the child views death as basically
punishment, mutilation; and (d) industry (seven to adolescence)--concept
of control is developing; distinction grows between being and not being,
gradual realization of the permanence of death. Within this framework
it is to be noted that ages are not absolutely fixed, but differ even as
Piaget's own children, whom he first studied, could not be held as the
general model for all children.
Clark (1974) states that concepts about death develop as maturation
occurs in general intellignece, and that before the age of five death is
understood as desertion; from five to nine death is viewed as a person;
and from ten years onward it is seen as a permanent, biologic process.
Wass (1976) explains further that "magical" thinking is characteristic
of the first stage; that is, the child believes that wishing can make
reality, and death is often seen as a long sleep. In the second stage
this personified death is the horrible monster or the violent attacker.
By the third stage the realization of universality and irreversibility
has been achieved. Melear's (1973) interviews with children aged three
to twelve yielded similar results, and Bauer's (1974) review of research
on children's developing fears coincides with these same conceptual
levels. Blubond-Langner (1977), from her work with terminally ill
children, proposes a somewhat different theory. She says that "all'
views of death (that is, death as separation, the result of intervention
by a supernatural being, an irreversible process) are present at all
stages of one's development. The particular view of death that a child
presents at any one time reflects his or her social, psychological, and
intellectual experiences and concerns at the time of the interaction,"
In spite of the neat conceptual packages proposed, it is to be borne
in mind that each person is an individual and children differ greatly
both in their concept attainment and in their ability to express their
concepts. Beauchamp (1974), in research with very young children, found
that universality and irreversibility of death were understood by some
five-year-olds. Bolduc's (1972) study with nine- to fourteen-year-olds
revealed no single age significantly different from any other in level
of cognitive development with regard to death. However, she found that
children with experiences of death of a parent or sibling showed signi-
ficant differences in their understanding of death when compared with
those who had no such experience. The studies of Bolduc (1972) and of
Moseley (1974) demonstrated that differential experiences were associated
with different levels of concept development. Not only conceptual devel-
opment, but coping ability as well, vary greatly from child to child
(Felner, Stolberg & Cowen, 1975). Their reactions to experienced death
will present a wide diversity, also.
Children's Reactions to Death
A child may initially encounter the idea of death in either a non-
grief situation or in a grief situation, that is, when there has been an
experience of personal loss. In a non-grief experience the child's first
response to death, as to any new situation, is curiosity. Fear is
a learned response (Vernon, 1970) and children develop it by observing
adult behavior (Gartley & Bernasconi, 1969). When the child's original
matter-of-fact questions are answered with euphemisms or avoidance,
mistaken notions can crop up and grow so that incomprehension leads to
fear (Hawener & Phillips, 1975; Yudkin, 1968).
Grief, for both child and adult, means basically the same thing. A
loss with several dimensions--physical, environmental, emotional and
social--has occurred (Moss & Moss, 1973). The process of normal grieving
has been described by several investigators. Lindemann's (1944) classic
study found the steps to be: (a) decathexis, i.e., emotional "letting
go" of the deceased, (b) readjustment to life without the deceased, and
(c) formation of new relationships. Grollman (1974a) lists the stages as
(a) protest, (b) pain, despair and disorganization, and (c) hope and
reorganization without the deceased. Clark (1974) adds to Grollman's
stages a preliminary period of fright. As in the stages of dying which
Kubler-Ross (1969) originally defined, it is clear that progress from
stage to stage does not move smoothly and on schedule. Instead, there
is often a need to backtrack and to rework stages. Throughout the
process, many reactions may be evident: shock, somatic symptoms, denial,
anger, guilt, depression, sadness (Bernstein, 1977; Plank, 1968).
Children's grief differs from adults'. To the experience of grief
a child brings a vulnerability dependent on their maturational level
which most adults do not have. For example, the child is more dependent
even physically and economically on a deceased parent than an adult
usually is. Besides, for most children until about the age of nine a
clear understanding of time, and being able to envision a future when
one has worked through and past the pain, are lacking or very limited
(Bernstein, 1977; Formanek, 1974). Inability to adequately verbalize
what one is experiencing is an additional handicap for a child. Guilt,
embarrassment and loneliness may grow as the child finds him/herself
striking out at others, and even angry at the deceased on the one hand,
or idealizing and imitating the deceased on the other. Miller's (1971)
review of studies on children's reactions to object loss found almost
universal agreement that children in grief at parental loss avoid both
acceptance of parents' death and the need to make the necessary detach-
ments for grief work to proceed. Hawener and Phillips (1975) concur,
citing children's delay in accepting death as a common reaction, along
with guilt, hostility and change in interests and activities.
Clark (1974) explains that some grief reactions may seem patho-
logical and perhaps would be so diagnosed in an adult, but given the
child's limitations as mentioned earlier, they are quite normal. The
delay and apparent denial may really come from an internal wisdom: the
child is putting off dealing with the separation until psychically
stronger and more able to cope. Another frequent behavior of a child
grieving or anxious about death is repetitive play (Bernstein, 1977;
Clark, 1974), that is, acting out a loss or death situation over and
over. The child may not be ready or able to talk about it, but is
attempting to master what is happening and is using symbolic language to
say so. The child who has reached the initiative, aggressive stage
(about four to six years in Erikson's schema) is likely to experience
death as a punishment, and so act in self-punishing ways to assuage
feelings of guilt (Clark, 1974; Vore, 1974).
Long-term effects of bereavement. Much of what is said about
bereavement applies equally to losses sustained through divorce or
separation as well as death (Moss & Moss, 1973). Insel (1976) explains
what might be the long-term effects of dealing with a loss: "Adapting
to the death of a loved one can be, and often is, an integrating exper-
ience for the survivor. . New perspectives can be facilitated
involving a more realistic comprehension of one's mortality, a recog-
nition of one's ability to endure the pain of such a loss, and a
strengthened capacity to embrace what life has to offer," (p. 129). How
much of this integration can be achieved by a particular child is very
difficult to know and, as in any personal crisis, the resulting change
may be either negative or positive.
Lasting depression often plagues the bereaved person who does not
express grief. Such depression can have many rather immediate mani-
festations, such as academic failure, delinquency, withdrawal, fear of
being alone, or unwillingness to make friends (Bernstein, 1977; Bendicksen
& Fulton, 1976). Over a longer period of time childhood bereavement has
been found to be associated with adult depression and with higher rates
of major illness and extreme emotional distress (Bendiksen & Fulton, 1976).
Even so, the death of a parent seems to carry less likelihood of long-
term scarring than parental divorce or separation. In the latter
instances the child's feelings of guilt are less likely to be resolved;
the conflict of divorce is less likely to be untangled. Bendiksen and
Fulton's study just cited found that fear of death, as one aspect of
general anxiety, was higher among children of divorced or separated
parents than among bereaved children or children whose families were
With all the research that has been done on effects of bereavement,
none seems to have investigated the effects of intervention with
bereaved children on later adjustment. Therefore, the beneficial effects
of positive intervention are assumed but not provable at this time.
Teachers' Attitudes and Behaviors Concerning Death
Teachers' Attitudes Toward Death
Attitudes toward death in American society have been the subject of
much interest and research during the past 20 years. Avoidance of the
topic of death has been noted in the behavior of parent toward child
(Becker & Margolin, 1967; Kolls, 1977), of doctor toward patient
(Kubler-Ross, 1969), and of many healthy persons in their speech and
behavior with regard to terminal illness and funerals. Direct speech
is viewed as an obscenity (Gorer, 1965), interaction with the dying
carries a stigma (Posner, 1976) and death is therefore disguised,
unspoken, treated like a communicable disease (Fulton, 1976a). Only
uninfluenced children (Gartley & Bernasconi, 1969; Lester, 1967a) and
the terminally ill (Kubler-Ross, 1969) seem eager to speak about it.
Only two studies seem to have been done to measure teacher attitudes
toward death. Hawener (1974) found that kindergarten teacher candidates
considered death very removed from themselves and not likely to be faced
in classroom situations. The subjects' attitudes toward death of self
were generally unrelated to their perceived behavior in classroom death
incidents. Elementary school teachers in the pilot study (Atkinson, 1977)
provided some evidence that teachers' awareness of children's death
concerns may have a relationship to their point of view with regard to
death. Those with more favorable views of death were more likely to
recall incidents in which children had been affected by death. More
extensive classroom experience and increased age may be factors which
differentiate the attitudes and awareness of these teachers from the
teacher candidates in Hawener's (1974) study. Data from the pilot study
showed an average death attitude score significantly more favorable for
the teachers than for the Midwestern sample of adolescents and young
adults in Hardt's (1974) study. Further research on teacher attitudes
was recommended in the discussion of Eldredge's (1975) study of college
age students and Bell (1975) advised investigation of the relationship
between attitudes and behaviors related to death.
Several studies of death attitudes have been done which included
helping professionals other than teachers. As mentioned above, Kubler-
Ross (1969) found strong tendencies to denial among doctors, and Feifel
(1977a) reports above-average fear of death among helping professionals,
especially psychologists, clergy, nurses and physicians. In another
study (Fleming, 1976) nurses' death anxiety was found to be an influence
in treatment of dying patients. Crosbie and Garlie (1976) report that
young nursing trainees are more accepting of death than older counselors,
teachers, doctors, clergy and social workers. Kapiloff and Brown (1976)
compared social workers' fear of death and dying with that of physicians,
nurses, clergy and graduate students (as a lay group). There were no
differences between the social workers and any other group except the
Feifel's (1977b) research found an ambivalence toward death under-
neath a surface acceptance. That is, people who reported that they were
not afraid of death on a conscious level often demonstrated mixed feelings
about it at a fantasy level. Expression of fear of death seems to be
viewed as neurotic in American society (Fulton, 1976b; Kastenbaum, 1977a;
Kastenbaum & Aisenberg, 1972) since personal freedom and independence
are idealized. Therefore, unwillingness to express concern about death
may be an unwillingness to acknowledge a failure in self-sufficiency
(Dickstein, 1972). The high enrollment in death education courses where
they are offered and the results of studies such as Griffith's (1975)
and Schneidman's (1970b; 1971) suggest that many people do want the
opportunity to gain information and to discuss their feelings about
Helpful Teacher Behaviors in Death-Related Situations
Two important prerequisites for teachers who would help children
in death-related situations are reiterated by many writers. They are:
(a) personally facing one's own attitudes toward death and (b) knowl-
edge of children's needs. The teacher is advised to work through personal
taboos and fears before trying to help children work with theirs (Berg,
1973; Feifel, 1974a; Galen, 1972; Nelson & Peterson, 1975; Ulin, 1977).
Self-knowledge is a basic requirement and can be gained by clarifying
and acknowledging one's own attitudes, feelings, values and beliefs about
death (Crase & Crase, 1976; Formanek, 1974; Hawener & Phillips, 1975).
With this knowledge it may be that a teacher will recognize that someone
else needs to be the death educator. Leviton (1977) believes that not
everyone can do this sensitive and important task well.
The next step after self-knowledge is knowledge of children: their
needs, their developing concepts, their possible grief reactions, their
signals of interest or distress, their individuality (Bernstein, 1977;
Grollman, 1974a; Hawener & Phillips, 1975; Yudkin, 1968). It is impor-
tant to know what is "normal" for a child as well as what one as a
teacher is capable of doing.
Helpful Teacher Intervention
Research in instruction indicates that children's learning is
facilitated when teacher criticism is low (Dunkin & Biddle, 1974).
Wittmer and Myrick (1974), from their review of teacher interaction
studies, present a continuum of facilitative teacher responses, with
acceptance of children's feelings at the most positive end. Both these
sources seem to conclude that accepting the child as she/he is, is the
most helpful teacher behavior. The primary interventions endorsed for
working with children in death-related situations concur with this view.
The most helpful teacher behaviors are sensitive presence, listening to
the child's verbal and nonverbal signals of distress (Bernstein, 1977;
Crase & Crase, 1976; Yudkin, 1968) and skillfully facilitating expression
of questions, fears, or grief (Bertman, 1974; Nelson & Peterson, 1975).
The adult needs to be aware of four aspects of communication about death
with children: (a) be honest, (b) understand what the child is asking or
saying, (c) speak in terms the child can understand, and (d) avoid the
denial of the child's rights to perceptions and feelings (Bernstein, 1977;
Crase & Crase, 1976; Formanek, 1974; Galen, 1972).
Bernstein (1977) points out specific intervention appropriate to
different stages of the child's grief. First, when the child is testing
and accepting the reality of death, adults can appropriately share their
own feelings of loss to encourage the child's comprehension. Then when
the child is trying to work over and let go of memories of the deceased,
the teacher can help the child talk about the good and bad alike in the
lost object to prevent a distorted idealization. Finally, when the child
is beginning to develop substitute relationships, the teacher may become
an important surrogate. The most important thing the teacher can do is
to let the child know, in any way the adult can, that expressions of
feeling, especially of grief, are appropriate.
Other behaviors which may be helpful are providing books as biblio-
therapy for children when they feel ready to use them (Bernstein, 1977)
and involving parents in a team effort or through informational con-
sulting (Grollman, 1974a). If facing and talking about death is painful
for child or adult, it is less painful and frightening for the child than
not talking about it (Clay, 1976; Koocher, 1974). The teacher behaviors
least likely to help children are avoidance, denial, and using explana-
tions which distort or confuse the reality of death for the child (Clark,
1974; Jackson, 1973; Mitchell, 1967; Nelson & Peterson, 1975).
Measurement of Death Attitudes and Behaviors
Variables Related to Death Attitudes
Lester (1967a) reviewed more than 50 research studies on fear of
death and concluded that "within a single group [such as college
students, normal adults, psychiatric elderly persons], demographic vari-
ables have little effect on death attitudes. Age will obviously affect
attitudes until mental development is complete. Thereafter, it would
seem that personality factors and life experiences are the important
determinants of the fear of death," (p. 31). He based these conclusions
chiefly on five 1961 studies which, of the 50, he considered most ade-
quately designed (i.e., the work of Christ, Corey, Jeffers & his asso-
ciates, Rhudick & Dibner, and Swenson). Kastenbaum and Aisenberg (1972)
agree that maturation and earlier experience have more influence on death
attitude than mere demographic factors. More recent studies tend to
confirm these conclusions, although some other trends have been reported,
such as those discussed below.
Hardt (1975) found that age, sex, and social position have little
effect on one's attitude toward death. In his sample of 13- to 26-year-
old subjects he found small increases in positive attitude toward death
with increasing age, but these were not significant.
Differences between death concerns of men and women were found in
studies by Carson (1974) and Dickstein (1972), but these were neither
significant nor consistent. Concern about death seems to manifest it-
self through different preoccupations for each sex.
Exposure to higher levels of education seems to be related to
decreasing fear of death (Berman & Hays, 1973; Wass & Sisler, 1978),
and high emphasis on theoretical values has been found to relate to
lower death concern (Dickstein, 1972).
Ethnicity as a variable in death fear has been examined in few
studies. However, there is some evidence that Black Americans differ
from other minorities and from white Americans in their attitudes
(Balkin, Epstein, & Bush, 1976; Fields, 1976; Reynolds & Kalish, 1974).
Fear of death has not been shown to have greater or less intensity, but
seems to elicit different responses.
Evidence of the part which religion plays in death concern is often
contradictory and confusing. From his review of research, Feifel (1974b)
states that positive, negative and no relation have all been reported
between religious practice or belief and fear of death. In his own
(1974b) research he found no differences in death fear between strongly
religious and non-religious subjects in a study which employed several
different measures and included both healthy and terminally ill subjects.
Lester's (1967a) summary of 12 studies' results concluded that adherence
to a given religion does not determine how great one's death fear is.
Rather, the tenets of a particular religion may serve to channel the
fear onto specific problems emphasized by that religion. More recent
studies add to the ambiguous picture. Kaller (1975) found that increased
religious activity has a positive role in reduction of death fear and
anxiety. On the other hand, Wass and Sisler (1978) found that greater
death fear was associated with belief in life after death. One of the
elements of confusion in the results of such studies seems to be whether
one measures consciousness of death as an aspect of fear. Religious
persons are more likely than non-religious subjects to be aware of their
death anxieties, since they are more likely to hear and think about
death in their places of worship.
Finally, a higher purpose in life has been found to correlate with
lower death fear (Durlak, 1972). In support of this finding, Goodman
(1975) reported lower death fear among accomplished scientists and artists
than among less creative individuals, indicating that a more fulfilled
life reduces death fear.
Three general types of measures have been used in studies about
death concern (Lester, 1967a). These include (a) projective techniques,
such as the Thermatic Apperception Test and sentence completion, (b)
the galvanic skin response (GSR) or psychogalvanic response (PGR) tech-
nique, which measures physiological response to death-related words,
and (c) direct self-report methods, such as questionnaires, interviews,
rating scales and checklists. Projective techniques assume that uncon-
scious motivation underlying attitudes can be deduced from stories or
fantasies in response to stimuli such as pictures or words. They require
extensive interpretation based on theories of unconscious expression.
The GSR technique assumes that underlying fear or anxiety can be inferred
from the measurement of physiological response. It has not been used
extensively and is less popular now than 20 years ago. This may reflect
a changing approach to the study of human subjects.
Direct methods assume that attitudes can be reported honestly by
subjects. They do not attempt to account for motivations such as social
desirability, although the arrangement of items can be designed to counter-
act their influence. Over the past nineteen years six instruments of the
direct self-report type have been developed whose reliability and validity
are clearly demonstrated. These were developed by Sarnoff and Corwin
(1959), Boyar (1964), Lester (1966, cited in Lester, 1967a), Templer
(1970), Dickstein (1972), and Hardt (1974). The instruments used in
this study are of the direct type and are described in the following
The purpose of this exploratory study was to gather information
about the readiness of a population of teachers to intervene with
elementary age children in death-related situations. The approach was
descriptive, employing survey instruments. Research on teacher behavior
and attitudes toward death has been strongly recommended (Bell, 1975;
Eldredge, 1975) but is almost nonexistent, the exceptions being Hawener's
(1974) research and the pilot project for this study (Atkinson, 1977).
The pilot study provided evidence that actual classroom experience may
be related to more helpful intervention, and that there may be relation-
ships between some other sets of variables, particularly between attitudes
toward death and awareness of children's death-related concerns. The
pilot study also tested the format and contents of the instruments which
were used in this study.
Teacher readiness to provide positive intervention was examined
under four aspects:
1. What teachers' attitudes toward death are;
2. Whether teachers are aware of death-related situations affecting
children and whether their awareness is related to their attitudes
3. What kinds of responses teachers report making in real school
situations related to death;
4. What kinds of responses teachers choose for hypothetical death-
Research Questions Operationally Defined
Eleven research questions investigated the four aspects of teacher
readiness just cited.
Teacher attitudes toward death were investigated through the question:
1. What is the point of view of teachers with regard to death on a
scale from unfavorable to favorable?
Teacher awareness of death-related situations was investigated
through these questions:
2. What situations related to death are recalled by teachers?
3. Is there a difference in the rate of recall reported for the
death-related incidents between groups of teachers with more favorable
and less favorable attitudes toward death?
Teacher responses to real incidents were investigated through these
4. What responses to incidents which they recall do teachers report?
5. On a scale of intervention effectiveness how do teachers' reported
responses to real incidents rate?
6. Are there relationships between the reported responses of teachers
to real incidents and their attitudes toward death as regards effectiveness?
Teacher choices of response to the hypothetical death-related
situations were investigated through these questions:
7. What responses do teachers choose for the hypothetical death-
8. On a scale of intervention effectiveness, how helpful are teacher
choices of response to the hypothetical situations?
9. How do their choices of response to hypothetical situations com-
pare with their reported responses to real incidents?
10. Are there any relationships between teachers' choices of responses
to the hypothetical situations and their attitudes toward death?
11. Are there identifiable factors (age, sex, race, marital status,
education, years of teaching and system in which they teach, professional
role, age of children they teach, exposure to death education or coun-
seling courses, belief in life after death, attitude toward death and
recall of death-related situations) which characterize teachers in their
choice of responses to the hypothetical situations?
The population under study was elementary school teachers in metro-
politan New Orleans. They are about 90% female, 66% Caucasian, 32% Black,
and 2% Hispanic (U. S. Bureau of the Census, 1970 and 1977-78 figures for
Orleans Parish, Jefferson Parish, and New Orleans Archdiocese).
By ethnic and sex ratios the teachers in the standard metropolitan sta-
tistical area (SMSA) were similar to such SMSA populations as Memphis
and Charleston. The combined Orleans/Jefferson parish school systems
were similar to the large public school systems in Detroit, Memphis,
Chicago, Cleveland, and Houston in terms of race and sex ratios (see
Appendix D for further comparisons).
The subjects were drawn from the three major school systems in the
metropolitan area: Orleans Parish, Jefferson Parish, and the New Orleans
Archdiocese (Roman Catholic), which is contiguous with both Orleans and
Jefferson civil parishes. The principals of one or more schools from
the entire range of postal code areas in each system were contacted for
inclusion in the study. About 90 principals (representing 22% of the
schools) were contacted and permission was received from 65. Actual
returns were received from 61 schools, representing 15% of the area
public schools and 18% of area non-public schools. (See Appendix D
for schools included and number of teachers from each school who returned
Six hundred fifty-five completed surveys were returned from about
1100 teachers who were offered the opportunity to participate in the
study. In order to insure a sample accurately reflecting the population,
returns were categorized by subjects' school system, sex and race.
Prior to conducting the study it was determined that the sample on which
results would be based should include no less than 80% of the population
ratios on these three characteristics, and no more than 120%. (For
example, 32.4% of the teachers in the population work in nonpublic
schools, the sample should contain no less than 25.9% and no more than
38.9% of subjects from this school system.) The number of surveys to
be used was reduced to 605 to meet this criterion. (See Appendix D
for actual percentages of the population and the sample.)
Instruments and Procedures
The survey employed instruments to measure the four aspects of
readiness identified as pertinent to teacher intervention in death-
related situations, that is, (a) attitudes toward death, (b) recall of
real incidents, (c) modes of response to real situations, and (d) choice
of response to hypothetical situations. In addition, personal data was
collected to provide a description of the sample.
Attitudes Toward Death
Attitude toward death was assessed as a point of view about death
on a continuum of very unfavorable to very favorable. The Hardt Scale
(1974; 1975) was used for this purpose (see Appendix C). This scale
was developed to measure a conscious orientation to the concept of
death, which may include positive aspects (e. g., comfort, satisfaction)
as well as negative ones (fear, hatred) (Vernon, 1970; Weisman, 1972).
Earlier instruments have attempted to measure primarily negative
attitudes toward death, such as fear (Boyar, 1967; Lester, 1967a;
Sarnoff & Corwin, 1959), anxiety (Templer, 1970); and concern
The scale contains a list of 20 statements of attitudes about death
ranging from very unfavorable to very favorable. The scores range from
1.1 to 4.9 in intervals of 0.2. Respondents mark each statement with
which they agree, and the values associated with the statements marked
are averaged to give a single value. Hardt (1975) states that scores in
the extreme range at either end might be of particular interest, but he
encourages other researchers to determine what the range for extreme
scores might be.
Hardt's instrument was first used with 692 subjects aged 13 to 26
from southern Illinois (Hardt, 1975). They included a balance of males
and females and drew from lower to upper socioeconomic groups. The mean
score obtained was 2.93 with a standard deviation of 0.57. In its develop-
ment Hardt's scale was found to be reliable (split-half coefficient =
0.87) and valid (Hardt, 1974). Concurrent validity (0.84) was established
by comparing scores of ministers on Ferguson's Religionism Scale with
those on his scale. Construct validity (0.98) was based on the judgment
of 20 professionals in death research and on a measure of death attitude
change due to a program on death and dying. Two tests of readability
were applied which established sixth grade reading level and highly
The scale was used again (Hardt, 1976) with 86 college students,
ranging in age from 18 to 27, three-fourths of whom were female. It was
administered twice to this group to measure a change in attitudes
toward death as a result of a death education course. Watts (1977) used
the scale to measure such change with a sample of 39 experimental and
40 control subjects who were enrolled in a health education course at a
Midwestern university. A unit in death education was included in the
course for the experimental group. Mean age was about 20 years and the
subjects were equally balanced between males and females. In the pilot
study (Atkinson, 1977) 70 female subjects, with a mean age of 35.6 years
responded to the Hardt Scale, receiving scores which ranged from 1.70 to
4.30 with a mean of 3.13 and standard deviation of 0.50.
Three questions (see Appendix C) asked teachers to try to recall
incidents in which children were affected by death or asked a question
directly related to it. For example, the first question read, "Can you
remember any time during the past 12 months when a student with whom you
worked was affected by a death?" The options "Yes" and "No" were given
and the subjects who answered "Yes" were then asked to explain what hap-
pened and what they did.
Recall was indicated by a teacher's affirmative response to one or
more of the three questions. Results from the pilot study seemed to
suggest that recall of incidents was related to attitudes toward death.
Modes of Response
The 217 subjects who reported recall of death-related incidents
affecting children provided data on modes of response. Teachers recalling
such situations were asked to tell what happened and what they did.
Values in terms of probable effectiveness were assigned to the
responses by four raters working independently. The ratings were based
on a continuum of categories developed by Hawener (1974). The categories
are (1) extreme avoidance, (2) postponement, (3) acknowledgement,
(4) acceptance with reservation, and (5) acceptance. The meaning for
each catefory was extended somewhat beyond Hawener's descriptions to
include helpful intervention practices advocated in the counseling liter-
ature (see Appendix B for further explanation).
An interrater reliability for each of the three recall questions
was determined by using the Spearman-Brown formula (Tinsley & Weiss,
1975), averaging the pairwise correlations. The reliability ratings
were: 0.685 for Question One, 0.595 for Question Two, and 0.367 for
Choice of Response
Five hypothetical incidents related to death which a teacher might
encounter in an elementary school classroom were provided as stimulus
situations (see Appendix C). For example, Situation Two reads, "A student
in your class has been killed. You are meeting with the class for the
first time since it happened. You would . ." The possible responses
are: (a) "wait until one of the children brings up the subject,"
(b) "explain to the class that everyone dies," (c) "explain what happened,
according to the children's ability to understand," (d) "encourage the
children to accept the child's death by sharing your own convictions about
life after death," (e)"mentlon the death briefly, but don't dwell on it;
continue with the lesson as usual," (f) "let the class have an open
discussion, talking freely about the student, life, and death,"
(g) "encourage expression of feelings by the students and share your
own sorrow," (h) "help the students concretize their feelings in some
way, according to their ability (for example, a classroom memorial)."
Both the incidents and responses (from seven to nine for each incident)
were taken from the responses of teachers in the pilot study (Atkinson,
1977). Each of the choices was assigned a value on the scale of relative
effectiveness used to rate the teachers' responses to real situations.
The assigned values have an intraclass interrater reliability of 0.87
based on the judgements of three raters with graduate degrees and experi-
ence in death education and counseling.
Since children's needs vary greatly, the actual responses are of
more importance than the values. For example, in the incident just
cited two different responses are considered "acceptance with reservation"
and rated "4". These are: (d) "encourage the children to accept the
child's death by sharing your own convictions about life after death,"
and (h) "help the students concretize their feelings in some way,
according to their ability (for example, a classroom memorial)." These
two responses may be quite different in what they convey, even though
they fit the same category.
Demographic and Professional Data and Personal Belief
A personal data sheet (see Appendix C) included twelve items which
have been identified as important in the pilot study and in the related
Age, sex, ethnic identity, marital status and school system were
included to provide a description of the sample and to determine how
representative it is of the population. There is also some evidence that
ethnic identity may be a factor in attitudes toward death and related
behavior (Balkin, Epstein, & Bush, 1976; Fields, 1976; Reynolds & Kalish,
1974). Higher education has been found to relate to less anxiety about
death (Berman & Hays, 1973; Riley, 1970; Wass & Sisler, 1978). For
this reason level of education was also included, although there may
not have been a large enough difference in education among the subjects
for this effect to be evident.
Three questions sought to establish teacher role identification.
These were length of time as an elementary teacher, primary professional
role, and age of children the subject is presently teaching. Two ques-
tions were designed to determine formal exposure to guidance or death
Finally, there was a question on belief in life after death. The
relationship between religious identification or activity and death
concern is not at all clear. Research results have indicated contra-
dictory conclusions (Bendiksen, 1976; Feifel, 1974b). However,
establishing a conviction about whether there is a life after death, and
what that conviction is, seem to be factors in higher or lower death
anxiety (Wass & Scott, 1977). This belief may also be an important
determinant of teacher response to children coping with death.
The instruments were arranged in packets, the five pages stapled
together in the following sequence: first, the personal data sheet;
second, the hypothetical death-related situations (two and one-half
pages) followed by the three recall questions; and finally, the Hardt
Scale. Two copies of an "Informed Consent Form" (see Appendix C) were
in the packets as well. A copy of the Informed Consent Form, returned
unattached to the rest of the material, was the only paper identified
by name. The packets were distributed to entire faculties in each of the
sample schools. A contact person in each school distributed and collected
the instruments, giving the teachers from three days to three weeks to
complete them. The contact person attempted to find out reasons and
reported them in those cases where teachers who were given the opportunity
did not participate (see Appendix C). The directions on the instruments
were self-explanatory and required no special interpretation, as
experience in the pilot study indicated.
Statistical analyses were employed in the investigation of the
following eight research questions:
(1) What is the point of view of teachers with regard to death on
a scale of unfavorable to favorable? The mean score and standard devia-
tion for the Hardt Scale scores of the entire sample was obtained.
(2) Is there a difference in attitudes toward death between those
teachers who recall death-related situations and those who do not?
Subjects were divided into quartiles on the basis of the Hardt Scale
scores. The highest and lowest quartile groups were compared as to
whether or not they recalled death-related situations. The chi-square
statistic was used, with a 0.05 alpha level established for significance
(3) On a scale of intervention effectiveness, how helpful are
teacher reported responses to real incidents? The mean score and
standard deviation of effectiveness ratings were obtained on each of the
three questions for the sample responding affirmatively to this section.
(4) Are there relationships between the responses to real incidents
and teacher attitudes toward death? Subjects were divided into quartiles
on the basis of the Hardt Scale scores and according to the effectiveness
ratings for their responses to each of the three kinds of incidents (with:
a child, with a class, and a question). The chi-square test was applied
three times, with a 0.05 level established for significance.
(5) On a scale of intervention effectiveness, how helpful are
teacher choices of response to the hypothetical situations? The mean
scdre and standard deviation for the effectiveness ratings were obtained
for the entire sample for each of the five incidents.
(6) How do their choices of response to hypothetical situations
compare with their reported responses to real incidents? The subjects'
scores on each of the five incidents were correlated with their scores
on each of the reported responses to real incidents, using the Pearson
product-moment coefficient of correlation and a two-tail t-test (Kerlinger,
1973; Nie, et al., 1975).
(7) Are there any relationships between choices of response to the
hypothetical death-related situations and teacher attitudes toward death?
Subjects were divided into quartiles on the basis of Hardt Scale scores.
The four groups were compared on the value (from 1 to 5) of their choice
of response to the incident under study. The chi-square statistic was used
with a 0.05 level established for significance. Each of the five incidents
was treated separately so that the test was applied five times.
(8) Are there identifiable factors which characterize teachers in
their choice of response to the hypothetical situations? Personal data,
attitudes and recall rates were treated as independent variables and the
response effectiveness values, which are continuous, as the dependent
variable. The personal data of interest included age, sex, race, marital
status, education, years of teaching and system in which they teach,
professional role, age of children they teach, exposure to death educa-
tion or counseling courses, and belief in life after death. Multiple
regression analysis was employed for each of the five situations, and
a Pearson product-moment coefficient of correlation was obtained for
each variable in each situation. A two-tail t-test was applied (Ker-
linger, 1973; Nie et al., 1975).
A narrative presentation in the following chapter describes the
results of the following three questions:
What situations related to death are recalled by teachers?
What responses to incidents which they recall do teachers report?
What responses do teachers choose for the hypothetical death-
There are a number of limitations to this study which must be
mentioned along with steps taken to minimize their effects.
The study was limited by the self-selection of both the principal
of the school and the individual subjects. Resampling was done in geo-
graphic areas where principal's permission was not obtained at first.
Early contact with the administrators sought to avoid times of additional
stress or work in the school, although these could not be predicted
entirely. Many individual subjects simply did not respond to the
questionnaire, and in these cases the contact person in the school was
asked to complete a paper citing the number of nonrespondents and reasons
given for not participating (see Appendix C).
The study was limited in its scope by concentrating on one Southern
metropolitan area. The results will not necessarily be applicable to
all other geographic areas or cities. However, there are few "typical"
metropolitan areas and New Orleans is quite similar to several others,
such as Atlanta, Memphis and Charleston (see Appendix D for further compar-
isons). On the other hand, research in thanatology with Black populations
has been extremely limited. This study gathered data from a substantial
number of both Black and nonBlack subjects.
The fact that only self-report, paper-and-pencil instruments were
used is a disadvantage because it does not allow further exploration of
subjects' feelings or possible alternative responses to the situations.
This limitation is compensated for in part by the means used to develop
the instruments (see Appendix A). The large number of individuals whom
the study reached has provided a volume of information which would not
have been obtainable by some other means. For example, an interview
approach would have given greater depth of information, but it would
have demanded much more time of the subjects and the self-selection
process would have excluded all except highly motivated persons. Then
one would have lost information from subjects minimally interested in
participation, who are likely to make up a large percentage of the
Difficulties Related to Measurement of Death Attitudes
Attitudes of any kind are difficult to assess. In the case of
attitudes toward death there is not yet a clear norm for deciding what
is a "healthy" or "good" attitude. The instrument chosen for this study
was carefully selected from among those available with demonstrated
reliability and validity. The construct which the Hardt Scale attempts
to measure (i.e., point of view with regard to death) differs from other
such instruments, which attempt to measure only fear, anxiety or concern.
The instrument chosen acknowledges a range of favorable as well as
unfavorable points of view. This appears compatible with the orientation
of the population under study, the majority of whom profess religious
affiliation (Official Catholic Directory, 1977). Clearly the instrument
does not measure many factors which have been identified in the liter-
ature as components of death attitudes and concerns. It does, however,
focus on a dimension which seems likely to have a bearing on how
teachers respond to children who are concerned with death.
Variance in Teacher Behavior
There is no absolute assurance that a certain type of teacher
response is most helpful to all students at a given time. Teachers,
students and situations all vary too much to make such an assumption.
In fact, the same type of behavior is not even possible for the same
teacher at different times. Teacher responses are likely to be affected
by the adult's own experience of grief or other loss, for example.
Attempts to understand helpful teacher behaviors in death-related situ-
ations with children must then be viewed with some caution.
This chapter presents the outcomes of a descriptive study of
elementary school teachers' attitudes and behaviors in death-related
situations. The results are organized under four headings: (a) teachers'
attitudes toward death, (b) teachers' awareness of death-related situ-
ations, (c) teachers' modes of response to real situations, and (d)
teachers' responses to hypothetical death-related situations.
Attitudes toward Death
The teachers' points of view with regard to death spanned almost
the entire range of the Hardt Scale, from 1.20 to 4.90 (on a scale of
1.10 to 4.90). The mean score was 3.07 and the standard deviation 0.51.
Table 1 presents the distribution of scores in intervals representative
of each statement on the scale (e.g., 4.00-4.19 encompasses 4.10, which
represents the statement, "The thought of death is comforting"). The
highest score represents the view "The thought of death is a glorious
thought," while a score of 1.20 represents an opinion somewhere between
"The thought of death is outrageous," and "I hate the sound of the word
death," (see Appendix C for more detail).
Awareness of Death-Related Situations
Two hundred seventeen of the 605 teachers reported one or more
incidents in which children at school were affected by death. The
Distribution of Hardt Scale Scores
Interval Frequency Percent
- 3.19 - -
- 2.79 ---
Note. Sample size = 589.
teachers' responses to each of the three questions on this part of the
survey are discussed separately below.
Question One. "Can you remember any time during the past 12 months
when a student with whom you worked was affected by death?" One hundred
eighty-seven teachers answered "Yes" to this question and 149 of them
explained the circumstances. The situations which they reported are
given in Table 2. Those described most often included a child's parent
(mentioned 31.5% of the time) or grandparent (30.2%). In those 48 cases
where the cause of death was included, violence (such as murder or sui-
cide) was named most often (39.6% of the time). These violent deaths
were reported by teachers in both public and parochial schools, from
inner city and suburban areas.
Question Two. "Can you remember any time during the past 12 months
when a group of students with whom you worked was affected by death?"
Fifty-nine teachers answered this question affirmatively. Incidents
mentioned most often involved the relative of a classmate (28.8%) and
another child known to the class, but not a classmate (18.6%). A
"famous person" was mentioned eight times and Elvis Presley was named
in three of these situations. When a cause of death was given an accident
was named most often (20.3% of the time) followed by violence (16.9%)
(see Table 2 for complete listing).
Question Three. "Can you remember any time during the past 12 months
when a student asked a question directly related to death?" Sixty-three
teachers said "Yes" to this question although only 48 were able to relate
the specific questions. Those questions recalled can be divided into four
general categories based on their content. The children asked (a) what
Summary of Death-Related Situations Recalled by Teachers
Situation Frequency %
Situations Involving One Child (n = 187)
Parent 47 25.1
Grandparent 45 24.1
Sibling 8 4.3
Other relative 18 9.6
Friend or classmate 8 4.3
Other person 7 3.7
Pets or other animals 13 7.0
Fears about death 3 1.6
Not explained 38 20.3
Cause of Death:
Murder, suicide or
other violence 19 10.2
Accident 15 8.0
Disease 13 6.9
Old age 1 0.5
Not explained 139 74.3
Situations Involving a Group of Children (n = 59)
Relative of a classmate 17 28.8
Child known to the class 11 18.6
Famous person 8 13.6
Classmate 3 5.1
Member of the school staff 3 5.1
Teacher's relative 2 3.4
Other person 5 8.5
Not explained 10 16.9
Cause of Death:
Accident 12 20.3
Murder, suicide or
other violence 10 16.9
Disease 2 3.4
Not explained 35 59.3
happens, (b) why death happens, (c) questions about fears, and (d) other
"What happens when you die?" was often asked directly and with
variations. For example, "People go to heaven when they die, don't they?"
"Don't the devil get you?" "Where do you go?" "Do pets go to heaven?"
"Do you come back as something else?" "What happens to your body after
it is buried?" "Where do suicides go when they die?" One teacher
recalled that this last question sought more than information. The
questioner's father had committed suicide. These "What?" questions were
reported by teachers of all age groups (five- to seven-year-olds, seven-
to nine-year-olds, and nine- to twelve-year-olds).
The "Why?" of death was reported as a concern of the older children.
One child in the seven-to-nine age range asked, "Doesn't everyone die
sometime?" and another remarked, "People are stupid to let themselves
diel" The other questions were from the nine- to twelve-year-olds.
Some examples are: "Why does God let us die if he loves us?" "Why do
some die old and some younger?" "Why did Templeton [a storybook charac-
ter] die?" "Why did my mother have to die?" "Do you always die in the
hospital?" This last question, the teacher reported, was asked by a
child whose father was hospitalized frequently.
Questions about fears were most often recalled by the teachers of
the oldest group. Examples are: "Are you afraid of death?" "Are you
afraid of dead people?" and questions about persons coming back from
the dead. One girl expressed fear of her own death. A six-year-old,
whom the teacher knew to have a brain tumor, asked, "Was Jesus afraid to
Information questions reported by the teachers involved such things
as funerals, and in particular, the open casket; a former principal's
death; the teacher's own experience of a relative's death; and beliefs
about life after death in connection with the "King Tut" exhibit, which
was in the city for several months of that school year. Sometimes such
questions seemed to express more than their obvious content. One kinder-
garten child asked, "Did you know my grandfather died?"
In summary, these elementary school teachers recalled a variety of
death-related incidents which had affected children. More dramatic
(i.e., violent and sudden) deaths, and deaths of children's close family
members were noted most frequently. Somewhat more of the incidents and
questions recalled were reported by teachers of older children (nine- to
twelve-year-olds) than by those of the younger groups, especially the
five- to seven-year-olds. This may in part reflect the composition of
the teacher sample: 24.5% taught five- to seven-year-olds, 21.5% taught
seven- to nine-year-olds, and 35.7% taught the nine- to twelve-year-olds;
the remaining 18.3% taught mixed age groups.
Death Attitude and Reported Recall
Is there a difference in attitudes toward death between those
teachers who recall death-related situations and those who do not? To
answer this question subjects were divided into quartiles on the basis
of the Hardt Scale scores. The highest and lowest quartile groups were
compared on the dichotomy of recall or no recall of death-related inci-
dents (see Table 3). The chi-square test showed there was a difference
between the groups at the 0.05 level of significance.
Modes of Response to Real Situations
The 217 teachers who recalled real classroom situations provided a
broad range of responses to those situations, much as the teachers in
Relationship Between Death Attitude and Reported Recall
Hardt Scale Scores No Reporteda Reporteda Number of
by Quartiles Recall Recall Reports
First Quartile 100 (68.5) 46 (31.5) 146
Fourth Quartile 86 (55.5) 69 (44.5) 155
186 115 301
Chi-Square = 4.85*
aNumbers in parentheses indicate percentage of reports in each
p L 0.05
the pilot study (Atkinson, 1977) had done. The range of intervention
behaviors are described below according to the effectiveness ratings
assigned by averaging the scores of four raters. Within each category
responses to each of the three types of situations (to an individual,
to a group, and to a question) are described.
What Responses Do Teachers Make?
Extreme avoidance. The category of teacher behavior considered
least helpful to children in grief situations is "extreme avoidance."
This category indicates an unwillingness to acknowledge or do anything
oneself about a death situation. The reality of death and the child's
feelings about it are avoided. For the situations with individual
children, teachers' responses of this type were such as: "I did nothing
.. ," "I took no direct action," "I didn't dwell on it," and
"I never discussed it." The following are some examples in the context
of the situations:
"A grandparent died. The child didn't seem upset at all. She
merely said why she had been absent. I didn't dwell on it."
"A girl in my homeroom went home one afternoon to discover that
her father had been killed as a result of a gun accident. T--- was
absent for about two days. Although T--- and I never discussed it, I
did have a talk with her mother. ."
"A girl student's father died. The child became very withdrawn.
I had the child actively take part in class responsibilities plus had
her do errands. . ."
"A student's mother was violently stabbed to death in the presence
of the child. The child was also badly stabbed but she lived. I
explained to the class what happened and I instructed the children not
to discuss the matter with the child .. "
There was only one instance in which a teacher's response to a
group affected by death was rated "extreme avoidance." The situation
was not explained and the teacher merely stated, "I did not take any
direct action in this situation." There were no such responses reported
where a child asked a question about death.
In summary, the teachers' avoidance was most often noted with
individual children suffering a loss, rather than with a group. Subjects
reported doing nothing directly to deal with the death, doing things to
distract the child, or talking with the class or another adult about the
death, rather than with the child involved.
Postponement. In the category of "postponement" the teacher shows
an awareness of the death situation and indicates a willingness to think
about it with the intent to act upon it later. Postponement behavior
with an individual student was expressed by teachers in words such as,
"I waited until the child brought the subject up," "Fortunately .
little discussion was necessary," and "I avoided the subject. . and
watched for symptoms of his feelings." Some situations described by
the teachers follow:
"A child's mother died after a lengthy illness. When she returned
to school I was more supportive--talked with her more, tried to make her
feel secure--but I did not mention the death . Idid not want to make
"A little boy in my room lost a baby sister. The baby died of
crib death at about two months of age. I discussed the death with the
class when the child was absent. I waited until the child brought the
subject up before talking to him about it."
In I r'l lg lon cliss a boy asked bout where suicides go when they
die. After the teacher's "theological" explanation the boy shrugged and
said that his father had committed suicide. The teacher goes on to
report, "I then told him that I would be willing to talk to him any time
after class about it. . He never mentioned it again and I never
pressed the subject."
In situations with a class affected by death, teacher postponement
was not often reported and when it was, it was described as a reluctance
to do anything unless required to. As one teacher said, "I spoke to
them briefly but I dwelt upon the topic as little as possible." There
were no instances reported where the teacher responded to a child's
question with postponement.
In summary, situations where teacher intervention was labeled as
postponement were those in which the teacher knew a death situation was
affecting a child or group but was reluctant to initiate action. How-
ever, there was an awareness evident that intervention might be appro-
priate in the future.
Acknowledgement. The category of "acknowledgement" means that the
teacher is aware that death has occurred and/or that feelings are
aroused, but refers to death in other terms or does not talk about
feelings directly. Recognition that death happens is expressed without
saying it is a part of life or that the child's feelings are a natural
Acknowledgement of death with an individual student was expressed in
words such as, "I expressed my sympathy to him in the presence of the
class. . ." "All I did was to express my sympathy and offer prayers,"
and "I expressed sorrow but did not dwell on the subject." Some situ-
ations where teachers elected to intervene in this way follow.
"A student's good friend was murdered. We only talked briefly
about the situation. The child was in the sixth grade and could cope
with the situation."
"One of my student's grandfather died. I expressed my sympathy to
him and went on with work. He had no fears to deal with."
"I expressed my sorrow when the child returned. He was very
casual, not reacting or saying much. But as weeks went on he was
up-tight and reacted violently one day, turning over a desk." There is
no further action reported on the part of the teacher.
Acknowledgement with a group was expressed in words such as, "We
discussed safety rules," and "We talked about many ways that death may
come." Some group situations in which the teacher's response was
"There was a murder in the hallway in the housing project. [We
had a] discussion of rules in school and society and the necessity for
them, [as well as] consequences suffered by those who disregard rules."
The sister of a child in the class was killed by a car. The
teacher wrote, "As a class we discussed the many ways which death may
come--and we have no choice."
"In the case of Elvis Presley's death we talked about it in class--
his death and reported possible causes. I answered questions that I
When teachers responded to children's questions with acknowledgement
they said things like, "You shouldn't worry," or "It is God's will."
A girl asked if her mother, who had died, would come back to her
house. The teacher reported, "I told her that her mother's soul would
never die and that she should do her best to follow her mother's advice."
A student asked why his mother had to die. The teacher recalled,
"I could only tell him, 'It was God's will' and that one day he would
be reunited with her."
"He asked if I were afraid of death, and I explained briefly about
In summary, teachers' replies in the category of acknowledgement
often avoided reference to feelings involved in death situations.
Expressions of sympathy extended to individual children were rated in
this category because they seemed to be nothing more than social amen-
Acceptance with reservation. In the category "acceptance with
reservation" the teacher recognizes death and some emotion connected
with it in words or actions. The teacher is not entirely open to what
death entails and/or to the child's frame of reference. The teachers
said such things as, "You shouldn't be sad because your grandfather is
happy now," and "Let's think of good things about your aunt." Some
situations in which the teacher showed acceptance with reservation
"A first grade child was hit by another] child and died. Another
first grader mentioned a month or so later that 'everyone has just
forgotten' the dead child. I told her that no they hadn't forgotten
but that they .. .just don't discuss it because it makes them sad, and
they are calmed knowing he's with God."
"On the day he [the child's grandfather] died, the child came to
school sad. We talked quietly (by ourselves) about the good things he
could remember about grandfather. I encouraged the boy to think about
these good things and how God wanted him home with him."
With groups of children the teachers used acceptance with reser-
vation by talking about the universality of death without recognizing
feelings openly, or by explaining death only in terms of the teacher's
frame of reference. Some examples:
"One student was killed in a fire. . The class had a brief
discussion about the incident and discussed their beliefs about death
and how natural death was. Everybody has to face reality."
With regard to Elvis Presley's death, a teacher wrote, "I told the
group it is a fact of life that no one lives forever. We usually think
of older people dying but young can too. It doesn't do any good to
worry about it for it is something we have no control over."
A neighborhood child known to several members of the class was
killed. "I explained," wrote the teacher, "that though we couldn't
understand why such things happen, we will all die some day and that
death is the gateway to eternal happiness with God."
When the children asked questions about death the teachers'
responses in this category tended to include honest information without
helping the child deal with feelings fully, or the sharing of their own
beliefs without acknowledging the possibility of other beliefs. For
"A student asked what happens to our body after it's buried. I
answered that our body is like a protective covering for our soul.
After we die it turns to ashes and our soul is free to go to heaven."
"A six-year-old, who has a brain tumor, asked me if Jesus was
afraid to die. I explained as best I could that his Father was with
Him and that helped the fears to go away."
"Why do some die old while others die relatively young? [I said
that] God has a job for each to do during life. Once the job is
finished He calls them home to reward them."
"The child stated he was afraid, in the house, of seeing the dead
one. I told him that the one who was deceased loved him and would do
him no harm only protect him."
In summary, teachers whose responses fit into this category took
positive steps to intervene with the child or children, recognizing
needs and attempting to soothe fears. The limitations which prevented
their responses from being more effective chiefly involved trying to
draw the child into the teacher's frame of reference without fully
respecting and sounding out the child's.
Acceptance. In the final category, "acceptance," the teacher in
words or actions accepts death as a part of life and the child's
reactions and feelings are accepted as they are. With an individual
child, the teachers took the initiative (e.g., "I spotted him before
school sitting sadly on a bench. . .") and helped the child deal with
the grief by mutual expression of feelings and sharing experiences
(e.g., in the death of a pet, "I offered sympathy, shared experiences,
encouraged her to express her feelings"). One teacher summarized these
kinds of responses in her reply:
"It's happened quite a few times this year. I listen and comfort
them, basically. I respond according to what I feel they want or ask
of me at the moment. If they want me to hold them I do, if they want
me to talk about their feelings with them I do. . Basically I take
the lead from them just trying to be present with warmth, support and
affection. .. ."
With groups of children teachers in this intervention category
helped them express feelings in a variety of ways and were willing to
share their personal feelings with the group. For example:
"A young child was killed in an automobile accident. The students
discussed the incident and told of their feelings about it. I told
them my feelings also and how I see death."
"With sharing of our feelings, the group verbally expressed their
views. I find any type of expressing--writing, painting, talking,
crying, praying--very HEALTHY and don't believe in 'bottling up feeling.'"
Responses to questions related to death which were rated as accep-
tance gave direct information when it was solicited and drew the ques-
tioner on to expressions of feeling when this seemed appropriate. One
teacher explained this type of response: "I gave them all the infor-
mation I had--on their level, and said, 'I don't know' when I didn't.
They shared their feelings and ideas."
In summary, teachers responding at this level of effectiveness
exhibited a flexibility of approach and sensitivity to children's needs
and views. They appeared willing and able to help children cope with
loss in a therapeutic way.
Effectiveness of Responses to Recalled Situations
It was difficult to assess the true effectiveness of a teacher's
response from the limited remarks given on many of the surveys. The
four raters attempted to understand the climate of the situation
described as they judged the responses according to the guidelines (see
Appendix B). The raters were not always in agreement on values for
particular responses. An average of the Spearman-Brown correlation
coefficients obtained on all pairs of ratings (Nie, et al., 1975;
Tinsley & Weiss, 1975) for each question produced the following inter-
rater reliabilities: for Question One, 0.685; for Question Two, 0.595;
and for Question Three, 0.367. The statistics dependent on the ratings,
especially for the third question, are necessarily somewhat tenuous.
The distribution of effectiveness ratings for the recalled situ-
ations are given in Table 4. The values for 174 teachers' responses to
individual children (Question One) produced a mean of 3.42 and standard
deviation of 0.94. For responses to a group of children (Question Two)
the mean was 3.60 with standard deviation of 0.85, derived from 54
teachers' answers. Responses to death-related questions (Question
Three) received a mean effectiveness rating of 3.85 with standard devi-
ation of 0.58 on the basis of 47 teachers' replied. Average scores for
all three types of situations indicate that teachers report intervention
strategies in real situations which fall between the categories of
"acknowledgement" and "acceptance with reservation."
Relationship between Real Responses and Death Attitudes
Subjects were divided into quartiles by Hardt Scale scores and into
four groups by quartiles of effectiveness ratings for responses to the
real situations. With a chi-square test for significance at the 0.05
level no relationship was established between response effectiveness and
attitude toward death in any of the three types of situations represented
by Questions One, Two and Three.
Summary of Effectiveness Ratings
for Responses to Recalled Situations
- 1.5 (extreme avoidance)
- 2.5 (postponement)
- 3.5 (acknowledgement)
- 4.5 (acceptance with
- 5.0 (acceptance)
a A Group
Mean Effectiveness Rating
an = 174
n = 54
n = 47
Responses to Hypothetical Situations
Choices of Response
Each of the hypothetical situations allowed teachers to choose
from a variety of seven, eight or nine responses, each of which had a
preassigned effectiveness rating based on the judgement of three trained
raters (interrater reliability established at 0.87). Table 5 displays
the frequencies with which each of the responses was selected by the
Situation One reads "A girl in your class had a pet that she
often spoke about. This morning she came to school late and was crying.
A note from her mother said that her pet had just died. You would ."
The responses chosen most often were (g) "encourage the child to talk
with you about how shefeels" (41.4% of the time) and (a) "talk to the
child and the rest of the class about the sadness of death, but that
life must go on" (21.5%). The least popular was (b) "contact the
child's mother and suggest that she discuss the problem with her" (0.5%).
Situation Two reads "A student in your class has been killed.
You are meeting with the class for the first time since it happened. You
would ." For this situation teachers most often selected (f) "let
the class have an open discussion, talking freely about the student,
life and death" (28.5%) and (c) "explain what happened, according to the
children's ability to understand" (28.0%). Response (b) "explain to the
class that everyone dies," was chosen least often (1.0%).
Situation Three says "A well-known person, idolized by the students,
has died violently. The news breaks during school time. You would ..."
Almost one-third of the teachers (31.2%) chose (b) "explain that
their idol can live on through the good she/he has done; talk about
Choices of Response to Hypothetical Situations
Responses f %
encourage the child to talk with you about how she feels
talk to the child and the rest of the class about the
sadness of death, but that life must go on
tell the child you are sorry, but she shouldn't be sad
because the pet would not want her to be
share your own experience of loss with her
take the child aside to explain to her about death and
life in nature
not mention the situation unless you see the child crying
and upsetting the class
contact the child's mother and suggest that she discuss
the problem with her
let the class have an open discussion, talking freely
about the student, life and death
explain to the class what happened, according to the
children's ability to understand
encourage expression of feelings by the students and share
your own sorrow
help students concretize their feelings in some way,
according to their ability (for example, a classroom
mention the death briefly, but don't dwell on it; continue
with the lesson as usual
encourage the children to accept the child's death by
sharing your own convictions about life after death
wait until one of the children brings up the subject
explain to the class that everyone dies
Table 5 continued
Responses f %
explain that their idol can live on through the good she/he
has done; talk about positive contributions she/he made 182 31.2
talk to the children about what just happened; answer
questions 132 22.6
mention the death briefly but stay calm and quiet the
children; avoid overreaction 90 15.4
help the children express their feelings of grief, shock,
anger 78 13.4
pray with them or suggest a time for prayer or meditation 52 8.9
discuss violent death throughout history as a reality
although hard to understand or accept 22 3.8
use this opportunity to discuss the universality of death:
no matter who you are you will die 14 2.4
keep them busy, holding class as usual 9 1.5
share your own feelings of sorrow and loss 5 0.9
extend your sympathy to him in private and allow for gradual
reentrance into school work 238 41.0
tell the student that you are there to talk if he wishes;
respect the student's feelings 205 35.3
give him support and reassurance based on your own religious
convictions 59 10.2
encourage him to talk about his father's death and ask
questions to help him express his feelings 38 6.5
watch for trouble signs; don't involve yourself unless
you see it is necessary 32 5.5
not mention it, but go on with classwork as usual 7 1.2
plan a classroom discussion of death and how to deal with
it for a later day 2 0.3
explain the universality of death to him 0 0.0
Table 5 continued
Responses f %
listen to the child's feelings, realizing that the fears
are real 210 36.6
explain that death is natural and happens to everybody and
she shouldn't be afraid 101 17.6
refer the child to her parents and/or the counselor 95 16.6
encourage her to tell you about the nightmares to find out
what may be causing them 60 10.5
encourage her to tell you good things about the relative 34 5.9
advise the child what to do when she becomes afraid, or
what to do to prevent fear 31 5.4
plan a classroom discussion related to death for a time
when it will fit into a lesson 20 3.5
read about or tell the child about pleasant experiences to
get her mind off her fears 15 2.6
explain your own beliefs about life after death 7 1.2
an = 591
bn = 586
Cn = 584
dn = 581
n = 573
positive contributions she/he made" and the next most popular response
was (a) "talk to the children about what just happened; answer questions"
(22.6%). Responses chosen most infrequently were (d) "share your own
feelings of sorrow and loss" (0.9%) and (f) "keep them busy, holding
class as usual" (1.5%).
Situation Four is "You have just learned that the father of one
of your students died. The boy is returning to school after a three
day absence. You would. ." Teachers selected (c) "extend your sym-
pathy to him in private and allow for gradual reentrance into school
work" most often (41.0%) and (d) "tell the student that you are there to
talk if he wishes; respect the student's feelings" next (35.3%). Least
frequently selected were (h) "plan a classroom discussion of death and
how to deal with it for a later day" (0.2%) and (b) "not mention it, but
go on with classwork as usual (1.2%).
Situation Five says "A student tells you about nightmares she
is having ever since viewing the body of a dead relative. You would .
The largest number chose (d) "listen to the child's feelings, realizing
that the fears are real (36.6%), while 17.6% selected (b) "explain that
death is natural and happens to everybody and she shouldn't be afraid."
Only 1.2% opted for (f) "explain your own beliefs about life after death."
The teachers were directed to choose the one response they thought
was most important. Several persons (from 13 to 20) chose more than one
answer for each of the five situations, and they were not included in
the percentages reported above. Average effectiveness values were
obtained in these cases, however, and they were included in the statis-
tics for response effectiveness reported below.
Effectiveness of Responses to Hypothetical Situations
The distributions of effectiveness ratings for each of the
hypothetical situations are presented in Table 6. Means and standard
deviations for the entire sample on each of the situations are as
Situation Mean S. D.
One 4.22 0.96
Two 4.46 1.02
Three 3.95 1.08
Four 3.86 1.06
Five 3.61 1.54
These ratings show that for the first two situations, which involved
(One) the death of a child's pet and (Two) the death of a classmate, the
average response was between "acceptance with reservation" and "accep-
tance." For the other three situations involving (Three) the death of
a national figure, (Four) a parent's death and (Five) a child's fear of
the dead, the mean response was between "acknowledgement" and "acceptance
Responses to Real and Hypothetical Situations Compared
The mean scores for responses to each of the three types of real
situations and each of the hypothetical situations were tested for
correlations, using the Pearson product-moment coefficient (Kerlinger,
1973; Nie, et al., 1975). With a one-tail t-test seven of the fifteen
pairs were related at a 0.05 level of significance (see Table 7). Response
effectiveness with an individual child correlated significantly with
three of the hypothetical situations; real responses to incidents with
a group of students were positively related with two hypothetical situ-
ations; and teacher responses to a child's question were positively
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Relationship of Responses to Real and to Hypothetical Situations
Intervention in Real Situationsa
Situations One Childb A Classc A Questiond
One (a pet) 0.298* 0.313 0.144
Two (death of a
student) 0.226 0.018 0.255
Three (death of
a national idol) 0.109 0.099 0.096
Four (death of
child's parent) 0.206 0.234* 0.152
Five (nightmares) 0.058 0.088 0.249
b169 = n4174
c51 n 54
d45 n 47
*--0.05, one tail t-test
j* 0.01, one tail t-test
related to two of the hypothetical situations. Responses to Situation
Three (death of a national figure) were not significantly related to
any of the responses to real incidents. A discrepancy can be noted
between the rate of response choice effectiveness in the recalled inci-
dents and in the hypothetical situations (see Tables 4 and 6):
Situations (1-5) Situations (1, 2)
Effectiveness % Choosing % Choosing
1 4.8 3.8
2 8.2 9.0
3 16.3 41.0
4 21.9 36.4
5 48.9 9.8
Although the largest percentage chose responses rated 5 on effectiveness
in the hypothetical situations, in real incidents the largest percentage
chose responses rate 3.
Relationship between Hypothetical Responses and Death Attitudes
Subjects were divided into quartiles by Hardt Scale scores and
according to effectiveness ratings for responses to each of the real
situations. With a chi-square test for significance at the 0.05 level,
no relationship was established between response effectiveness and
attitudes toward death for any of the five situations.
Relationship between Choice of Responses and Other Factors
Fourteen factors were compared with response effectiveness ratings
for each of the five situations. These factors were age, sex, ethnic
identity (Black/non-Black), marital status (never married/other),
education, years of teaching in elementary school, role (classroom
Relationships Between Responses to Hypothetical Situations
and Personal Factors
Factors One Two Three Four Five
Age -0.038 -0.056 -0.078 0.041 -0.003
Sexb -0.014 -0.039 -0.082* -0.040 -0.033
Ethnic Ident.c 0.191** 0.164** 0.110** 0.061 0.175**
Marital Statusd 0.030 -0.077 -0.031 -0.001 -0.060
Education 0.112" 0.054 0.128* 0.000 0.018
Years Elem. Sc.
Teaching -0.032 -0.060 -0.075 -0.011 -0.017
Rolee 0.030 -0.012 0.026 -0.020 -0.021
Age of Children 0.070 0.003 0.018 0.015 0.039
G/C Ed. 0.086 0.019 0.010 0.112* 0.095*
Death Ed. 0.039 0.024 0.054 0.052 -0.006
Belief 0.001 -0.003 0.016 -0.056 -0.069
School System -0.028 -0.043 -0.014 0.076 0.049
Hardt Scale 0.039 0.042 0.043 0.067 0.023
Recall 0.154** 0.003 0.058 0.046 0.100
bFemale low; male high
CBlack low; nonBlack high
dNever married low; other high
eClassroom teacher high; other low
fYounger low; older high
gPublic low; nonpublic high
P*_p0.05, two tailed t-test
p-O.O01, two tailed t-test
teacher/other), ages of children taught, exposure to guidance or coun-
seling education, exposure to death education, school system (public/
nonpublic), belief in life after death, death attitude and recall (no/
yes). A Pearson product-moment coefficient of correlation was obtained
on each of the hypothetical situations for each factor with a 0.05 level
established for significance, employing a two-tail t-test (see Table 8).
Ethnic identity was related to effectiveness in four of the five
situations, with non-Blacks choosing the situations rated more effec-
tive. Amount of education in guidance or counseling was related posi-
tively to effectiveness in three of the situations, while higher edu-
cation and reported recall of real death-related incidents were related
in two of the hypothetical situations. Sex was a factor in one situa-
tion, with women showing more effective ratings than men. It should be
noted that the correlations which are significant are nevertheless quite
In a stepwise multiple regression analysis, the same factors were
similarly related to effectiveness (see Table 9). Here ethnic identity
was the strongest factor in three of the five situations, while higher
education was the strongest in another, and guidance and counseling
education accounted for more of the difference in the fifth situation.
Factors which did not appear significant in the Pearson product-moment
correlations, but which added small significant increments in the multiple
regression analysis, were school system, marital status, years of
elementary school teaching, death education training and age. However,
in none of the five situations did the combination of factors account
for as much as seven percent of the variance.
Significant Multiple Correlations Between
Responses to Hypothetical Situations and Personal Factors
Variables F-ratio* R2
Situation One: Death of a Pet
Ethnic Identity 15.641
School System 6.228
Guidance/Counseling Education 3.083
Situation Two: Death of a Student
Ethnic Identity 14.841
School System 7.052
Marital Status 4.458
Situation Three: Death of a National Figure
Years of Elementary School Teaching 3.223
Ethnic Identity 2.636
Death Education Training 2.265
Situation Four: Death of a Child's Parent
Guidance/Counseling Education 7.956
Situation Five: A Child with Nightmares
Ethnic Identity 14.994
Guidance/Counseling Education 6.734
Note: Stepwise multiple regression analysis, n = 506.
Comparison by Ethnic Identity of
Selected Responses to Hypothetical Situations
Percent of Percent of
Responses Chosen Rating Blacks Non-Blacks
Situation One (n = 203) (n = 381)
a. talk to the child and the rest of 4 28.1 17.8
the class about the sadness of
death, but that life must go on.
c. tell the child you are sorry, 3 16.7 7.9
but she shouldn't be sad because
the pet would not want her to be.
d. share your own experience of loss 5 6.9 10.5
f. take the child aside to explain 4 10.8 7.6
to her about life and death in
g. encourage the child to talk with 5 27.1 48.6
you about how she feels.
Situation Two (n = 200) (n = 379)
c. explain what happened, according to 5 29.5 27.4
the children's ability to understand.
e. mention the death briefly, but don't 2 13.5 5.8
dwell on it; continue with the les-
son as usual.
f. let the class have an open dis- 5 25.5 29.6
cussion. talking freely about the
student, life and death.
g. encourage expression of feelings by 5 7.0 18.7
the students and share your own
h. help students concretize their 4 14.0 10.8
feelings in some way, according
to their ability.
Table 10 continued
Percent of Percent of
Responses Chosen Rating Blacks Non-Blacks
Situation Three (n = 202) (n = 375)
a. talk to the children about what 5 18.3 24.8
just happened; answer questions.
b. explain that their idol can live 4 35.6 29.1
on through the good she/he has
done; talk about positive contri-
butions she/he made.
e. help the children express their 5 6.9 16.8
feelings of grief, shock, anger.
g. mention the death briefly but stay 2 16.3 14.9
calm and quiet the children;
h. pray with them or suggest a time 4 9.9 8.0
for prayer or meditation.
Situation Five (n = 194) (n = 373)
a. encourage her to tell you about 5 8.8 11.3
the nightmares to find out what
may be causing them.
b. explain that death is natural and 3 23.7 14.7
happens to everybody and she
shouldn't be afraid.
c. refer the child to her parents 1 19.6 15.3
and/or the counselor.
d. listen to the child's feelings, 5 25.3 42.4
realizing that the fears are real.
The factors not found to have a significant relationship to effec-
tiveness of responses in any of the five situations were role (which is
strongly related to education), ages of children taught, belief in life
after death and death attitude. The last two factors are strongly
related to one another.
Differences in the types of responses that were chosen by Black and
non-Black teachers are illustrated in Table 10. A trend seemed to exist
among the Black teachers to choose intervention approaches meant to move
the child past the pain of the loss, while more non-Black teachers chose
less directive intervention, opting for exploration of feelings. In
Situation One, for example, 59.4% of the non-Black teachers chose
responses emphasizing feelings (i.e., "encourage the child to talk with
you about how she feels" and "share your own experience of loss with
her") while a roughly equivalent proportion of the Black teachers (56.1%)
chose responses which stressed coping behavior or information which was
more directive (i.e., "talk to the child and the rest of the class
about the sadness of death, but that life must go on," "tell the child
you are sorry, but she shouldn't be sad because the pet would not want
her to be," and "take the child aside to explain to her about death and
life in nature"). Only 34% of the Black teachers chose the feelings-
oriented responses more popular with non-Black teachers. This same
kind of difference was noticeable in Situations Two, Three and Five as
DISCUSSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
One of the clearest results of this study is that many more questions
have been raised than have been answered. This survey provided a rich
source of information about some guidance-related behaviors of elementary
school teachers; however, little of the variance in teacher intervention
was explained by the many personal factors considered in the research
This research was originally designed to study three aspects of
teacher behavior thought to be associated with helpful intervention.
These were (a) awareness of children's death-related concerns, (b) will-
ingness to intervene, and (c) knowledge of helpful response. The first
of these, awareness, was to be measured primarily by teachers' reported
recall of death-related classroom situations. This proved to be a signi-
ficant measure. Willingness to intervene, the second aspect, was assumed
to be related to attitude, defined as one's point of view about death.
Although there was no direct relationship between point of view and
choice of response, even in real situations, there was a relationship
between reported recall of real situations and death attitude. There-
fore, it may be that recall is a measure of both awareness of children's
concerns and willingness to intervene. Finally, knowledge of helpful
response was to be measured by choices of intervention behavior in real
and hypothetical situations. This measure provided clear results which
can he used with future samples employing the same questionnaire. The
discussion which follows is organized under three topical areas:
(a) theoretical intervention, (b) attitudes and awareness, and (c) recalled
Many teachers gave evidence that they knew effective means of
helping children when they were presented with typical, though hypo-
thetical, situations related to death. Their choices of response
included a variety of generally positive approaches with children which
acknowledged or accepted to a greater or lesser degree the reality of
death and children's feelings related to it. This gives reason to
believe that many teachers may already be equipped to provide helpful
"death education." Several factors were identified as related to
effectiveness of response choice and these are discussed below.
There was a striking difference in the types of response chosen by
Black and non-Black teachers for the hypothetical situations. In only
one case, the situation describing the death of a student's parent, were
both groups in substantial agreement on choice of response. The two
racial groups showed strong preference for the same two responses:
"extend your sympathy to him in private and allow for gradual reentrance
into school work," and "tell the student you are there to talk if he
wishes; respect the student's feelings." However, in the other four
situations the non-Black teachers' choices emphasized exploration of
feelings while the Black teachers' choices stressed coping behaviors.
It is likely that a high percentage of the Black teachers were
working in city schools with a higher concentration of Black, rather
than non-Black, students. The teachers' choices of response were
likely to communicate the need to "keep on in spite of the pain." This
may reflect a response to the reality of the children's overall life
situation where, if things are bad, one must learn not to focus on the
hurt but learn to go beyond it. The Black teachers may tend to spend
less time exploring children's feelings as a result of their own life
experiences, their inner-city teaching experiences, or a combination of
Research has indicated a possible racial difference in children's
feelings about death discussion in the classroom (Balkin, Epstein &
Bush, 1976). Black urban elementary school students considered discus-
sions about death in the classroom to be inappropriate more frequently
than non-Black suburban students. These researchers concluded that
teachers need to be sensitive to differences in children's outlook. It
seems that intervention effectiveness ratings described in the litera-
ture and defined in this study need to be applied with an awareness of
possible varying cultural orientations. The highest rating, "acceptance,"
includes an openness to the student's feelings and special needs. This
particular aspect should be emphasized in future research involving
A higher level of education was significantly related to effective-
ness of response in two of the five situations. When exposure to
guidance or counseling was considered, greater effectiveness was related
to more of such training in three of the five situations. No attempt
was made to discover the source or quality of the guidance or counseling
training; nevertheless, this suggests that knowledge of helpful response
can be learned through formal education.
On the other hand, exposure to death education was not found to
be related significantly to effectiveness in any case. This latter
result may be confounded by the great differences which exist among
courses and workshops offered in the name of death education. No attempt
was made in the study to find out where or from whom the more than 60
subjects reporting such exposure received it. As Crase (1978) points
out, the field of thanatology needs to be refined, and its purveyors made
more accountable, by the development of standards of training for educa-
tors and of objectives for such education. It may be true, too, that
death education simply does not teach skills for intervening with others
in death situations.
Recall of real death incidents was found to be related to effec-
tiveness of response in two situations: those involving the death of a
pet and a child experiencing nightmares. It was not ascertained whether
the actual situations recalled were similar to these two hypothetical
situations. This is unlikely, however, since these types of incidents
were infrequently reported.
Awareness does seem to have a reasonable relationship to more effec-
tive intervention, since it indicates an exposure to a death situation in
which the teacher participated in some way. Such participation is likely
to have been a learning experience. The teachers in this study and in
the pilot project (Atkinson, 1977) had far more classroom experience than
the teacher candidates in Hawener's (1974) study. She reported both a
lack of awareness that such situations would be encountered in the
classroom and, on the average, less effective modes of intervention.
Point of view with regard to death was not found to have a signi-
ficant relationship to effectiveness of teacher response choices. Even
those teachers who reported the extremes of very favorable or very unfa-
vorable attitudes did not differ significantly from one another on the
kinds of responses they chose for hypothetical situations. This may mean
that evidence of attitude change after a course in death education does
not assure behavior change. If death education courses are designed for
elementary school teachers, positive outcomes must not be equated with
achievement of a more favorable point of view about death. However, the
closely related factor of recall, or awareness, of children's death
concerns may be operative in teacher intervention. This factor is
discussed in the following section.
Awareness and Attitudes
Recall of death-related incidents affecting children was reported
by 217 of the 605 teachers. No recall may be contingent on several
circumstances, three of which are (a) no exposure to such death-related
situations, (b) no recognition of such situations when they are available,
and (c) poor memory for such events. One cannot be sure of how many of
the teachers did or did not have occasion to intervene in real school
situations. However, there is circumstantial evidence that many more
than the 217 teachers were in the proximity of children coping with
death but they did not report it. For example, one teacher reported
that the school's maintenance man had died. She was the only one, of
the twelve teachers from her school who participated in the study, who
reported this event hadaffected children at that school. This pattern
of reporting was repeated many times. At one school an eighth grade
student was electrocuted. Only one teacher, of eleven, reported the
incident and she had taught the dead child six years before. A school
monitor died; one of 25 teachers reported this as affecting children in
their school. One of six teachers reported that the death of a fourth
grade child had affected other students. It was curious that only one
teacher of the 605 mentioned a student's question related to the "King
Tut" exhibit, which was in the city for four months of that school
Another indication that more teachers were exposed to death-related
incidents which they did not recall comes from mortality statistics.
Parental deaths happen to about 0.67% of the elementary school age popu-
lation (based on U. S. Bureau of Statistics figures for 1977). If each
of the 605 teachers worked with only 20 children an average of just
over 80 parents would have died during the course of 12 months. Forty-
seven such deaths were reported. Certainly some of the children's
parents may have died during vacation periods. There were teachers,
however, who were aware of even such deaths, reporting that the children
were affected later.
Nonrecognition of death-related situations is a common enough adult
behavior. Kastenbaum (1974) and Hawener (1974) both reported that adults
often do not believe that children are involved in or affected by death.
If teachers do not recognize death-related school incidents when they
occur, it may be because they are influenced by such a belief. It may
also be true that they do not understand children's distress signals.
Another reason for nonrecall may be simply poor memory for such
situations. It can be surmised that many such incidents are forgotten.
However, if one is involved in such an experience there is greater like-
lihood of recalling it. From the little evidence that is available it
may be inferred that the teacher's emotional involvement prompts spon-
taneous recall of a situation. Some teachers are more forcefully aware
than others of death affecting children.
The average attitude toward death of the teachers in this study was
almost exactly midpoint of the 20-step Hardt Scale, representing a point
of view between "I don't fear thoughts of death, but I don't like them
either," and "To think of death is common." Fifty percent of the scores
fell between 2.77 and 3.40, scores representing attitudes between
"Thinking about death is overvalued by many," and "I do not mind thinking
of death." Only 17 scores (2.9%) fell in the entirely favorable range
(4.00-4.90) and 20 scores (3.4%) in the totally unfavorable range (1.10-
There was no significant relationship between death attitudes as
measured by the Hardt Scale and intervention effectiveness on the real
or hypothetical situations. This is the same result Hawener found with
the Templer Death Anxiety Scale (Hawener, 1974; Templer, 1970). No
other studies seem to have been done which consider whether teachers'
death attitudes are related to their behaviors with children.
Attitudes Related to Awareness
The teachers' attitudes toward death were clearly related to their
reported recall of death-related incidents in both this study and the
pilot study (Atkinson, 1977). Recall was also found to correlate with
more effective intervention in two of the five hypothetical situations.
It cannot be assumed that recall causes a more favorable attitude or
that this more favorable attitude produces awareness. However, earlier
research (Kastenbaum & Aisenberg, 1972) indicates that experience with
death-related situations does relate to attitudes. Further, working
through a difficult situation (rather than denying or avoiding it) is
likely to affect one's view of self as able to cope with the difficulty.
A teacher who has had success in grief intervention may be more likely
to recall it, report it, and feel more positive about coping with death.
A teacher without the initial confidence of being able to work with a
grieving child may not consciously emphasize its occurrence and may view
death less favorably. Perhaps successful intervention is a key to both
awareness of children's needs and personal point of view with regard to
An earlier section of this chapter discussed relationships between
several factors and teachers' knowledge of appropriate intervention in
hypothetical situations. It is less clear what relationships exist
between those same factors and what teachers actually do. Just over
one-third of the teachers recalled situations in which they were present
to intervene with children affected by death. The very fact that they
reported such recall places them at an advantage to learn from their
experience. It also gives evidence of a definite sensitivity to the
needs of children.
In reporting actual intervention some teachers added illuminating
comments such as, "I realize this [her actual intervention] isn't what
I said should be done earlier [in the hypothetical situations] but every
case is different." There were notes of apparent regret and helplessness
in the remarks of some teachers who saw children suffering from a death
experience expressing themselves in aggressive, withdrawn or fearful
behavior. These teachers apparently wanted someone to help the child,
but saw their own place as watching and waiting. Counselors in such
situations need to be actively involved in their consulting role (Lamb &
Deschenes, 1974), supporting teachers' therapeutic efforts and working
directly with grieving children who need additional intervention.
Those teachers who did not recall incidents simply may not have
recognized the signals of distress which can be so diverse in children.
Again the results suggest that education can help and counselors as
consultants may be able to provide this if they are knowledgeable about
children's patterns of grieving.
This study's results point to several areas of concern for follow-
up research. First, the methods and instruments of this study should be
used again and supplemented with more detailed interviews with teachers
in order to learn more about their actual intervention. Secondly, the
intervention behaviors of teachers from varying cultures should be studied
to learn whether general patterns exist among specific groups. Finally,
the relationships between attitudes toward death and behaviors in death-
related situations should be the subject of inquiry.
Some conjectures based on related literature present some further
avenues to examine. First, teachers' own experiences with death (both
personal and with children) should be considered as factors, particularly
since very little of the variance in teacher intervention was accounted
for by the many factors included in this study. Secondly, little
work seems to have been done which looked at children's needs and
feelings about death which may be unique to their particular cultures,
environments or socioeconomic conditions. This may be an important area
to extend. Finally, the Hardt Scale, used in the present study, should
be compared with other well-known death attitude instruments to ascertain
whether they are measuring the same constructs.
As the literature advocates, death education needs to come under
more careful scrutiny so that its effects on students may be better
understood and made more predictable. Emphasis in death education for
Teachers should be given to raising their awareness of children's needs
and teaching effective modes of intervention.
The results of this study indicate that experienced teachers with
courses in guidance or counseling were more knowledgeable about appro-
priate intervention with grieving children than teachers without such
education. Both counselors and counselor educators might consider the
service they would do by teaching basic guidance courses to elementary
The related literature suggests that the elementary school counselor,
teamed with the classroom teacher, can provide an important source of
j help to children with questions, fears or experiences of loss in the
face of death. The counselor's consultant role should be fully
exploited to provide information to teachers about children's needs and
and expressions of loss at different ages. The counselor should be
prepared to intervene with the bereaved child, supporting, encouraging
and supplementing the teacher's intervention.
This exploratory research has provided a base of information about
potential death educators for elementary school age children: their
present classroom teachers. The study has presented evidence that many
of these educators are already intervening in positive ways with students
facing death-related problems. This chapter has offered some suggestions
to assist teachers in becoming even more effective with children in such
situations. It is to be hoped that the humane effort to assist children
in coping with death will allow both students and educators alike to
integrate the mystery of mortality into their appreciation of life.
Embracing the truth of life's limits thus can be a means of coming more
DEVELOPMENT OF THE QUESTIONNAIRE
Three parts of the Questionnaire (the "Personal Data Sheet," the
recall of incidents, and the hypothetical death-related situations, or
"School Situations") were developed through the procedure described
First, a questionnaire was drawn up which included sections on
recall of death-related school incidents as well as personal data and
the Hardt Scale of death attitudes. These were the questions on
recall of incidents:
1. Do you remember any time during the past year when a child with
whom you work orwere working was affected by a death?
Yes No If yes, please explain.
2. Do you remember any time during the past year when a group of
children with whom you work or were working were affected by a death?
Yes No If yes, please explain.
3. Do you remember any time during the past year when a child with
whom you work or were working asked you a question directly related to
death? _Yes _No If yes, please explain.
The questionnaire was completed by 20 elementary school teachers known
to the investigator who worked in metropolitan New Orleans.
From the responses of this sample, four typical incidents were
drawn which seemed to include the range of different situations. They
were as follows:
1. You have learned that the father of one of your students has
died. After being absent for three days, the student returns to school.
2. A national figure, idolized by the students, hasdied violently.
The news has just broken.
3. A student in your class has been killed. You are meeting with
the class for the first time since it happened.
4. A student tells you about nightmares he/she is having ever since
viewing the body of a dead relative.
A pilot study including these four incidents was then conducted.
Seventy elementary school teachers, from New Orleans school faculties,
participated. They were asked to tell what they thought the student's
or students' needs were and what the teacher would do in each incident.
They also completed the three previously developed sections on personal
data, recall of incidents and the Hardt Scale.
The answers to the four incidents provided a pool of typical
responses. In choosing which responses would be included in the final
questionnaire, consideration was given to (a) more frequently chosen
responses and (b) diversity of responses, to create a range of inter-
vention effectiveness. The final questionnaire included these same
four incidents, with seven, eight or nine possible responses for each
incident. In addition, an incident on the death of a pet was included.
In the literature concerning children's developing concepts of death,
this experience is considered a basic type of death situation and an
important first step in young children's understanding of the meaning
of death. The responses for this fifth question were drawn from answers
which kindergarten teacher candidates gave in Hawener's (1974) study.
Discussions followed each administration of the questionnaire to
groups ranging in size from four to twenty-five. Questions raised and
comments made provided information helpful for revisions incorporated
into the final instruments.
Note. Procedure based on outline in Handbook in research and evaluation
by S. Isaac and W. B. Michael, 1971, p. 94.
GUIDELINES FOR RATING EFFECTIVENESS OF INTERVENTION
In her "Classroom Death Situation Inventory" (CDSI), Hawener (1974)
rated responses on a scale of 1 to 5 as follows:
Extreme Postpone Acknowledgement Accept with Acceptance
avoidance discussion reservation
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
She placed each teacher candidate's response into one of these categories
for the purpose of comparison with the death attitude scale she used.
Hawener's scale was originally concerned with content of teacher responses
about the reality of death. For the purposes of the present study her
categories have been extended to include not only the reality of death,
but children's feelings as well.
The values and meanings for the categories in this study are as
1. Extreme avoidance. This category indicates an unwillingness to
acknowledge or do anything oneself about a death situation. The reality
of death and the child's feelings about it are avoided.
2. Postponement. In this category the teacher is aware of the death
situation and indicates a willingness to think about it with the intent
to act upon it later.
3. Acknowledgement. The teacher is aware that death has occurred
and/or that feelings are aroused, but refers to death in other terms or
does not talk about feelings directly. Recognition that death happens
is expressed without saying it is a part of life or that the child's
feelings are a natural response.
4. Acceptance with reservation. In words or actions the teacher
recognizes death and some emotion connected with it. The teacher is not
entirely open to what death entails and/or to the child's frame of
5. Acceptance. In words or actions the teacher accepts death as a
part of life and the child's reactions and feelings are accepted as
The meanings of the categories as extended for the present study
are based on the related literature which repeats a number of concerns
related to intervention effectiveness, notably the following:
1. Children need honest information in words they can understand.
2. The adult should be ready to help the child explore feelings;
should encourage and communicate that feelings are valid; should be able
to model expressions of feelings.
3. The adult should leave room for differing philosophical and
religious beliefs while having come to terms with their own.
4. It is important to face the reality: not to deny or to avoid it.
Note. See Bernstein, 1977; Crase & Crase, 1976; Formanek, 1974; Galen,
1972; Wittmer & Myrick, 1974; Yudkin, 1968.
Personal Data Sheet
50 or above
2. Sex: Female
3. Ethnic Identity:
Other (specify: )
4. Marital Status:
Single (check if vowed 9.
Married celibate )
High School 10.
Associate or 2 yrs. col.
Master's + 30
6. How long have you worked in
Less than 1 year
15 or more years
What is your primary role
at this time?
Subject matter special.
What age group do you work with?
5-7 year olds 7-9 year olds
9-12 year olds
Have you had any education in
guidance or counseling?
Yes (Check one:
Have you had any education in
Yes (Check one:
11. Do you believe there is a life
after physical death?
I'm fairly sure there is.
I am not sure.
I do not think so.
12. What type of school system are
you working in now?
Directions: Assume that you
of the following situations.
you think you would follow.
check only the one you think
are working in your present job in each
Please check the one course of action
If you would choose more than one,
is most important.
1. A girl in your class had a pet that she
morning she came to school late and was
mother said that her pet had just died.
often spoke about. This
crying. A note from her
(4) a) talk to the child and the rest of the class about the sadness
of death, but that life must go on.
(1) b)_ contact the child's mother and suggest that she discuss the
problem with her.
(3) c)_ tell the child you are sorry, but she shouldn't be sad because
the pet would not want her to be.
(5) d)_ share your own experience of loss with her.
not mention the situation unless you see the child crying and
upsetting the class.
take the child aside to explain to her about death and life
encourage the child to talk with you about how she feels.
2. A student in your class has been killed. You are meeting with the
class for the first time since it happened. You would
(1) a) wait until one of the children brings up the subject.
(3) b) explain to the class that everyone dies.
(5) c) explain what happened, according to the children's ability
(4) d) encourage the children to accept the child's death by sharing
your own convictions about life after death.
(2) e) mention the death briefly, but don't dwell on it; continue
with the lesson as usual.
(5) f) let the class have an open discussion, talking freely about the
student, life and death.
(5) g)_ encourage expression of feelings by the students and share your
(4) h) help students concretize their feelings in some way, according
to their ability (for example, a classroom memorial).
3. A well-known person, idolized by the students, has died violently.
The news breaks during school time. You would
(5) a) talk to the children about what just happened; answer questions.
(4) b) explain that their idol can live on through the good she/he has
done; talk about positive contributions she/he made.
(3) c) use this opportunity to discuss the universality of death:
no matter who you are you will die.
(5) d) share your own feelings of sorrow and loss.
(5) e)_ help the children express their feelings of grief, shock, anger.
(1) f) keep them busy, holding class as usual.
(2) g) mention the death briefly but stay calm and quiet the children;
(4) h) pray with them or suggest a time for prayer or meditation.
(3) i) discuss violent death throughout history as a reality although
hard to understand or accept.
4. You have just learned that the father of one of your students died.
The boy is returning to school after a three-day absence.
(2) a) watch for trouble signs; don't involve yourself unless you see
it is necessary.
not mention it, but go on with classwork as usual.
(3) c)_ extend your sympathy to him in private and allow for gradual
reentrance into school work.
(5) d)_ tell the student that you are there to talk if he wishes;
respect the student's feelings.
(3) e) explain the universality of death to him.
(5) f) encourage him to talk about his father's death and ask questions
to help him express his feelings.
(4) g) give him support and reassurance based on your own religious
(2) h) plan a classroom discussion of death and how to deal with it
for a later day.