Life is like the seasons: responding to change, loss, and grief through a peer-based education program.
The experience of loss can markedly influence young people's perceptions of themselves and their world. They may not trust the predictability of events, their self-image may be damaged, they may feel they no longer belong, their sense of fairness and justice may be compromised, and they may believe they have lost control over their lives (Worden, 1996). Facing such challenges during childhood and adolescence does not in and of itself predispose one to ongoing psychological or learning difficulties. However, it does raise pressing concerns about the most effective ways to support young people as they struggle to make sense of their experience and to respond constructively.
Children's Reactions to Divorce and Death
Divorce is now a commonplace reality for many Australian children. In 2001, 55,300 couples filed for divorce, involving 51,200 children under the age of 18 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2003). Since an increasing number of children are expected to experience such a family breakdown more than once, the number of children and young people experiencing loss as a result of changes in family structure alone is likely to continue to rise (Bagshaw, 1998). In the last few decades, many researchers have focused on the effects of separation, divorce, and remarriage on children (e.g., Pryor & Rodgers, 2001). While such research offers a range of insights into children's experiences, it also has been the subject of debate in relation to various ideological, methodological, and conceptual limitations. In considering how children fare with divorce, the debate is both "polarised and intense" (Pryor & Rodgers, 2001, p. 6), resulting in what Bagshaw (1998) argues are findings that are "inconclusive and to some extent ambiguous" (p. 2). Children's experiences are influenced by historical, social, cultural, economic, and legal issues, which invariably mean their experiences will differ over time and place. This being the case, Emery (1999) cautions that any discussion about the effects of divorce on children should take into careful consideration "what we know, not just what we believe" (p. 1).
Significant research suggests that losing a parent through death does not confer the same degree of risk as parental separation (Amato, 2000; Pryor & Rodgers, 2001). However, such contentions should not detract from the fact that the death of a parent or other significant person is a very distressing event for a child or adolescent (Fleming & Balmer, 1996). Although we have no reliable data on children affected by the death of a family member in any given year, the numbers are clearly high enough to warrant greater efforts to understand and respond to the effect such loss has on the young person (Clark, Pynoos, & Goebel, 1996). Worden (1996) suggests that children experiencing divorce do face a number of challenges that distinguish the reaction from that resulting from the death of a parent or other significant person. These challenges include fantasies of reunion, difficulties in mourning, pre-loss conflict, loyalty conflicts, ongoing parent-child relationships, feeling responsible for the breakup, less community support, struggles over finances, fears about the future, parental dating behavior, and family restructuring. While some of these issues will be evident following a death, others are distinctly identified with adjustment following separation and divorce.
General consensus exists in the literature that a child's capacity to recognize the finality of death, and to express his or her grief, varies with age or stage of development (Bagshaw, 1998). From this developmental perspective, the death of a parent or other significant person is often a challenge to the adaptive capacities of the child or adolescent (Clark et al., 1996), a fact recognized by many teachers. Findings from studies such as Brown's (1999) and Graham's (2003) suggest that teachers are increasingly aware of the impact that significant change and loss has on children's performance and their overall social and emotional well-being.
Children, Loss, and Resilience
A focus on the importance of supporting children as they adapt to the adverse circumstances associated with a death or divorce in their family is consistent with research regarding childhood resilience. Resilience is defined by Masten, Best, and Garmezy (1990) as "the process of, capacity for, or outcome of successful adaptation despite challenging or threatening circumstances" (p. 426). Resilient children tend to have the personal resources or capacities to cope effectively with and overcome adversity. These include personality features ("I am"), family and external structures ("I have"), and the child's own social and interpersonal skills ("I can") (Barnard, 1997). These protective factors also have been described in terms of social competence, problem-solving skills, autonomy, and a sense of purpose (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998). Death, separation, and divorce can pose a serious challenge to these protective factors.
Such research points to the potential contribution of school-based loss and grief education interventions that focus on problem solving, self-esteem, and peer support. While there has been widespread recognition of the potential value of peer support groups for children coping with death (Smith & Pennells, 1995), there also exists an emerging body of research, particularly in the United States, that identifies the need for education programs for both parents and children experiencing divorce (Arbuthnot & Gordon, 2000). As Bagshaw (1998) points out, however, many such initiatives are court-mandated educational programs that "rarely address issues of grief and loss in children, or provide educational instruction ... directly to the children involved" (p. 13). Since children gradually come to make sense of their world and their experiences through their conversations and social interactions with adults and peers, it would seem that prevention programs that capitalize on these dynamics while specifically targeting issues of change, loss, and grief are worthy of closer attention. The following section provides an overview of one such intervention, the Seasons for Growth program (Graham, 1996, 2002).
Seasons for Growth
The Seasons for Growth education program has the broad aim of promoting the social and emotional well being of children and young people, ages 6-18, who have experienced significant change and loss as a result of death, separation, or divorce. First developed in 1996, evaluated in 1999, and revised in 2002 to reflect developments in research and practice, Seasons for Growth has been implemented in approximately 3,000 schools and community agencies in Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, and Scotland. The program is a not-for-profit initiative sponsored in Australia by the MacKillop Foundation and is made available at low cost to enable provision to any child or adolescent who may benefit from it. Seasons for Growth was developed in consultation with teachers, mental health experts, bereavement specialists, academics, parents, and young people to ensure the program was educationally and psychologically sound, user-friendly, and based on a broad range of relevant multidisciplinary evidence and practice.
The Seasons for Growth program focuses on understanding the effects of change, loss, and grief and is aligned with key research on social and emotional education that promotes mental health and contributes to childhood resilience (Masten, Best, & Garmezy, 1990). Seasons for Growth is best understood in terms of prevention through education and skills building. The program specifically targets skills in communication, decision making, and problem solving. The approach to the program is consistent with a growing body of evidence that mental health-related initiatives can help students and schools to achieve desired outcomes (Weist, Sander, Lowie, & Christodulu, 2002).
The broad objectives of the Seasons for Growth program are to:
* Support young people as they work to understand and manage the issues they experience when death, separation, or divorce occurs in their families
* Help young people understand that their reactions to the changes in their lives are normal
* Educate about change, loss, and grief
* Develop skills for coping, problem solving, and decision making
* Build a peer support network
* Help restore self-confidence and self-esteem.
Seasons for Growth is based on a cognitive-behavioral approach that explores feelings, values, and beliefs, and encourages new ways of thinking and behaving. Such an approach has been shown to enhance self-esteem and self-concept (Burnett, 1994, 1995); more specifically, programs using this approach have been associated with an increase in positive self-talk and a decrease in negative self-talk in children and adolescents (Burnett, 1996). In this way, the learning processes encourage young people to value who they are and the particular "story" they have; to modify their thinking, attitudes, beliefs, and constructs about life; and to take charge of their behaviors.
Seasons for Growth is designed as a small-group peer process for between 4 and 7 participants. Each group is facilitated by a teacher or volunteer (known as a "Companion"), who participates in a mandatory 10 hours of training. The advantages of group work in maximizing learning for children in areas relating to mental health are well-known. Group work can encourage change, parallel the experience of the group with the wider social environment, provide a sense of belonging, address common needs, and provide a cost-effective response to psychosocial support (Geldard & Geldard, 2001). It seems that the reason most children participate in a group is not because they are clinically depressed or suicidal, but because they wish to learn how to cope with change, both internally and externally (Wolfe, 1995). The learning processes underpinning the Seasons for Growth program promote the development of new understandings, skills, attitudes, and ideas that the participants will take with them beyond the group experience.
As the name of the program implies, the different seasons of the year provide a rich symbolic framework in which to explore issues of change and loss. Drawing on the wide variation in the seasons, in Australia and elsewhere, the metaphor addresses the "ups and downs" of life. Each of the eight weekly sessions, the final celebration session, and two subsequent reconnector sessions (which range from 40 minutes to an hour, depending on the participants' ages) explore a concept such as I Am Special; Life Changes Like the Seasons; My Story Is Special; Feelings, Memories, Choices; and Support Networks. Each concept is linked not only to the imagery of one of the seasons but also to one of the tasks of grief as theorized by Worden (1991, 1996). The tasks are to:
* Accept the reality of the loss
* Work through the pain of grief
* Adjust to an environment in which the significant person or thing is no longer present
* Relocate the person or thing emotionally and move on with life.
The program has a sound curriculum structure and utilizes a wide range of age-appropriate creative learning activities, including art, mime, role-play, stories, discussion, play dough, music, and journaling. These strategies are consistent with research that highlights the value of creative, play-based, physical, and discussion activities that enable young people to express their feelings and help normalize their experiences (Gordon, Farberow, & Maida, 1999; Smith & Pennells, 1995).
Each session lists learning outcomes that guide the process of the session and indicate what the children will explore. To facilitate these outcomes, a range of activities are provided across each level of the program. For example, in Session 4 of the program, the outcomes are concerned with acknowledging and naming feelings and identifying reactions and behaviors linked to feelings. Level 1 of the program (for 6-to 8-year-olds) involves the children in coloring in and making a "feelings cube"; each face of the cube has a picture and word (e.g., "silly," "happy," "proud," "mad," "scared," "sad"). The children play a game with the cube, and each child thinks about the feeling word that lands face up and gives an example of a time when he/she had experienced that feeling. The Companion then uses this discussion to explain that feelings sometimes make us feel different in our bodies (e.g., "When I feel scared, I get butterflies in my tummy"). The Companion also uses this exercise to emphasize that feelings change, just like the seasons do; that we all have feelings and they are OK; and that these feelings won't last forever.
Among other activities, they learn the words and actions to a song, "I'm Boss of All My Feelings." The song provides an opportunity for the children to think about how being a "boss" means they are in charge of how they act in response to how they feel. They are encouraged to share ideas about what they do when they feel sad, angry, lonely, and so forth. They learn from each other that there are many ways to express what they feel without hurting themselves or others.
In Level 2 of the program (for 9- to 10-year-olds), the session on feelings involves the children taking turns to choose a feelings mask (representing, for example, happiness, sadness, surprise, fright, anger), holding it to their faces, and sharing a situation or event that prompted this feeling (e.g., "I feel happy when Grandma comes to visit"). The children gather around a life-size outline of a child's body shape, drawn on flip-chart paper. They brainstorm all the feeling words associated with change and loss, and then write these words inside the body shape. The children then play a game in which they throw a button on the body map and note the word closest to where it lands. They share with the group what they do when they experience this feeling (e.g., "When I feel sad, I cuddle my teddy"). The Companion affirms the idea that although we experience many feelings when changes occur in our families, these feelings are normal and are shared by others in similar and different ways.
Another important aspect of the Seasons for Growth program concerns the concept of choice. The desired outcomes for this session (Session 7) include being able to discuss why it is important to make good decisions and being able to identify some choices they can make in difficult situations. Again, the activities that facilitate this learning differ across the five levels of the program to take account of age, developmental abilities, and interests. They include a memory card game in which the children match problems and choices and are given an award badge at the end of the session that reads "(name of child) makes terrific choices" (Level 1); a balloon activity wherein children write on an inflated balloon an "I can" choice they take home to try in the coming week (Level 2); a "goal kicking" activity in which children discuss what it feels like to score a goal in their favorite sport and then use this experience to learn about the importance of setting realistic and achievable goals (Level 3:11-12 years); a STOP, THINK, DO strategy for effective problem solving (Level 4: 1315 years); and developing a "Guide to Quality Decisions," based on an activity that explores the "I cans" and "If onlys" experienced following a significant change or loss (Level 5:16-18 years).
The Seasons for Growth program is accompanied by a comprehensive set of resources: a trainer's manual for those accredited to train other teachers and volunteers; a handbook for school coordinators, which provides a step-by-step process and support materials for planning, implementing, and evaluating the program; Companion manuals with comprehensive session notes and resources for both the primary school (6 to 12 years old) and secondary school (13 to 18 years old); five levels of student journals; imagery folios; music CDs and cassettes; regular newsletters; and professional development opportunities for staff involved in delivering the program on an ongoing basis.
Does Seasons for Growth Work?
In 1999, the Australian government funded an extensive qualitative and quantitative evaluation (see Muller & Saulwick, 1999) of the program that included 197 interviews and survey data from 220 randomly selected sites in four states. The results suggest that the program has a strong positive effect for both primary and secondary participants. For example, the data indicate that primary-age participants finish the program with a "more positive attitude" towards themselves and their circumstances than they started with. In response to the statement, "The Seasons for Growth program helped me to feel good about myself," over 80 percent of respondents answered either 4 or 5 on a 5-point Likert scale, on which 1 represented "Strongly Disagree" and 5 represented "Strongly Agree." This survey finding was consistent with interview data that elicited such responses as:
It was very helpful to me because of the anger I had and the sadness.
It was just like carrying a lot of weight on my back.... It's made me a lot happier. It was good to let the pain out. (Male, 11 years)
It helped me. You learned there's a lot of families it happens to.
There's not just you. (Male, 8 years)
I felt happier, yes. I'm not feeling so sad anymore and I'm happy I told someone about how I was feeling. I was the same as my friends. (Female, 12 years)
The findings were similar for the secondary-age participants who were asked to rate the effect of the program on a number of measures, using a 5-point scale on which I was the most negative and 5 the most positive. They rated the program as having a positive effect on their confidence (a mean of 4.1), ability to talk about their feelings (4.2), ability to get along with other people (4.1), understanding of personal issues (4.1), and general feelings of happiness (3.9). This survey data was borne out through such comments as:
I suppose I'm now a bit more honest with myself. Like what I'm actually thinking and feeling. I learnt a lot about myself and what I was feeling inside. (Male, 17 years)
I can talk to my mother now ... because I know she probably feels like I do. (Female, 13 years)
It was good. I didn't feel pushed but each week I found I was saying a bit more, you know, thinking "Well, at least I'm not the only one." (Male, 16 years)
When you're having one of those winter days, it helps you to know everything is not really bad. Like you need to find some good things to look forward to. (Female, 14 years)
The majority of responses from participants suggested that the program had "removed their sense of isolation, allowed them to express their feelings without being ashamed of them, enabled them to see that other young people had challenges and circumstances not unlike their own and helped them to develop trust in others" (Muller & Saulwick, 1999, p. 11). As a result of such learning, many participants indicated they had been able to:
* Seek support, when necessary, from the Companion outside the formal processes of the program
* Form friendships and support networks with others in the program
* Communicate better with their parents or siblings
* Understand that life moves on and that change does happen
* Cope better with their feelings.
These findings indicate a strong link between program outcomes and the key protective factors for resilient children and young people outlined earlier. In particular, it is evident that many of the participants grow in their social competence through being involved in a like-to-like peer group process, develop problem-solving skills as they try out new ideas and share these with the group, demonstrate autonomy in seeking out support networks, and develop a stronger sense of purpose through realistic goal setting (i.e., through focusing on the issues and circumstances they can influence rather than those they can't).
Parents, Companions, school principals, and agency managers also reported that the program benefited participants:
You can see that strength of the ego starting to come through....
She finally realized Dad wasn't going to come home and her destiny was in her hands. It was really empowering. I can still see the look on her face. (Companion)
My son would go to his mother's grave and he would not cry. Now he knows it's OK to cry. This program has shown him you can let it out, you have to let it out. (Parent)
It's achieved here what it set out to achieve, and probably more than we hoped for. So in terms of my expectations, probably 100% plus. In terms of a cure-all, no. But it is an avenue. Some kids have zoomed as a result of it; others are still walking slowly, but perhaps with more direction. (School Principal)
Teachers, parents, and caregivers agree that children and young people may not necessarily have either the innate capacities or the supportive relationships to assist them with the social and emotional challenges that they face when death, separation, or divorce occurs in their families. Such awareness begs further attention to education interventions that promote understandings, attitudes, and skills that enable young people to cope with present challenges and have hope for the future. The Seasons for Growth program is one example of a small-group process that accomplishes these goals through its normalizing emphasis on change and loss as an inevitable part of life. In educating children and young people in this way, we might expect they will be somewhat better equipped for a world marked by the challenges of unemployment, family breakdown, threats of terror, transient lifestyles, job insecurity, and fragmented communities.
More information on the Seasons for Growth program is available at www.goodgrief.aust.com.
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Anne Graham is Director, Centre for Children & Young People, School of Education, Southern Cross University, Lismore, New South Wales, Australia