How to Talk about Tragedy in the Classroom

How to Talk about Tragedy in the Classroom


            In the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Connecticut, you may be faced with how to talk about this incident with young children in your own classroom. This is such a difficult issue because we all have such strong feelings ourselves, and a classroom shooting in particular is so frightening for teachers. When I think back to fearful incidents in my own childhood, I remember clearly how much my own parents’ reactions affected me. Children will look to us for guidance and understanding, so our own emotional reaction is important. The other difficult issue in talking about the shooting is that as teachers, we don’t know what children have seen, been told, or how it has been explained to them. Above all, I believe young children want to know that they are safe and that the adults around them will protect them from harm. Given these issues, here are some suggestions for handling this unspeakable tragedy:
  • Get your own emotions under control. Think about what helps you stay calm and avoid exposure to TV or news articles about the shooting.
  • Speak to your administrator about the safety precautions in your school so that you have some peace of mind about your own and the children’s safety.
  • Take the children’s lead as to whether to bring up the subject or not. I would not talk about it unless children ask you, or you hear them talking about it.
  • If possible, talk to children personally and privately since you don’t know children’s knowledge or understanding of the incident. You might start out by asking, “What do you know about what happened?” or “What have you heard?” This will also allow you to dispel any misinformation.
  • Allow children to express their feelings by talking, writing, or through art or music. Validate these feelings and share how you might be feeling as well – although be careful not to use children to help you work out your own fears. Don’t add to their fear or confusion.
  • Above all, reassure children that they are safe and that you and your school know how to protect children. Obviously, this is not entirely true because the nature of violent crime is so unpredictable, but children still NEED to know they are safe for healthy emotional development.
  • For older children in upper elementary school, it is appropriate to review the safety procedures that the school has in place as a way of reassuring the children.
  • Keep an eye out for children who might need professional support. If children talk about nightmares, or seem obsessed with the topic, or are so afraid they can’t function in the classroom, speak to the family members and check in with your school social worker or counselor if you have one.
  • Share resources with parents to help them talk to their children. The American Psychological Association has an excellent article on their website.
I wish you all the best and I hope that we can all deeper our compassion for each other. I believe that the path to a more peaceful society begins in our hearts and minds.
Please feel free to share your experiences talking to children about the shooting in your classroom or school. What has been helpful? What are you still struggling with?
P.S. A special thanks to Kenza who asked me to write about this issue!

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