Responding to Tragedy

Earlier this week, I wrote a post about “teachable moments” that I will publish next weekend.

Today, I want to give my deepest condolences to the families who are suffering due to Friday’s tragedy. I grew up in Southbury, CT, one of the towns that borders Newtown. My parents rented a house in Sandy Hook for a short time while they searched for our home. As a kid, I went to Newtown to see my friends’ dance recitals, to visit my dad at his office, and to watch shows at the $1 movie theater. It was and is, in so many ways, the perfect place to be a child and to raise children. I feel immense gratitude for the people there, for the teachers, friends, and neighbors who loved and cared for me, and my heart breaks for their loss.

Like teachers all across America today, I am doing my best to prepare for the week ahead. I am remembering that, amidst the deep sadness we all feel, it is also the week before winter break and Christmas. I hope that most of my second graders have been protected from hearing much of the news or knowing many details of the tragedy. I hope that they are focused on Hannukah presents, Santa Claus, and holiday joy.

But I don’t know what I’ll find tomorrow. I don’t know what my kids have seen or heard, and so I am preparing myself to be a good listener. I am prepared to follow our normal routine while listening to my kids and doing my very best to respond to their needs.

What has helped me most is the list of talking points that my school’s guidance counselors compiled. With their permission, I’m going to share their notes here with the hope that you might find them helpful, too. These points were compiled by Elise Molloy, Laura Loftus, and Lisa Blair from resources provided by the National Association of School Psychologists and The Worried Child by Paul Foxman, PhD.

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Elementary School Staff Notes Responding to Connecticut Tragedy

Compiled by Elise Molloy, Laura Loftus, and Lisa Blair

Our school is not planning any formal response to the tragedy. For example, we are not going to conduct Open Circle discussions in every classroom.

From the research conducted, going about a typical daily routine will be the most helpful to students. Maintain routines. Children are reassured by predictable schedules and activities.

If your students begin talking about the situation and you feel you need to address it, listed below are some talking points that might help.

If you feel that you are having a strong emotional reaction or may have a personal connection then please contact the office for additional support if needed. If you find out that a student has a more personal connection to the tragedy or has past trauma history then please inform the school counselors.

***Please remember that families may have chosen to share different levels of information with their children. A class discussion will expose all students to the same information. If you can avoid discussing details and focus on reassurances of safety, that is the best approach.***

General Reminders for Staff:

Remain calm and in control. It is important to remember that students take their cues from the adults around them. Your reaction to this event will have an influence on how your students process the information and cope with the news. Your calm demeanor will put your students at ease.

Monitor your conversations: Please do not discuss these events in front of your class with other adults. Please monitor hallway conversations as well.

Reassure students that they are safe and that our school is doing everything possible to be a safe place. Remind them that we conduct safety drill like fire drills and lock downs in order to make sure everyone is safe. Also, reassure them that all the doors at our school are locked and secure.

Stick to the facts. Don’t embellish or speculate about what has happened and what might happen. Don’t dwell on the scale or scope of the tragedy, particularly with young children.

Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate. Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change. Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. Reassure them that our school is doing everything we can do to keep all students safe.

Maintain structure and stability within the schools. It would be best, however, not to have tests or major projects within the next few days.

Talking Points for Class:

  • Our school is doing everything possible to be a safe place, we practice lock-down drills and fire drills to ensure that we are safe.
  • Explain to students that there are thousands of schools in the country that have been open for many, many years. What happened last Friday is very, very rare and our school is doing everything we can to keep students safe at all times.
  • Not all students will have the same information. Some students may have talked about this at home while some of them have not. Therefore, we should not discuss too many details at school. Please refer students to adults at home rather than engage in lengthy discussions at school.
  • Do validate feelings – As students express sadness, shock or anger, let them know that all feelings are ok and that they can help themselves feel better by keeping busy and focusing on school. (Validate feelings and then try to move on rather than validate feelings and enter into a lengthy discussion.)
  • Students need stability, structure and reassurance. Go back to following the classroom routine yet keeping in mind that this may be a time when we can let go of some of the stress and find a way to personally connect with the students in a positive way.

Look for children at greater risk (those who are withdrawn or those who cannot stop talking). If you note students who seem more upset or feel the need to process at greater length, please contact the main office. Our school counselors will all be available and will meet with that student individually. The counselor assigned will depend on who the student has formed a relationship with, depending on grade level.

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Two points from these notes are especially important to me. First, we need to follow our normal classroom routine. Structure and familiar routines make children feel safe. I don’t intend to change any of my plans except to include more class game time, more stress-relieving motor breaks during our day. Second, if they ask questions, children need brief, simple explanations focused on reassurances of safety. The details and complexities of this tragedy are for adults to worry about.

One great worry is that there’s nothing we can do in the face of a tragedy like this. But that’s not true. As teachers, as Americans, there is much we can do. Today, I am giving to the United Way’s Sandy Hook School Support Fund. I am giving thanks for my safety and the safety of my students and my colleagues. I am remembering all the joy I felt growing up in Connecticut and keeping the families in Southbury and Newtown in my heart. And, like every Sunday, I am preparing to teach tomorrow. To inspire my students, to care for them, and to be the best teacher I can be.

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One thought on “Responding to Tragedy

  1. I have a 4 and a 6-year old and I have decided not to tell them about this horrific event. I hope there will be no discussion about this in the classroom tomorrow. I believe young children deserve to have their innocence preserved for as long as possible, until they realize our world can be very cruel.

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