Helping Students Navigate a Violent World

There is no greater blow to a society than when its children are harmed.  Today, we are reeling.


This morning, a man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and killed 26 people, most of them children. Now, as school and local leaders gather in the aftermath to comfort the families of those lost and to assure others that the danger has passed, educators are faced with a question that has become far too familiar over the years:


How do we support students affected by violence?


The challenge is not, unfortunately, limited to high-profile tragedies like the one this morning. Children across our nation face violence on a daily basis, and educators are often the only ones in a position to help them.


The task of providing this support becomes an even more difficult one when the violence is directed at the place students should feel safest—school.


Students across the nation will be exposed over the weekend to the tragedy unfolding in Connecticut. Even those whose parents carefully shield them from the media will sense the great sadness in the adults around them. As President Obama noted while fighting back tears, “I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do.”


On Monday, these children will have questions and worries. The emotional distance between their schools and Sandy Hook Elementary will bear no relation to the distance on a map.


Even children who weren’t witnesses or victims—or even in the family of someone affected—may feel vulnerable.


“After a traumatic event, children’s questions always go back to safety,” says Marlene Husson, a clinical psychotherapist and grief counselor at Aurora Mental Health Center in Colorado. Children may experience both physical and mental reactions ranging from nervousness and grief to changes in appetite and sleeping paterns.


These reactions are natural, and educators can help alleviate them by helping students rebuild supports within their relationships and environment. Give them the opportunity to express feelings and concerns without fear of judgment. Reassure them that there are adults around who care for them and are dedicated to their safety.


The U.S. Department of Education promotes the “Listen, Protect, Connect—Model and Teach” program as an example of how to support students affected by violence (near or distant).


Step 1: Listen

Teachers or staff should facilitate opportunities for students to share their experiences and understanding of what happened, and also express their feelings. Younger children may be encouraged to draw, perhaps with an indirect prompt to avoid introducing unpleasant thoughts that a child may not have, suggests clinical psychologist Marlene Husson.


Step 2: Protect

Adults should work to reestablish students’ feelings of physical and emotional safety. Returning to regular school and classroom schedules and routines can contribute to this. School staff can advise students and families to avoid news coverage, violent films and other stimuli that may keep the trauma churning.


Step 3: Connect

As needed, teachers and staff can encourage students to reestablish normal social connections, both in and outside of school. Self-isolating is one of the common reactions to trauma. If this behavior lasts beyond an expected period it may suggest the need for intervention.


Step 4: Model

At home and school, students look for behavioral cues from the adults they respect and trust. Adults in the school community should model calm and optimistic behavior. This sets an example, and sends the signal that as anxious or sad as students may feel, it is necessary and possible to carry on.


Step 5: Teach

Psychologists, social workers or counselors can present information to students and parents about common stress reactions. These may include changes in appetite and sleep patterns, as well as temporary difficulties with concentration and memory. These professionals can also reinforce that seeking help is admirable, not something to shy away from.


When tragedy strikes, children turn to both teachers and parents for guidance and reassurance.  We hope educators across the country will use the tips here to help bring a sense of safety back to their students. But the undertaking is far greater than that.


Until we find effective methods of preventing violence—on the streets, in homes, and in schools—educators will continue to bear the responsibility of supporting students who face an alarmingly violent world.


Does anyone know of any story

Submitted by Diana on 18 March 2013 - 1:59pm.

Does anyone know of any story books for very young children that you could use to help them think about a crime? For example a 4 year old I know has been bed-wetting and very afraid since a burglary at their house. He really likes stories at bed time, could you let me know if you know of a book that could help?

I realise this is on a different level to Sandy Hook, but these kinds of things can still have a huge impact on young children.

Thanks for your help.

As an anthropologist, it is

Submitted by Daniel Cring on 20 December 2012 - 10:18am.

As an anthropologist, it is obvious that American Culture extols violence as a solution. We as a culture venerate warriors and even fictional heroes who use violence to solve problems- even American baseball was not violent enough so it was replaced with football as America's favorite sport. I remember growing up wanting to be a fighter pilot and my first (and only) gun was a toy cowboy pistol presumably to shoot the "bad guy" and the occasional "Indian". Violence is one symptom of independence training which enculturates hyper-competitiveness, lack of social responsibility (homicide being the most irresponsible act), lack of empathy, selfishness and greed. Many of America’s societal problems stem from this cultural core value. When I teach the segment, ethnolinguistics, to my anthropology classes, I talk about American metaphors like 'bombing a test', 'under the gun', 'killing time', and 'making a killing on the stock market', in order to illustrate the point: This has become a truly pathological culture.

I wish Teaching Tolerance was

Submitted by Sandra on 18 December 2012 - 6:48pm.

I wish Teaching Tolerance was a person who could come to my NYC public school and mediate the teachers there. I work in a big school and this violence has heightened the fear of my many colleagues who are now organizing to get metal detectors places at the entrances of my schools. Sounds simple but it's not! Students are then patted down by uniformed officers, their bags get x-rayed and then they are stripped of all their electronics (iPods, cellphones, their life basically). I see it as treating them as criminals. Then they are sent to class and expected to participate and "have a great day" which just doesn't happen. I've been trying to point out that scanners only give a false sense of security. That having them will cause adults to let their guards down and not take interest in or have awareness for students who are showing signs of socially disengaging or expressing violent thoughts. How can I help these teachers see the negative consequences of scanners far outweigh the positives? If a gunperson really wanted to enter into our school it will happen regardless of the artificial "security" check of scanners.

Any traumatic experiences

Submitted by Candace Benn on 17 December 2012 - 12:17pm.

Any traumatic experiences which children have gone through make them susceptible to psychological disorders and emotional turmoil. Dr. Bruce Perry, a physician specializing in post-traumatic stress in children, said, “more than 40% of these children will develop some form of chronic neuro-psychiatric problem that can significantly impair their emotional, academic and social functioning” (Perry, 2002). According to the policy brief entitled, Helping Traumatized Children Learn (Cole, Greenwald, Gadd, Ristuccia, Wallace, & Gregory, 2005) traumatized children cannot simply remove their “trauma glasses” as they go between home and school, from a dangerous place to a safe place.

The above remarks are from a brief excerpt from my dissertation entitled, Adopting Compassionate School Practices: An Examination of School Counselor Beliefs and Behaviors. I am strong advocate for an increase in mental health awareness, an increase in school-based mental health programs, and a focus on trauma-informed education. I am a Professional School Counselor and I agree that academic success is important, however, mental health is the foundation to success. It often is overshadowed by other conversations. We need to talk and call to action an increase in Mental Health services. So often the first thing cut is mental health programs especially in schools. The stigma of mental illness comes from being unaware. Professional educators need to have an increased knowledge not only on specific subject matters (math, science and/or social studies but knowledge of the brain and how trauma impacts brain development, behavior and learning.

Thank you Candace for your

Submitted by Kami Dvorakova on 1 January 2013 - 1:04pm.

Thank you Candace for your comment. I very much agree with what you said and I actually have been working with the creators of "Helping Traumatized Children Learn". I work as an In Home Therapist and I am applying to PhD schools this year with programs focusing on mindfulness and compassion. I wanted to ask you at which school you are completing your dissertation? Is there support for this so needed research? Please, feel free to send me an email to and maybe we can connect more.

Thanks Friends. We are all in

Submitted by Trevor Barton on 14 December 2012 - 5:50pm.

Thanks Friends. We are all in this together.

Thank you for the info. It

Submitted by Rosie Metcalf on 17 December 2012 - 6:33am.

Thank you for the info. It is wonderful to know there are others who feel the same way. This event will affect us for a long, long, time.