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 patterns.
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.