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Resources for Coping With the Newtown School Tragedy

EducationWorld, along with the nation, mourns the loss of 26 innocent lives following the profound tragedy that took place on December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. We share the school and community’s grief, express our deepest sympathies and hope to contribute in whatever way possible to survivors’ efforts to cope at this unimaginably difficult time.

We would like to share the following resources for school staff and families to help in talking with and supporting children affected by the traumatic event. Schools are also encouraged to contact us to request additional information and resources. We will do everything possible to assist with this extremely challenging situation.

The first question educators and parents may be asking is, “This event is so scary. Should we even talk about it with kids?” According to experts, the answer is “yes.”

Talking With Kids About Difficult Topics

Back in 2011, EducationWorld spoke with Ted Lempert, president of the organization Children Now, to get his take on whether adults, including teachers, should discuss with students scary events that receive extensive news coverage. While he recommended talking with young people, he did note that there are clear “do’s and don’ts” for speaking with kids about sensitive topics. He offered the following tips:

  • Talking it through is better than tip-toeing around it. This is backed up by medical science.
  • Avoid dissecting the particulars of the event—rather, put it in perspective, help them understand it and address any fears or concerns.
  • With middle-school kids, remember that they have a lot less perspective than even high-schoolers. It’s important to speak more broadly with them, going over the bigger picture rather than the often-gruesome details.
  • Do not diminish the impact of the incident but make it clear that this is a rare occurrence, even if the media features a horrible story for days on end. Explain that the rarity of an event is often the very reason it receives extensive coverage.
  • With children younger than age 12, remember that they may be unable to separate fantasy from reality on television. Focus even more on generalities and the very low likelihood of a scary event happening to them.

Here are additional tips provided by The American Psychological Association. Try sharing these with students’ parents:

  • Start the conversation. Let young people know you are interested in them and how they are coping with the information they are getting.
  • Listen to their thoughts and point of view. Don't interrupt — allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond.
  • Keep home a safe place. Help make it a place where your children find the solitude or comfort they need.
  • Watch for signs of stress, fear or anxiety. After a traumatic event, it is typical for children (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work or changes in appetite. This is normal and should begin to disappear in a few months. Seek professional help if symptoms continue to interfere with daily living.
  • Take “news breaks.” It is important to limit the amount of time spent watching the news (or for young children, avoid watching news coverage altogether) because constant exposure may heighten kids’ anxiety and fears.
     

Coping With Grief and Anxiety

Once a tragedy has occurred, how can schools best support traumatized, anxious and grieving students? The EducationWorld article When Tragedy Strikes: What Schools Should Do offers answers, gathering key advice from Scott Poland, a former president of the National Association of School Psychologists who assisted students and teachers following the Oklahoma City bombing and school shootings in West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Littleton, Colorado. Poland suggests the following:

  • Do not underestimate the impact of the death.
  • Offer emotional assistance quickly. The faster it is offered, the better the adjustment.
  • Provide faculty a chance to process first. Make it mandatory.
  • Schedule a meeting for parents.
  • Share as many facts as possible.
  • Provide opportunities for students and faculty to talk about their emotions.
  • Recognize there are long-term implications.
  • Set aside curriculum and postpone tests if needed.


Preparing for School Crises

The tragedy in Newtown has understandably left educators across the country asking, “How would my school respond to a similar event? Are we prepared”? Because an effective crisis preparedness plan consists of steps designed to handle both the crisis itself and its aftermath, The Center for Mental Health in Schools at University of CA - Los Angeles (2008) offers the guide Responding to Crisis at a School. One highlight from this resource is the Crisis Checklist. Here are a few tips from the checklist:

I. Immediate Response

Check to be certain that:

  • Appropriate “alarms” have been sounded.
  • All persons with a crisis role are mobilized and informed.
  • Phone trees or auto-dialing systems are activated.
  • Planned means for information sharing and rumor control have begun (e.g., circulation of written statements, presentations to staff/students/parents).
  • Plans for locating individuals are implemented (e.g., message center, sign-in and sign-out lists for staff and students).


II. Follow-up Activity

Check to be certain that:

  • Continuing communication needs are addressed (debunking rumors, updating facts, providing closure, etc.).
  • If relevant, family contacts are made to learn funeral and memorial service arrangements, and to determine if there is additional assistance the school can provide.
  • Crisis-related problems continue to be monitored and dealt with (including case management of referrals and extended treatment).
  • Debriefing meetings are held (to appreciate all who helped, clarify deficiencies in crisis response, and make revisions for the next time).

 

Related resources

Schools and parents may also find helpful these resources from EducationWorld’s archives:

When Tragedy Strikes: What Schools Should Do
The School Shooter: One Solution Doesn’t Fit All
Expert James Garbarino on Student Violence
Schools Combat Violence
Slow Healing in Columbine’s Aftermath

 

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