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Arms Wide Open: Talking to Kids About Tragedy

Talking to students about tragedy

Elementary, intermediate and high school teachers wear many hats on a daily basis, but after tragedy strikes, like the Boston Marathon bombing, educators at every level become so much more to their charges. In a matter of minutes they must go from teacher to counselor. They have to know exacly how much information to share and when to withhold. They have to help their students feel safe.

There are a number of great sources for parents to use to talk to their children about tragedy, and fortunately the information offered is also useful for teachers when helping kids deal with such events.

One of these is Talking to Kids About News which offeres parents (and teachers) some specific advice on discussing potentially disturbing or sad news with children. Some of the tips include:

"Start by finding out what your child knows. When a news topic comes up, ask an open-ended question to find out what she knows like "What have you heard about it?" This encourages your child to let you know what she is thinking.

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Ask a follow up question. Depending on your child's comments, ask another question to get him thinking, such as "Why do you think that happened?" or "What do you think people should do to help?"

Explain simply. Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them. At times, a few sentences are enough. "A good analogy is how you might talk about sex," adds Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed. D. "You obviously wouldn't explain everything to a 5-year-old. Talking about violence and safety is similar."

Listen and acknowledge. If a child talks about a news event (like a local robbery or kidnapping) and is worried,recognize her feeling and comfort her. You might say "I can see you're worried, but you are safe here. Remember how we always lock our doors." This acknowledges your child's feelings, helps her feel secure, and encourages her to tell you more.

Offer reassurance. When a child is exposed to disturbing news, she may worry about her safety. To help her calm down, offer specific examples that relate to her environment like, "That hurricane happened far away but we've never had a hurricane where we live." Actions speak louder than words — so show your child how you lock the door if she gets scared by a news report about robbers, point out the gutters and storm drains if a hurricane story causes fear, and explain what the security guards do at the airport after a story about terrorists.

Tailor your answer to your child's age. The amount of information children need changes age by age. "A kindergartner may feel reassured simply knowing a hurricane is thousands of miles away. An older child may want to know how hurricanes could affect the place where he lives and may want to know what is being done to help those in need. Both ages will be reassured by doing something to help," notes Jane Katch, M.S.T., author of Under Deadman's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play"

Educational blogger, Angela Maiers details some of the questions that students may have for you in the days following a tragic event. Some of them include:

  • Am I safe?
  • Could this happen here?
  • Could this happen to me?
  • What if someone came to our school?
  • What if you can not protect me?
  • Why do things like this happen?
  • Am I going to be okay?
  • Are we going to be okay?

As teachers, you are all asking yourself these same questions, but in order to help our children feel safe again, it's important to reassure them about the security measures taken at your school, and above all you are there to protect them. Detail your emergency plan, and if you feel it would help them, have a practice drill. Sometimes going through the motions of what would happen in an emergency can put kids at ease.

Many times kids feel more in control if they have a philanthropic  project to work on. Some ides for those include:

  • Get involved in a service project in order to help your students feel that they are  doing something for the greater good. 
  • Have your class make thank-you cards to send to doctor's at local hospitals that serviced victims.
  • Ask your class to research the location of the tragedy. By learning more about the city or town, students will see that is more than just a place where something bad happened.

Most educators who teach for longer than a few years face the reality of needing to explain a tragic event to children exposed to adult-sized fears. Our job in these times, as teachers or parents, is to instill a sense of security in our children while helping to restore their innocence. We can only hope that something we say, a gentle hug or our reactions to the tragic event can help make the difference in their lives.



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