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The Teacher's Role When Tragedy Strikes

Healing for students begins in the classroom 

Harold S. Koplewicz, MD

President
Child Mind Institute

Leer en Español

 

When death intrudes in the lives of children in a school community, the classroom is one of the key settings in which kids will experience grief and anxiety, and struggle to come to terms with their feelings.

I wish I could give you words that would protect the youngsters in your class from grief and fear. But since that's not possible, I offer some thoughts and guidelines, based on my experience, to help you help them process their feelings in a healthy way.

When a tragedy involves a school community—especially when the lives of students or teachers are lost—it's likely that it will be in the classroom where the loss may be felt most keenly.  Some kids may be very uncomfortable with that awareness. That means it's particularly important for you to acknowledge the loss and give your students an opportunity to express their feelings about it.

Though there may be a school-wide meeting or service to address the event, for many children the classroom will be the most important setting for asking questions, sharing feelings, and offering memories. Studies have found that children are more able to get comfort from adults they know well, and even from other children, than from crisis experts who are not familiar to them.  Studies also show that adults listening to children is more important in this kind of situation than knowing the perfect thing to say to them: A comfortable and safe setting where kids are allowed to be sad and upset and confused is the most valuable thing you can offer.

We recommend that you convene a group discussion, in whatever style is familiar to your kids, and let them know that you're sad, and many others are sad, and that when a tragedy happens and we lose friends and classmates, it's important to talk about how we feel and how we want to remember them. You should invite, but not force, questions, and answer them as simply as possible, in a developmentally appropriate way.

Since young children are egocentric, it's likely that some of your students will be worried about their own safety. Could the same thing happen to them? If it was a fire, reassure them that house fires are very rare in this day and age, and remind them about safety measures like fire drills that are taken in schools. If it was an act of violence, you can stress, again, efforts by their parents and teachers to make sure they are safe. If they ask questions you can't answer, it's okay to tell them you don't know.

After you've given them plenty of time to formulate their questions, express their feelings, and respond to each other, it's important to go back to your regular routine. That's not only because you're trying to model healthy resilience, but because routine is deeply comforting for children.

Keep in mind that the first time you talk about a tragic event that affects your children won't be the last time. Coming to terms with loss takes time, and will involve transitioning to positive ways to memorialize those who were lost, as a classroom and as a school. In your conversation (and subsequent ones) you can suggest ways the class might remember friends and classmates they miss: write stories about things you did together, draw pictures, plant trees, raise money to donate to children in need.  It's helpful to remind children that a person continues to live on in the hearts and minds of others. And doing something that benefits other children not only helps them feel good about themselves, but helps them learn a very healthy way to respond to grief in the future.

Remember that, as with everything you do as a teacher, you are teaching, and modeling, and allowing children to devise for themselves ways to handle challenges in a positive way. It's a skill that will be as important in their lives as reading and writing, and worth your efforts to nurture when kids are in crisis.

Updated: January 27, 2012

Read about how parents can help their children cope with a tragedy that involves the  loss of friends and classmates.

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