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Helping Kids Cope in the Wake of a Tragedy

Tips for Talking to Students About Tragedy in the News

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Helping Kids Cope in the Wake of a Tragedy
Photo © Michael hitoshi getty images

Helping kids cope with upsetting news of a tragedy is an extremely daunting task. Luckily, there are a great number of resources that offer parents and teachers helpful information on how to deal with the difficult questions, and talk to children about tragedy.

This article offers suggestions and tips on how to talk with students about a tragedy that's in the news. These strategies can help you find out how your students are feeling, and help them process information and feel safe.

In Dr. Phil's article Talking to Your Children About Tragedy he offers parents (and teachers) the following tips:

Talk, Talk, Talk. Reassure the child that they are safe, and find out what they know and answer any questions that they have.

Limit exposure to media. If your students are under the age of 6, keep them away from the media. Do not turn on your classroom TV or radio to here the latest news while the students are in the classroom. If the students are older and are aware of the situation, then be honest but don't over share information with them.

Explain it was an isolated occurrence. Reassure the students that they are safe, and that a bad thing happened, but it is over.

In PBS's article Talking with Kids About News they offer the following tips:

Find out what they know. Children may have a lot of questions about the event, but before you start answering them find out what they already know. Ask open-ended questions to encourage them about what they are thinking.

Tailor your answer to their age. Depending upon the age of the students, your answer may vary. Kindergarten or first graders may be fine with a simple answer, while older children may expect a more in-depth answer.

Keep it simple. Give students the information they need to know in a way they will understand. A few simple sentences should be enough.

On the website Educationminnesota.org, they offer a few pointers about what to say or do after a tragedy:

Allow everyone to speak. Allow children to share their thoughts and feelings by ensuring that everyone gets a chance to speak. A circle process is a great format to use for classroom discussions, this way each child gets a turn to talk.

Possible Opening Statements Teachers Can Use:

  • “What has happened today is sad and painful..."
  • “When bad or scary things happen, it is important to take a big breath..."
  • “It is important that we are able to express our feelings and share our thoughts and concerns. Let us go around the circle and talk about what has happened.”

Possible Discussion Questions:

  • What have you heard about the incident?
  • How are you feeling about what happened?
  • How did what you heard or saw affect you?

The National Association of School Psychologists offer the following tips for schools:

Provide an outlet for students to help. Allow students to make cards, or letters, to send to families of the survivors of the tragedy. You can also write thank you notes to the emergency responders, health care professionals, police or firemen.

Have school psychologists and counselors available. Have these professionals available for the students and staff who need that extra support.

Maintain stability in the classroom. Go on with your normal routine but do not have any major tests or projects within the next few days of the tragedy.

Be aware of personal connections to the tragedy. Some children may have a personal connection to the families or the victims. Provide these students with the extra support they may need.

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