When I was little, I was afraid that something would happen to my mother. I lay awake at night terrified, imagining horrible acts. It started off with a fear that a tiger would eat her. Then, when I was a little older, the fear became that someone would come into the house and hurt her. I played the movie over and over again in my head. I shed real tears. I tried to think of what I could do to stop it, and felt guilty late at night that I most likely could not.
I can only imagine what the kids of the world today are imagining as they close their eyes at night.
Many of our kids are coming to school on Monday with the tragedy of Newtown on their minds. Even if they have not been directly affected, any of us who love a child know that children soak up their surroundings and understand far more than we want them to. Many of our kids are awake at night thinking about what happened. Many are afraid that something like this could happen to them. At the very least, many kids are feeling big, confusing feelings, no matter what they look like on the outside. They are going to need our help to move through this national trauma as healthily as possible.
It is tempting for us, as teachers, to process traumas like this in passing sound bites. Tragedies like these are enormously big, even for adults to handle, and we crave a return to structure and routine. And certainly, getting back to normal will be essential to our kids feeling safe in their classes. There are good reasons why we might want to move on.
We might want to move on because we don’t know what to say. I know that during 9/11, as my 8th grade class sat in my room for hours as we waited for parents and guardians to walk over the bridge and retrieve them, I struggled to know what to do. I wish I had known more than I did, as my attempts to process and sooth and distract feel pitifully inadequate now.
We might want to move on because we think that we might cause more damage by talking about tragedy and violence imperfectly than if we don’t really get into it at all. We might be afraid of what our kids say, of what they ask. For our younger ones, we might worry they will ask questions we can’t answer; for our older kids, we might be concerned that they might react in inappropriate ways, or get into the surrounding politics of the situation.
But there are things we can do to help our students and our communities come together and come out stronger than we were before. There is no need for a child to hold their fears close to their chests late at night, worrying about the worst case scenario all by themselves.
We must support each other to overcome our fears and talk with our kids. The unknown is always more terrifying than the known. Our students need to see us – need to see our schools – as a place where they can come with their questions and concerns about our society and our world. They need to see their community as a place of strength and caring resources.
1. Make Time to Talk or Process. Not just once, but at least a few times over the course of the next week and on. Let’s show our kids that we are open to them bringing the topic up if they want to. Also, the site suggests that we offer many ways for children to express themselves – through dialogue, or art, or music. With my kids, I wrote a chart that said, “What we Know…/What we Don’t Know…” and “What We Are Afraid of…” and we spent time listing and clarifying and sharing.
2. Keep Your Explanations Appropriate for Your Students’ Age Range. Of course, we will want to tailor what we say to meet our kids’ ability to take it in. For instance, for the little ones, giving the simplest explanations as possible can be enormously securing. For our adolescents, a broader discussion of policies and origins might help contextualize the conflict and make it clearer to process. Seek help online, as there are countless of talk-guides that can help navigate these types of terrain with the students in your age-range.
3. Review How Your School Works in an Emergency to Keep them Safe. While we can’t make promises that nothing will ever happen, we can explain that there are systems in place in schools to address the possibility of threat. We want to show our kids that they are safe, that this does not happen in all but the rarest of cases, and that the adults around them are doing whatever they can to take good care. If your school does not have a safety procedure, or if you do not know what that procedure is, embrace this time to open up discussion in your building.
4. Watch Your Kids. Is anyone acting out a little more? Any changes in their behavior, or personality? We want to take care of each other right now, and part of taking care of the people we care about is paying attention to them. Some of our kids will be affected more than others. Let’s look out for the ones who are suffering silently.
Along with a few more strategies, the website also has prompts and suggested points to make when talking to kids about violence. Of course, the internet is littered with good websites for this. Resources like the internet, our spiritual mentors, and our colleagues and peers can help us to find the words for the unexplainable.
One last suggestion: we know the old adage, actions speak louder than words. As we move through the next few heavy weeks and months, and as we as a nation grapple with the issues of gun control and mental health, let’s look for things we can do. We need to model for our kids that while horrible things happen, and evil may exist, that we can always look for someone to help. We can always look for some beauty in this world. As Mr. Rogers, who always made me feel safer growing up, once said about talking to kids about tragedy:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,’” he wrote. “To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
Let’s make sure that we are some of the helpers our kids can look to as they search for ways to handle the worst realities of this world.
Big Idea: Helping Kids Cope with Tragedy Tiny Detail: Discussion Strategies
Kate and Maggie