Encourage Students to Express Their Feelings, Experts Suggest

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Experts on children’s mental health last week urged adults to encourage students to talk about the space-shuttle deaths and to be receptive listeners.

And they cautioned that over the next few weeks, children may become fearful, misbehave, or develop such somatic symptoms as headaches and stomachaches. Students may daydream, have problems sleeping, express feelings of futility, or show a decline in the quantity and quality of their schoolwork, they said.

Being actual witnesses to the fiery tragedy on television, experts agreed, may have a powerful effect on some children.

‘Going With Her’

“Christa humanized it, personalized it, and created an intimate mutual identity,” said Dr. Kent Ravenscroft, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University Medical School, “as if it were their teacher going up into space. And in effect, they were going up with her by proxy.”

“I had one boy who said that he was riding right up in the rocket with her and then he felt himself explode,” he continued. “It was so intolerable that he finally denied it.”

Other experts agreed that because a teacher was aboard the shuttle, and because schools had purposefully stirred children’s enthusiasm in the weeks preceding the launch, the disaster could have a great impact on some students.

But they noted that the extent to which children reacted would depend on their age, their intellectual and emotional development, any personal experiences they had had with death or loss, and their personality.

Vulnerable Children

Students who had personal contact with the astronauts or their families or who were in schools that had primed them to be deeply involved with the flight could be expected to react more strongly, they said.

Other particularly vulnerable children are those whose mothers have died recently or whose parents are going through a divorce, students who are the same age as Ms. McAuliffe’s children, students who are feeling inadequately cared for, and those who are angry with their teachers or their parents.

Although most older children are able to tell the difference between a news event and fantasy, and will have some understanding of death, young children will not be reacting to the event itself as much as to the groundswell of feeling among adults and peers, they said.

“Younger kids will almost pick up the vibrations,” said Dr. Ravenscroft.

Opportunity for Teachers

More important than the content of teachers’ activities will be their willingness to “take leadership,” said Dr. Gilbert W. Kliman, co-author of Children and the Death of a President, a book about the effect on children of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

As part of the study for the book, Dr. Kliman sent a questionnaire to the teachers of 800 youngsters in a small Northeastern city.

His study found that teachers who took the initiative and immediately organized classroom discussions and activities for their students had a positive effect. Those who refrained from communicating with children or sharing their feelings actually hindered students’ ability to cope with trauma.

“While young children frequently wished to be President before this assassination,” said Dr. Kliman, “that same generation of children had an immediate chill and a long-range freeze on their ambitions politically, and particularly for leadership and for the office of President.”

His current concern, he said, is that the explosion of Challenger will have a similar negative effect on children’s attitudes toward space exploration and other adventurous, scientific activities, particularly among girls.

Teachers should be honest in any dealings with children, said Frank Burtnett, assistant executive director of the American Association of Counseling and Development. He cautioned counselors and teachers not to make the event end at 11:39 A.M. Jan. 28.

“This is a time when honesty and facts should really come through,” he said. “We need to give answers as best we know them to kids, and not give them more mysteries.”

Grieve Differently

Experts also cautioned that children’s reactions to death are different than those of adults--and may be what a teacher least expects.

“Grieving children may look bad rather than sad,” said Dr. Lillian H. Robinson, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Tulane School of Medicine. “If they raise hell, if they misbehave, or if they do things to keep themselves busy and preoccupied, it’s so they don’t have time to feel sad or anxious. What we see in a child who is grieving is often the defense against sadness and anger rather than the feelings themselves.”

In addition, young children have a tendency to act out their emotions. “I would anticipate children all over the nation to be playing at shuttles blowing up and things like that,” she said. “Sometimes they might be making jokes about it. But it’s not necessarily disrespectful or bad for them to do that.”

Other students may try to distance themselves from the event by handling it intellectually, said Sandra S. Fox, director of the Good Grief Program in Boston, which helps children cope with death. Such children may ask endless questions, trying to gather as much information as they can about the event, she said.

For the majority of children, the immediate response should be over in a few days, added Dr. Kliman. But long-term, subtle effects on character and motivation should be of concern to educators, he stated, noting that he is still seeing the effects of the Kennedy assassination on people.

Dr. Albert Clark, director of student-health services for the Los Angeles Public Schools said he did not expect the shuttle explosion to have an “untoward” effect on most students.

Experts agreed that teachers should emphasize the known the risks that were involved in the space flight, the bravery of the astronauts, and the importance of such people’s risk-taking to society.

They also said that teachers should share their feelings with students, in effect giving children “permission to grieve.”

But they cautioned adults not to “overwhelm” children. The risk, said Dr. Ravenscroft, is that teachers will project their own feelings onto students rather than listening to what children really think.

A gentle, “backdoor approach” to discussing the disaster, he said, is to get children talking about how other children reacted, “to come at it through somebody else at some other place at some other time.”

Any immediate, concrete actions--such as writing letters of condolence, holding a memorial service, or playing the national anthem--would also help, experts said.

Teachers’ Gatherings

Equally important, teachers should gather to discuss their own feelings and to overcome their anxieties and fears about saying the wrong thing to students, said Ms. Fox.

Although experts could not give a ready answer about whether schools should proceed with some form of Ms. McAuliffe’s in-flight lessons, they cautioned that it may be too soon for the experience to be productive. The most important factor in the decision, they added, may be how ready teachers feel to cope with it.

Vol. 5, Issue 21, Page 7

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