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School Climate & Safety Opinion

In the Wake of Newtown, Helping Children Cope

By Bonnie Rubenstein — December 17, 2012 4 min read
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The headlines seem too horrific to be true: 20 1st graders and six adults murdered senselessly inside a school in Connecticut; survivors led away from the carnage being told to close their eyes so as to not witness their surroundings. No one should have to bear the scars of last week’s heinous events.

Loss—albeit much less tragic—is inevitable, natural, and something we all face. While dealing with a loss is never easy, it can be peculiarly disorienting for children, who are developing emotionally and have fewer past experiences to turn to for context. Though we usually associate grief with the burdens of aging, too often loss directly affects children, from the loss of an immediate family member, to loss of grandparents, or divorce of their parents, or the more common events like the loss of a beloved pet. The effects of grief are pervasive, and may drag down other areas of children’s lives, including their academic performance.

Here are a few ways parents and teachers can help safeguard a child’s long-term well-being in the wake of a horrific act.

Identifying struggling children. It can be a challenge simply to identify children who are struggling with a loss. Teachers often lack knowledge about the home lives of students, and even parents may be unaware of a child’s private grieving. Nonetheless, there are a number of good indicators that a child may be enduring an emotional hardship. Signs to look for include a decline in academic performance and focus, changes in eating or sleep habits, and unusual aggressiveness or passivity. Adolescents may also be more likely to engage in risky behaviors.

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Children exhibiting these symptoms may need special accommodations both inside and outside the classroom. Even in cases without a clear source of grief, children may be struggling with events in the news or in the life of a friend—scenarios that can be devastating and equally deserving of care and attention.

Schools need ongoing professional development. Most schools and school districts acknowledge the effect of students’ social and emotional well-being on their academic achievement, but educators can best support this stance by investing real resources in counseling and other services. In the case of a mass trauma such as the Newtown shooting, counseling services should be offered to the entire school community. This may include support groups for students, teachers, parents, and first responders. The professionals who are providing the counseling services will also need support themselves. Rest, eating well, and engaging in exercise or activities that are enjoyable are all important. Creating a support network among colleagues is an important component to the healing process. It is important to maintain as much a sense of routine as possible since routines have a calming presence on children and adults alike.

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Efforts should be tailored by age groups. Children of different ages react to loss, and death in particular, in very different ways. Four- and 5-year-olds lack a vocabulary for expressing grief, as well as a conceptual framework for death. They fail to understand the finality of death, and euphemisms such as “passed on” or “passed away” make little sense to them. At 6 to 9 years, children begin to comprehend the finality of death. While showing outward expressions of grief is still challenging for them, they may have nightmares or give voice to their anxiety in other forms. Older children and adolescents may still need encouragement in expressing their feelings. They may also put up an outward show of coping while suffering hidden difficulties.

The developmental aspect of grief means that we should tailor our emotional support to particular age groups just as we share academic curricula to particular grades. What proves effective at one stage of life may not be what’s best for younger or older children.

In the wake of last week’s event, children will be anxious and worried. It will be important to listen to their fears and reflect their feelings.

Signs to look for include a decline in academic performance and focus, changes in eating or sleep habits, and unusual aggressiveness or passivity."

Reassure them that they are loved and are safe. It is important to keep the perspective that this was an extremely rare event, and that the man who caused it is dead. Questions should be answered truthfully, but additional details regarding the incident should not be offered unless directly requested by the children.

Adults need to stay calm and try to create a culture in which every student is supported by caring adults. In summary, use age-appropriate honesty, listen carefully, and try to maintain a normal routine.

Encourage emotional expression. The primary aim of providing counseling for children experiencing grief is to help them acknowledge and express that grief. If we fail to do that, we risk cutting off their access to the whole realm of emotional experience, including joy.

Resources for Schools

Catastrophic Mass Violence Resources (National Child Traumatic Stress Network)

Talking to Children about the Shooting (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network)

Tips for Talking to Children and Youth After Traumatic Events (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

SOURCE: Sherry Hamby, research professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. Hamby is also the editor of the Psychology of Violence Journal.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the most powerful vehicles for emotional expression are creative ones. For grieving children, as for adults, creative undertakings of all types can be a source of solace. Through activities such as journaling, painting, and singing, children can more easily access feelings and memories, and communicate their anxieties and hopes for the future.

Furthermore, these activities need not be confined to a narrow spectrum of “artistry.” Older children in our schools often create “loss history graphs,” timelines documenting both great and small losses throughout their lives. The act of reading can also be therapeutic, as children reflect on—and empathize with—the struggles of literary heroes.

Life after a great loss is never the same. The looming question at the heart of the healing process is how to make something good of something awful. For many, the answer lies in helping others: Reaching out to others in need becomes an antidote to depression and despair. Indeed, past losses are a powerful motivator for many working in grief counseling. For children and adults alike, our empathy may be our greatest strength.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as In the Wake of Newtown, Helping Children Cope

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