Female teacher leads group of students in a serious conversation

9 Tips to Help Students Cope After a School Tragedy

Written by Social Sentinel

Most of us are unprepared to deal with a tragedy. Tragic events are simply unthinkable, unpredictable, and can happen to anyone at any time. It could be a school or community violence situation, or the loss of life for any reason. Starting a conversation about such events isn’t easy for anyone at any age. Here are some ways you can be prepared to help students cope if a tragedy strikes.

It’s likely you won’t have many answers, but focusing on the known facts, and avoiding personal opinions and unnecessary details will help the process of processing.

1. Set the tone

Your body language can set the tone throughout the discussion. Students will easily detect anxiety and other social cues and may model their own behavior accordingly. Similarly, expressing feelings and emotions may also make them feel more comfortable sharing.

2. Openly talk about the situation  

Students could potentially learn about tragedies from their peers, overhearing adults, or directly from other communication sources – including social media. Avoiding the topic may make a child more afraid or unwilling to talk about difficult subjects, or expressing their own emotions.

3. Stick to the facts

When processing an unimaginable tragedy, it’s natural to need a lot of detail and explanation. It’s likely you won’t have many answers, but focusing on the known facts, and avoiding personal opinions and unnecessary details will help the process of processing. Be honest and straightforward about the events that occurred.

4. Active listening

Some of the kids may already know about a tragedy, but they may not have all the facts correct. Listen closely and clear up any misunderstandings or distortions, and listen for any underlying concerns they may be feeling.

5. Reassure safety

It’s paramount that a child feels safe and prepared in their school environment.  Review safety protocols such as evacuation drills, lockdown drills, and other school policies in place.

6. Be mindful of the age groups

Depending on the age group of the students affected, educators must determine how much information needs to be shared.

  • Preschool  Maintain a calm and gentle voice and speak to them at their eye level.  Give a general overview of what happened and the steps and safety measures that you have in effect to ease their concerns.  
  • Elementary/middle school  At this age, students may have trouble separating fact from fantasy.  Be honest when talking and emphasize the value the school places on their safety.
  • High school  In their teens, students are likely to have many questions and opinions about what happened.  Listen to their suggestions on how they can make their school a safer place.

7. Maintain a routine

Structure and sticking to a normal routine can provide the reassurance and consistency need to begin healing, especially if they are feeling overwhelmed by the situation.

8. Create a teachable moment

Take this opportunity to discuss a see something, say something mentality. If the tragedy at hand is something that could have been prevented, discuss things students could do in the future to help avoid potential threats. Care must also be taken to ensure them that they’re not to blame for someone else’s action.

9. Positive forward movement

Encourage ideas on how to help the families affected. For example, if the tragedy was a fire, consider starting or participating in a clothing drive. In the event of a school shooting, ask students to write thank you notes to first responders. Food drives are helpful in situations where natural disasters have occurred.  

Whether the event happened thousands of miles away or in your own community, knowing how to help young minds grasp the situation can help them process what has occurred. Knowing how to approach the subject in advance can be paramount to a successful and productive discussion, and facilitate the healing and coping process.

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