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10 Tips for Talking With Students About Tragedy

Expert advice on how to handle difficult questions and conversations in the classroom

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Help students cope with upsetting events with this expert advice from Dr. Robin F. Goodman, a clinical psychologist and art therapist and the Executive Director of A Caring Hand, The Billy Esposito Foundation, a bereavement center in New York City. She is also an author of The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11.
 

How to Address Events and Student Concerns

When it comes to tragedies students have heard about at home or on the news, what should the role of a teacher be?

Goodman: Teachers wear multiple hats: they must teach, nurture, and support. They are in a wonderful position to educate about facts and feelings. Teachers should let students know there are no right or wrong ways to feel, and that feelings change over time. They should present issues in a dispassionate way; accept all opinions; correct misinformation; and be mindful to teach and model tolerance.

If a student has a question about an event that hasn’t been introduced in class, how should the teacher address the student's concerns?

Goodman: You can assume they may already have seen or heard something, but don't assume to know what they are worried about. Start a discussion to gather information and learn for yourself what needs to be addressed, focused on, and explored.

What issues do kids tend to be most concerned with when it comes to tragic events?

Goodman: It varies quite a bit by age. Younger students will personalize it by asking questions such as, 'Could this happen again where we live?'  Teenagers may be more engaged in the political aspects of the event or think about the larger global issues.

How can a teacher express her own sadness or emotions appropriately?

Goodman: Teachers can express some general personal feelings, but should leave it open-ended to invite all feelings and expression. For instance a teacher could say, "I get very sad when I read about and remember what happened that day. I know people who had other feelings. I wonder what feelings you might have." Teachers should also monitor their own reactions and get support for themselves, too.

What should a teacher say if a student presents upsetting information to the class, such as "a lot of people died" or something similar?

Goodman: It's best to be honest and offer age-appropriate explanations. Students can find accurate information on their own; they will seek it elsewhere. They should know they can trust a teacher and come to her for help. But try to minimize any exposure to graphic descriptions or images, which can be upsetting.
 

What to Do If a Student Becomes Upset

How can you tell if a child is not coping well with a discussion? Are there warning signs?

Goodman: Keep an eye out for signs of difficulty or general uneasiness. For example, watch out for students who are fidgeting, avoidant, distracted, inattentive, bothering peers as a way to divert attention, or acting out in other ways. Some children may show they are having difficulty by becoming withdrawn or have physical complaints, such as having a stomachache and wanting to go the nurse.

What should you do if a student becomes upset during a discussion?

Goodman: Plan ahead. Have a quiet place for them to move to, or provide them with an activity to work on, such as reading a book or working quietly on a piece of art. Make sure to follow up with the student later, away from their peers.

When should a parent or school psychologist be notified about a child's reaction?

Goodman: If a teacher is concerned about a student, she should not hesitate to consult the school psychologist, social worker, guidance counselor, or the child's parent. It's better to make sure a student feels supported. And teachers should address issues when they are small, rather than let them linger.
 

Teaching About 9/11

When preparing to teach about 9/11, what should teachers be mindful of?

Goodman: Because it is the beginning of the school year you may not know the students well. Any prior information is useful to have. Keep in mind a student's:

  • Personal history or relationship to the event. Find out if a parent or relative died, lived near the sites, or was otherwise involved on 9/11. Students might also have a parent or relative serving in the military. For some students it may be an actual anniversary with personal significance.
  • Age. For young students, it is more about history and what they have heard or been told; for high school students, it's part of their history and some may be remembering and reliving events from that day and time.
  • Stressors. There may be problems at home or a student may have mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, that make it hard to cope with such upsetting topics.

What if a student is worried about 9/11 happening again?

Goodman: Talk about the reality of it being a rare occurrence in our history. Share what the school, community, and country have done to keep students safe. It is always helpful to present information about ways people cope following stressful and tragic events, and discuss the amazing ways people came together.

Teachers can review school safety plans, notify parents that they will be discussing this topic, and suggest proactive activities families could do in conjunction with the class study. For example, September is the American Red Cross's Preparedness Month. Families could go over their own safety plans, and create or update their "go bag" and emergency supplies.

Another excellent way to deal with fear is to reach out to others. Find a cause and help in the community by volunteering, donating money or useful items, or having fund-raisers. It's a great coping strategy.

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