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February 21, 2018

Calming Fears and Frustrations in the Wake of Tragedy

By Meghan Everette
Grades PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

    We are sitting silently in the back of the room, me and twenty kids squished in the class library. I keep thinking that even if the closet were cleaned out, it could hold eight to ten of them at best. Our three large windows that open to the back of our campus are covered with sheer curtains. Note to self: ask about getting roller shades. Wouldn’t it be better if we just opened the windows and ran? We are the first door next to the exterior door. I bet we could make it to Tate’s house; he lives close. An all-call comes, but it is the wrong one. I’m listening for the right code words before we move or make a sound. Even my most squirrely and active kids have a look of anxiety. My smallest girl looks like she is going to cry. I wish I could grab a picture book and read to them. Finally, the lockdown ends.

    Comforting my first graders is a big task. How do you balance them taking it seriously with consoling them that it is just a practice? But “just a practice” for the day someone tries to shoot at my 6-year-olds is not exactly comforting either. Both the kids and I have to take some time to decompress when the stress is over. We talk, we read, and we eventually get back to normal. No matter if it is a school shooting, a young child dying from the flu, or a local fire, when events that rock our society happen, all students need extra support to overcome their fears and frustrations. Here are five ways we can help our students, communities, and selves when tragedy rocks our schools.

    Read | Write | Practice | Talk | Act

    First Things First: A Note on Self-Care

    You are no good to anyone until you are good to yourself. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is stressful for teachers too. Even when you know a drill is coming, even when you know it’s a practice, teachers can get unsettled. For me, it’s the look on my kids’ faces and the fact that I have to think through our plans. I worry about my own children in some other class doing the same thing and unable to give me a hug. When something unplanned happens in your day, your response is probably to go into teacher mode, but remember it is ok to show a human side.

    When you can, consider writing a journal or blog post, talking out your fears with your spouse or counselor, and remember to relax. If you never let yourself come out of teacher mode, you’ll never process your emotions as a person for yourself. As hard as it can be, I’d stay away from social media. Even the best discussion and well-intentioned post can start a wildfire of backlash and you need a break. Take one.

     

    Read

    Never underestimate the power of a book. While picture books are our go-to for younger students, they can be just as powerful and comforting for older students and adults. Consider easing back into your day by doing a class read-aloud. Even reading something familiar and fun can help students feel at home, independently or as a whole class. If you anticipate a class discussion about an event, you can turn to literature to help foster classroom community or discuss current emotions.

    Loss and Separation Anxiety

    • The Invisible String
      Good for: younger students K–3
      Twins Jeremy and Liza learn about an “invisible string” of love that connects us all, even when we experience loss or are away from those we love.
    • The Last Invisible Boy
      Good for: older readers fourth grade and up
      A graphic novel told by 12-year-old Finn who begins to disappear after the unexpected loss of his dad is sad, but manages a mix of humor throughout.

    Quality of Character and Feel Good Reading

    • The Three Questions
      Good for: elementary grades K–5
      Nikolai sets out to be the best person he can be, but isn’t sure how to go about it. Through his adventures he helps those around him.
    • Little Blue and Little Yellow
      Good for: all ages
      Little Blue and Little Yellow is a simple picture book that works for all ages. All the colors blend together to make new colors in a story about friendship and acceptance.
    • For even more books that build character, see blogger Genia Connell’s list of “100 Books and Build Character.”

    Acceptance and Kindness

    • Enemy Pie
      Good for: young students PK–2
      Dad shares his secret ingredient for enemy pie — spending a whole day playing with the new kid!
    • Wonder and We’re All Wonders
      Good for: middle grades and older (Wonder) and any age (We’re All Wonders)
      The novel Wonder, and picture book We’re All Wonders, follow August through his difficult transition to attending public school.

     

    Write

    Students dealing with emotions may not feel comfortable enough to (or even able to) share them aloud. It might be considered uncool and they fear bullying, or they might come from a home where expressing fears isn’t commonplace. Whatever the reason, writing can bring out strong emotions that allow a shared safe space and can open conversation.

    Never share student writing without permission, especially if emotionally sensitive. You might lay out the expectation that you’d like to read the writing, but will not be sharing it at all, if you anticipate students valuing privacy. Sharing your own writing can help students open up as well.

    • Respond – Students can respond doing a free write for a certain time. They might list their fears, worries, recount what they have heard, or express concern for others. If students don’t have anything to say, they might simply reflect on other events in their life, or personal connections in some other way.
    • Journal – Students can take time to reflect on their day or week. Built into a classroom culture, this can spur insights over time as well as alerting you when a student has experienced trauma. They have more time to write and might even gather information to support their writing. Students can respond to a news article or text, but be sure to be sensitive to culture, beliefs, politics, and age-appropriateness if using text. To connect on a broader scale, consider “Family Journals as Engagement Tools,” from blogger Kriscia Cabral.
    • Word Clouds – Creating a word cloud of emotions being felt can be a great way to see that we are sharing common feelings. Use a digital response tool, such as Poll Everywhere that supports group creation, or have students craft a list of emotions on sticky notes and input words yourself. Showing students that we are all experiencing the same emotions begins a safe-space for discussion and shared-healing.
    • Poems – Poems are naturally emotionally charged. Using a template can help students get started framing their response. Students can think about how they are currently feeling, how they felt when they heard the news, or respond to a specific text, video, or image. Use group writing if your students are young. The Teacher’s Activity Guide on Poetry or the Poetry Collection are places to get started.
    • Draw – For young students, and many others, drawing is a way to “write” their feelings and emotions. If writing isn’t for your class, or you believe students would be more comfortable with art, explore drawing responses. Students of all ages can “Rise Up” with Julie Ballew’s activity in her post about “Rebuilding Our Classroom Community After Hurricane Harvey.”

     

    Practice

    Having a plan and knowing the drill can reduce anxiety in students — and adults — when tragedy strikes. Particularly effective when the traumatic event is in the news but not nearby, practicing drills and routines can put students at ease to know there are systems in place to protect them. All classrooms should have emergency routes posted, a teacher handbook with emergency procedures, and a kit that has necessary items.

    My first graders were upset to hear about a tragic fire in a nearby community. I showed them our emergency bag, filled with their parents' numbers, a flashlight, snacks, and more. We looked at the emergency procedures and then practiced. Practicing for a lockdown, fire, earthquake, or other disaster can be scary, but telling students what the drill will be, enacting it, and talking afterwards is not only for practical purposes, it can quell worries as well.

     

    Talk

    Students need a safe space to talk, just as teachers do. While we decompress in the staff room or with our families, not every student has that outlet. Create a school plan for allowing students to talk to a teacher, counselor, or other trusted adult and a way for students to request help quietly. Having this in place all the time is a great idea, but reaffirming that students are welcome to approach adults with issues and that counselors are standing by is calming. My son, after a student died this past year, told me that they could talk to adults in the building. While he didn’t want or plan on using the outlet, his relief that people were ready to listen was palpable. And remember this for you as well — there’s always someone ready to listen! Never think you are alone. A world full of teachers are dealing with the same discussion as you, and they understand the stress.

     

    Act

    Families, school communities, and students all need to feel as though action is being taken. For young students, this might be letting them know their parents have talked to you, or that lawmakers are discussing what has happened. Older students may be ready to explore advocacy themselves. Even if they don’t want to discuss the topic at hand, allowing students a platform for writing letters, blog posts, or talking to adults in charge can help. You can educate them on positive ways to affect change and how to go about drawing attention to their cause.

    Students can decide what issues are important to them and develop ways to advocate for them, with assistance. Teachers can help organize or advocate for online systems. Our state has an app that embeds a tip line, places to call for help, and gives updates if an emergency occurs. Help set up a safety group that involves students, teachers, and families. Anytime you put power in the hands of students and the community to control their environment and make positive change, you reduce anxiety and fear.

    The list of ways to engage with students is endless. Creating a classroom, school, and community that values the whole child — an environment that says all children have a right to be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged — goes a long way to building trust and easing fear and frustration. Work on classroom culture and student relationships before tragedy strikes so you’ll be the trusted adult students can turn to when it matters most.

    We are sitting silently in the back of the room, me and twenty kids squished in the class library. I keep thinking that even if the closet were cleaned out, it could hold eight to ten of them at best. Our three large windows that open to the back of our campus are covered with sheer curtains. Note to self: ask about getting roller shades. Wouldn’t it be better if we just opened the windows and ran? We are the first door next to the exterior door. I bet we could make it to Tate’s house; he lives close. An all-call comes, but it is the wrong one. I’m listening for the right code words before we move or make a sound. Even my most squirrely and active kids have a look of anxiety. My smallest girl looks like she is going to cry. I wish I could grab a picture book and read to them. Finally, the lockdown ends.

    Comforting my first graders is a big task. How do you balance them taking it seriously with consoling them that it is just a practice? But “just a practice” for the day someone tries to shoot at my 6-year-olds is not exactly comforting either. Both the kids and I have to take some time to decompress when the stress is over. We talk, we read, and we eventually get back to normal. No matter if it is a school shooting, a young child dying from the flu, or a local fire, when events that rock our society happen, all students need extra support to overcome their fears and frustrations. Here are five ways we can help our students, communities, and selves when tragedy rocks our schools.

    Read | Write | Practice | Talk | Act

    First Things First: A Note on Self-Care

    You are no good to anyone until you are good to yourself. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is stressful for teachers too. Even when you know a drill is coming, even when you know it’s a practice, teachers can get unsettled. For me, it’s the look on my kids’ faces and the fact that I have to think through our plans. I worry about my own children in some other class doing the same thing and unable to give me a hug. When something unplanned happens in your day, your response is probably to go into teacher mode, but remember it is ok to show a human side.

    When you can, consider writing a journal or blog post, talking out your fears with your spouse or counselor, and remember to relax. If you never let yourself come out of teacher mode, you’ll never process your emotions as a person for yourself. As hard as it can be, I’d stay away from social media. Even the best discussion and well-intentioned post can start a wildfire of backlash and you need a break. Take one.

     

    Read

    Never underestimate the power of a book. While picture books are our go-to for younger students, they can be just as powerful and comforting for older students and adults. Consider easing back into your day by doing a class read-aloud. Even reading something familiar and fun can help students feel at home, independently or as a whole class. If you anticipate a class discussion about an event, you can turn to literature to help foster classroom community or discuss current emotions.

    Loss and Separation Anxiety

    • The Invisible String
      Good for: younger students K–3
      Twins Jeremy and Liza learn about an “invisible string” of love that connects us all, even when we experience loss or are away from those we love.
    • The Last Invisible Boy
      Good for: older readers fourth grade and up
      A graphic novel told by 12-year-old Finn who begins to disappear after the unexpected loss of his dad is sad, but manages a mix of humor throughout.

    Quality of Character and Feel Good Reading

    • The Three Questions
      Good for: elementary grades K–5
      Nikolai sets out to be the best person he can be, but isn’t sure how to go about it. Through his adventures he helps those around him.
    • Little Blue and Little Yellow
      Good for: all ages
      Little Blue and Little Yellow is a simple picture book that works for all ages. All the colors blend together to make new colors in a story about friendship and acceptance.
    • For even more books that build character, see blogger Genia Connell’s list of “100 Books and Build Character.”

    Acceptance and Kindness

    • Enemy Pie
      Good for: young students PK–2
      Dad shares his secret ingredient for enemy pie — spending a whole day playing with the new kid!
    • Wonder and We’re All Wonders
      Good for: middle grades and older (Wonder) and any age (We’re All Wonders)
      The novel Wonder, and picture book We’re All Wonders, follow August through his difficult transition to attending public school.

     

    Write

    Students dealing with emotions may not feel comfortable enough to (or even able to) share them aloud. It might be considered uncool and they fear bullying, or they might come from a home where expressing fears isn’t commonplace. Whatever the reason, writing can bring out strong emotions that allow a shared safe space and can open conversation.

    Never share student writing without permission, especially if emotionally sensitive. You might lay out the expectation that you’d like to read the writing, but will not be sharing it at all, if you anticipate students valuing privacy. Sharing your own writing can help students open up as well.

    • Respond – Students can respond doing a free write for a certain time. They might list their fears, worries, recount what they have heard, or express concern for others. If students don’t have anything to say, they might simply reflect on other events in their life, or personal connections in some other way.
    • Journal – Students can take time to reflect on their day or week. Built into a classroom culture, this can spur insights over time as well as alerting you when a student has experienced trauma. They have more time to write and might even gather information to support their writing. Students can respond to a news article or text, but be sure to be sensitive to culture, beliefs, politics, and age-appropriateness if using text. To connect on a broader scale, consider “Family Journals as Engagement Tools,” from blogger Kriscia Cabral.
    • Word Clouds – Creating a word cloud of emotions being felt can be a great way to see that we are sharing common feelings. Use a digital response tool, such as Poll Everywhere that supports group creation, or have students craft a list of emotions on sticky notes and input words yourself. Showing students that we are all experiencing the same emotions begins a safe-space for discussion and shared-healing.
    • Poems – Poems are naturally emotionally charged. Using a template can help students get started framing their response. Students can think about how they are currently feeling, how they felt when they heard the news, or respond to a specific text, video, or image. Use group writing if your students are young. The Teacher’s Activity Guide on Poetry or the Poetry Collection are places to get started.
    • Draw – For young students, and many others, drawing is a way to “write” their feelings and emotions. If writing isn’t for your class, or you believe students would be more comfortable with art, explore drawing responses. Students of all ages can “Rise Up” with Julie Ballew’s activity in her post about “Rebuilding Our Classroom Community After Hurricane Harvey.”

     

    Practice

    Having a plan and knowing the drill can reduce anxiety in students — and adults — when tragedy strikes. Particularly effective when the traumatic event is in the news but not nearby, practicing drills and routines can put students at ease to know there are systems in place to protect them. All classrooms should have emergency routes posted, a teacher handbook with emergency procedures, and a kit that has necessary items.

    My first graders were upset to hear about a tragic fire in a nearby community. I showed them our emergency bag, filled with their parents' numbers, a flashlight, snacks, and more. We looked at the emergency procedures and then practiced. Practicing for a lockdown, fire, earthquake, or other disaster can be scary, but telling students what the drill will be, enacting it, and talking afterwards is not only for practical purposes, it can quell worries as well.

     

    Talk

    Students need a safe space to talk, just as teachers do. While we decompress in the staff room or with our families, not every student has that outlet. Create a school plan for allowing students to talk to a teacher, counselor, or other trusted adult and a way for students to request help quietly. Having this in place all the time is a great idea, but reaffirming that students are welcome to approach adults with issues and that counselors are standing by is calming. My son, after a student died this past year, told me that they could talk to adults in the building. While he didn’t want or plan on using the outlet, his relief that people were ready to listen was palpable. And remember this for you as well — there’s always someone ready to listen! Never think you are alone. A world full of teachers are dealing with the same discussion as you, and they understand the stress.

     

    Act

    Families, school communities, and students all need to feel as though action is being taken. For young students, this might be letting them know their parents have talked to you, or that lawmakers are discussing what has happened. Older students may be ready to explore advocacy themselves. Even if they don’t want to discuss the topic at hand, allowing students a platform for writing letters, blog posts, or talking to adults in charge can help. You can educate them on positive ways to affect change and how to go about drawing attention to their cause.

    Students can decide what issues are important to them and develop ways to advocate for them, with assistance. Teachers can help organize or advocate for online systems. Our state has an app that embeds a tip line, places to call for help, and gives updates if an emergency occurs. Help set up a safety group that involves students, teachers, and families. Anytime you put power in the hands of students and the community to control their environment and make positive change, you reduce anxiety and fear.

    The list of ways to engage with students is endless. Creating a classroom, school, and community that values the whole child — an environment that says all children have a right to be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged — goes a long way to building trust and easing fear and frustration. Work on classroom culture and student relationships before tragedy strikes so you’ll be the trusted adult students can turn to when it matters most.

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