17 people were murdered at a school in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday. I have struggled to find the right words, to hold back tears, and to channel my anger into rational actions. As a school psychologist and a blogger preaching about the importance of social-emotional skills, I am compelled to share my thoughts and more importantly to help those trying to figure out the next steps.
Last week, I read a post from Jennifer at Cult of Pedagogy asking if I was a curator or a dumper? As a school psychologist, I get asked for advice and resources by colleagues and friends all the time. But when asked, did I curate a helpful collection? Or did I find 40 resources and create a bulleted list? Guilty.
In situations like this, I will follow Jennifer's advice and be a curator. Dumping information and knowledge is overwhelming and we are all working with a little less capacity right now.
In this post, you will find tips for taking care of yourself and the children you love after traumatic events.
Step 1: Take Care of Yourself
In order to have these conversations with children and teens, you need to be able to manage your emotions. This does not mean turn off your feelings. I have felt angry, sad, helpless, numb, and disgusted over the past two days. Share that with students. Be the emotional leader in the room.
Make time over the next week for self-care activities. I will be going for a long walk tonight and reaching out to my loved ones. Remind yourself of the good that happens in schools and homes every day and that you are capable of taking care of yourself and others. When you are bombarded with unthinkable tragedy, you need to be more purposeful in recognizing the positive. Without that, putting one foot forward can feel like a marathon.
Step 2: Set the stage
You are opening up a conversation about the possibility that school shootings like the one in Parkland can happen anywhere, including your classroom. Just like you set the stage during the first few days of school, set expectations around these conversations.
- Set norms around questions, responses, and sharing.
- Let students know how you have been feeling and other common reactions people might have.
- Emphasize your classroom community expectations of treating each other with respect and care.
- Let them know that you will (gently) correct misinformation about the incident.
Step 3: Acknowledge
Be honest about what happened using developmentally appropriate language. Younger children need more concrete explanations said simply in a few phrases.
Yesterday, a bad thing happened at a school in Florida. A man shot people and they died. The police caught the man. Everyone is really sad, and there are a lot of people helping.
For older children, keep the information direct and focused on the incident and victims, rather than the shooter.
It is important to remind students that all feelings are okay. Some students are not going to feel sad. The incident may feel distant and unrelated to them. Other students may feel heartbroken. Others may be thrown back into a recent tragedy they have experienced.
Take care to not provide too little information or too much information. In the age of social media and 24-hour news, children will likely have heard about the school shooting. If you are working with very young children, consider providing information to parents for them to have these conversations with their children.
Step 4: Listen
Open it up to them and let them ask questions. You can start off the discussion by asking them what questions they have or what are they are concerned about.
It is helpful to first find out what they know. Children will often fill in scary events with even more scary events. This is a good opportunity to open up a discussion and clarify misconceptions.
Allow them to help each other. You do not have to have all the answers. Let their peers come up with ways to handle feeling angry or sad or helpless.
Step 5: Reassure
Review with students the procedures the school has in place to deal with a situation like this. Emphasize the importance of these procedures to keep us all safe. Be honest that the school in Parkland also had these precautions in place.
Name the adults and peers in their lives who can help them and how they can help others.
You also reassure through your actions. As much as possible, return to normal routines and predictability. These conversations can happen and students can have the time and space to process, but it is essential that the classroom continues to be a safe and predictable space.
Step 6: Make Space
Work with parents to limit screen time and extensive exposure to the news. Replace that with more time with family and friends. Make a plan with students for things they can do for self-care.
Provide opportunities for students to discuss the school shooting or other incidents outside of a group discussion. Consider consulting with your school counselor or school psychologist to address students who are continuing to struggle.
Step 7: Follow-Up
Continue to foster a caring classroom community by extending this beyond an isolated discussion. Follow-up with parents about how they can support their students at home. Follow-up with your administration about the protocols in place to handle tragic events. Connect with community supports who could be a secondary help following a tragedy.
Observe students and watch for signs of continued anxiety or isolation.
Here are a few more resources that might be helpful:
From ASCA - Helping Students After a School Shooting
From NASP - Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Teachers and Parents
Dr. Paramjit Joshi from Children's National Medical Center says it better than I can.