Teaching Through Tragedy

Teaching Through Tragedy

Help students cope with national and global tragedies, and be prepared to deal with a crisis in a school.




Sociology, Health

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Like everyone else, students are affected by national and global tragedies—terrorist attacks, school shootings, political upheaval, or natural hazards. The NEA Health Information Network is a nonprofit health and safety organization closely associated with the National Education Association (NEA). The organization provides information, programs, services, and policies to boost the health and safety of educators and their students. One of the aims of the network is to assist schools before, during, and after a tragedy if they are affected—directly or indirectly—by the event. One resource the network provides is a School Crisis Guide. The guide helps school districts and schools “think in advance about how to prepare for a natural or a manmade disaster, how to put the things in place so that [they] can more effectively cope with it ahead of time and how to deal with it before, during, and after the event,” says Jim Bender, the network’s executive director. The 52-page document covers everything from creating a crisis-response plan to what to do in the hours after an event unfolds. The guide also deals with the long-term health needs of individuals involved with a crisis. Bender says this includes information on how students, educators, and parents can cope with the trauma itself, as well as post-traumatic stress. Besides providing a guide for dealing with these tragedies, the network assists schools shaken by events such as school shootings. “Whenever there is a school shooting, usually we are involved in making sure that the people who are directly or indirectly involved with it know where they can get resources to help them manage what is going on in their school,” Bender says. National and International Tragedies Of course, students can also be affected by tragedies that occur outside their school. “The school shootings are an obvious one, because they do tend to get a lot of notice in the media and unfortunately our children are watching while we are watching the news and they have a hard time processing that information in the same way,” Bender says. “It can be really scary for them just because they take things more literally, and they don’t understand the mental health issues that are involved. They have a different concept of what death means than we do.” Bender notes that students can react differently to tragedies depending on their age and psychological makeup. Students might process feelings of shock, disbelief, fear, grief, confusion, shame, or loss. “These feelings can manifest themselves in all sorts of ways—in terms of children becoming reclusive and unresponsive, to acting out in anger, to acting out in inappropriate ways,” Bender says. Children often have different methods of expressing feelings inspired by national and global tragedies. “Most teachers have a good sense of when something is wrong, and they will be able to pick up the sign of when children are ready to talk, like when they are hovering around when you are trying to do something else,” Bender says. “Or sometimes they want to express their feelings in different ways—in words, through art or through music. And sometimes they just need to do concrete, distracting activities.” Helping Students Cope There are several ways educators can help students cope with tragedies that take place outside their school. Different age groups respond to different approaches. “For the early elementary schoolchildren, you need brief, simple information that can be balanced with reassurances that their schools and homes are safe, and that adults are there to protect them,” Bender says. “So just remind them of the fire drills that you can do, that the exterior doors are locked so that people can’t get in except through the main entrance of the school, that there are child-monitoring efforts on the playground and that we do emergency drills to keep ourselves safe.” Older students can be encouraged to take a more pro-active approach to keeping their school safe. “For the older children,” Bender says, “you might want to emphasize the role that students have maintaining school safety, like following the school safety guidelines and not letting strangers in through locked doors, [or] reporting threats to the school’s safety that were made by students or community members—communicating any personal safety concerns that they have to a responsible adult.” Bender recommends all educators be reassuring and patient with students following a tragedy. “I think it is important, especially in the near aftermath, to continually reassure to children that they are safe and to make time for them to talk about their feelings and how it is affecting them,” he says. “But, on the other hand, also be patient with them and not expect them to share when we think they should be.”

Fast Fact

Keep in MindMental Health America has a short list of issues to consider when dealing with students or children after a national tragedy.• Children are concrete in their thinking. Answer questions simply and honestly.• Children are physical in their grief. Support their play and actions as “language” of grief.• Children can be fearful about death and the future. Give them a chance to talk about their fears and validate their feelings.• Children need choices. Offer choices in what they do or don’t do in response to a tragedy.• Children grieve as part of a family. Keep regular routines as much as possible.• Children are repetitive in their grief. Respond patiently.

Fast Fact

School Crisis GuideEducators can download the NEA Health Information Network’s School Crisis Guide here.

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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