Trying to understand Friday’s horrific events at a Connecticut elementary school is one thing. Explaining it to children and students is another.
Twenty-seven people were shot and killed, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., after a gunman opened fire inside the school Friday morning.
Shortly after the news of the shooting, Fort Wayne Community Schools sent tips to all district teachers on how to talk to students about traumatic events, district spokeswoman Melanie Hall said. The district didn’t have reports of any parents signing their students out early or calling schools about the tragedy, she said.
The talking points the district provided are aimed at informing parents and educators of the best ways to reassure children when tragic events occur. The guide is available through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Center for Mental Health Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Hall also said the Bowen Center, a local counseling service, recommended limited media exposure for children younger than 12.
But Judith Myers-Walls, a child development professor at Purdue University, said it’s important for teachers and parents not to ignore the tragedy.
Don’t assume that the children know nothing, especially the young ones, because it is likely they will hear bits and pieces and misunderstand, Myers-Walls said in a prepared statement. This shooting may be states away, but it happened in a classroom and that is personal to any child.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services guide, events such as shootings, bombings or other violent acts can leave kids feeling frightened, confused and insecure.
Reassurance is the key to helping children through a traumatic time. Very young children need a lot of cuddling, as well as verbal support, the guide said.
Adults should answer any questions honestly, being careful not to dwell on the scary details of an event or to allow the subject to dominate family or classroom time. Children of all ages should be encouraged to express their emotions in a variety of ways and to find a way to help those affected, the guide said.
Classroom and household routines should also be maintained.
Myers-Walls said it might be helpful for children to light a candle, send a card to a family member or give to a local charity. She said some students who feel anxious about returning to school should be reminded of those around them who help keep them safe, like teachers or bus drivers.
Parents can send something comforting to school with their children such as a note or family picture, Myers-Walls said. Having a confident and caring parent or caregiver is the most helpful thing you can do to help children not feel afraid.
The district also took the opportunity Friday to remind all staff about district security measures, stressing the importance of following procedures, Hall said.
Every school in the district has a system that requires guests to buzz in visitors to its schools, which includes video monitoring at entrances, she said.
Talking to childrenAfter a traumatic event
Provide children with opportunities to talk about what they’re seeing on TV and to ask questions.
Do not be afraid to admit that you cannot answer all of their questions.
Answer questions at a level the child can understand.
Provide ongoing opportunities for children to talk. They probably will have more questions as time goes on.
Use this opportunity to establish a family emergency plan. Feeling that there is something you can do may be very comforting to both children and adults.
Allow children to discuss other fears and concerns about unrelated issues. This is a good opportunity to explore these issues also.
Monitor children’s television watching. Some parents may wish to limit their child’s exposure to graphic or troubling scenes. To the extent possible, be present when your child is watching news coverage of the event. It is at these times that questions might arise.