A major challenge for any teacher is knowing how to present news to students about tragic events in the world, including acts of terrorism and hate crimes. Many students are exposed to these news stories along with the rest of us, and they’ll likely have fears, concerns and questions about the event and what it means.
What’s the best way to foster a healthy, safe and supportive environment for students to discuss and process tragedy? We asked three experts in the field of child psychology and mental health who we work with to help answer this question, and we conclude with our suggestions for using art for expression in the classroom.
Janah Boccio, LCSW | Middle School Social Worker at Churchill School in NYC
- Take care of yourself first. Much like putting an oxygen mask on first on an in-trouble airplane, you can’t do much help if you are struggling yourself.
- Ask them what they know. Remain calm. Be open and available to your students. If you act anxious, they will be anxious.
- Don’t feel that you have to answer all their questions. Being a good, respectful listener is more important than providing all the answers.
- Answer questions simply and reassuringly. Remind them of all the adults who are working to keep them safe.
- Don’t panic if they seem blasé or indifferent. Children process things in different ways.
- Encourage your students to talk to you as their thoughts and feelings shift over time.
Devon Harrison, M.A. | Developmental Specialist
As primary stakeholders in the well-being of children, it is easy for educators to carry a wish about global tragedy: if not acknowledged, it does not exist. But when students try to make sense of devastating world events, educators are often the first responders.
Teachers have the opportunity to help students understand that which is shocking and disturbing in a way that feels safe and tolerant. But it’s no small task. Here are some things to think about:
- The most important thing is to recognize the events that happened. Middle schoolers respond well to authenticity. And a teacher’s clear, calm acknowledgment that something terrible happened can create space for adolescents to understand their own reaction to the events.
- One of the best ways teachers can support students is to get the conversation started. Ask about what students already know and what they’re curious about; then find a way for the dialogue to match your classroom climate. Some teachers may carve out a few moments to hear student response. Keep it simple: invite questions, share the facts, and model the emotional tone.
- It’s important to remember that adolescent students will exhibit a wide array of reactions, ranging from apathy to grief. As an educator, you’ll have to tolerate the variability of their responses. Share with your students that talking about global tragedy is as difficult as it is important. Labeling this challenge can help validate their own discomfort. In middle childhood, emotional validation is essential for self-regulation: recognizing that these events are complicated and confusing allows your students to better regulate their own reaction.
- Don’t avoid the conversation. It’s tempting to avoid talking about tough topics with our students, but moments like these are reminders that educators play an extraordinary role: beyond instruction about the facts, teachers can help students notice, understand and tolerate their own emotional landscape.
Liza Blank, LCSW | Adult, Child and Family Therapist
As adults, when we ourselves are processing frightening events that impact our own sense of safety, it can feel overwhelming to support youth in this same process. Some things to remember:
- You don’t need to have answers. You do need to feel prepared to absorb feelings and thoughts that may also unsettle you. You can prepare for this by seeking out your own space to express your own experience.
- When you talk with students, create a space that allows for questions and curiosity and all types of responses—even no response.
- Everyone processes emotionally charged information in different ways. It is important that we don’t make kids feel they should feel a certain way. Letting them know that everyone has a different response when they hear this kind of news and there is no right way to feel is a critical frame to any conversation like this.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children has a helpful website with suggestions on how teachers can help children. At a high level, the NAEYC says teachers should:
- Establish safety and control
- Maintain control
- Accept all reactions
- Help children move toward positive actions
- Help children understand and learn from the disaster
- Encourage creativity
Learn more in Tips to Help Children Cope With Disasters from the NAEYC.
When faced with tragic events, art can help students and people of all ages begin to process, articulate and share their emotions. In addition, creating and sharing art may lessen the helplessness that such events can leave us with. Here are a few suggestions from the Flocabulary team about opening up your classroom for artistic expression in response to tragedy.
- You can choose a specific medium or let students select the medium they’d like. They might write poems, raps or a different kind of song, draw, paint, compose letters or use any other means of self-expression.
- Encourage students to use their medium to channel their feelings, ask questions and respond to the event.
- The art can be intended for an audience, or it can be private.
- During the creative process, you might build a safe, healthy and supportive discussion. Keep in mind the advice above, and let the art spark and sustain a meaningful conversation.