Talking to Students After a Crisis: Do’s and Dont’s
- Listen more than you speak
- Although it is difficult, wait to give reassurances or new perspectives until the child is “talked out” . . . often adults jump in too soon to allay fears, so the child doesn’t have the chance to put to words all of what you really do want and need to know!
- Reaffirm Student’s Emotions: Let children speak about their feelings and validate all reactions without judgment. Support the appropriate expression of their feelings and help then in perspective.
- Validating statements:
- Tell me more
- Thank you for telling me/trusting me.
- I am here/will continue to be here.
- How can I help?
- Yes, I can see how you are feeling ____________.
- What can I do to help make this better?
- Let children’s questions guide the information provided. This is when adults can correct misperceptions and rumors, but it isn’t helpful to give advice or tell children not to feel what they feel. Some helpful language for that might include:
- “When things like this happen, and especially when we don’t know everything about why it happened or what was going on, sometimes we try to fill in the blanks with our own thoughts about what might be true . . . but those are just our ideas, not really the truth.”
- “What we know about what we read on Facebook (etc.) is that some of it might be true, and some of it might be hearsay, and some might be intentionally hurtful, anybody can write anything. Let’s take some time to focus on what we’re hearing from people who are most likely to be sources of true information about what really happened and, more importantly, who can help us deal with how we are feeling about what happened.”
- It can feel safer for children/youth to feel you are asking them about others instead of about themselves. An example of this would be:
- “Sometimes when things like this happen, it makes kids worry even though it didn’t happen in our family. What kinds of things do you think kids in our school are worried about?”
- Children/youth have a primary need to feel safe. Emphasize that schools are very safe.
- Provide students with knowledge of the importance of using positive coping strategies that work for them. Some suggestions:
- Listening to music,
- There are no right or wrong ways to positively cope and just as everyone grieves different, so too do people cope differently.
- Encourage students to participate in prosocial service activities.
- Important considerations for different developmental stages:
- Early Elementary:
- Provide simple information balanced by assurance of safety.
- May not understand that death is permanent and may believe that if they wish it, the person will come back or worry about something bad happening to their family members or others in their life.
- Upper Elementary & Early Middle
- Answer questions and assist in separating reality from fantasy
- They understand the physical reality of death, but may picture death as a monster or a skeleton.
- Upper Middle and High School
- Emphasize student role in self-care and how to access support
- They generally understand that death is irreversible.
- Early Elementary:
- Validating statements:
- Don’t assume you know what will help them feeling safe or what’s troubling them. ASK!
- There is no value in bringing up details of event. If the child/youth brings something up, definitely address it, but move the focus from details back to their feelings – both validating, providing perspective, and helping them to identify copying strategies.
- Don’t let your desire to keep them from knowing about this or sheltering them keep you from building the trust that comes of these conversations. Recognize that kids often know way more than they are telling us.
Important Do: Take Care of Yourselves
In order to take care of your students, you must first take care of yourself. Here is a good resource to help with this:
- Observe Student’s Emotional States:
- Some will not express themselves verbally but changes in behavior, appetite, or sleep patterns can indicate anxiety or stress. If you see changes in a student, ask directly how he/she is doing. Many students will not tell someone they are having difficulty until they are directly asked. Also ask the student if he/she knows of any classmates who may need help. They are often aware of changes in their peers. Seek help from the counselors and mental health provider assigned to you for those students with more intense reactions.
- Common Signs of Distress:
- Poor control of emotions
- Anger & moodiness
- Frustration and anxiety
- Social withdrawal
- Changes in academic performance or attendance
- Trouble with concentration, memory, cognition, and organization
- Physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches
- Intense reactions to reminders of the event
- Maintain a Normal Routine:
- Keep a regular schedule to promote student’s feeling of safety. Encourage maintenance of schoolwork and extra-curricular activities but do not push children if they seem overwhelmed.
NASP: Addressing Grief: Tips for Teachers and Administrators: