Helping Students Cope in the Wake of the Sandy Hook School Shooting

Local law enforcement is highly visible at the nation’s schools this week. Police officers stand guard by front and back entrances and sit in patrol cars parked by school drives. The first to greet everyone arriving at school, they offer reassurance to shaken students, school staff, and parents anguished by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

“In light of the tragedy in Connecticut, our enhanced presence at the schools is intended to reassure students, faculty, and parents of our commitment to ensuring a safe school day for all,” said the Sheriff of Stafford County, Virginia.

High profile acts of violence in our schools like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary can confuse and frighten children. Kids might see the sorrow and anxiety experienced by their parents, and they’re exposed to round-the-clock coverage of the event, with violent images flashing across television, computer screens, and mobile phones in an endless loop. The media attention is especially disturbing to young children who may believe the act is happening over and over again.

“They may feel in danger and worry that their friends or loved ones are at risk,” says Jerry Newberry, Executive Director of NEA’s Health Information Network. But he says there are steps we can take to comfort and calm our students.

“Children look to adults for information and guidance on how to react, and we can help them feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and talking with them about their fears,” says Newberry.

What’s more, helping students cope with the tragedy is also a way to help educators work through their own grief. Talking about the events helps lessen their power over us – opening up about our fear and confusion helps us express feelings rather than holding on to them.

As soon as the school community feels ready, it’s important to return to normal routines, which helps everyone move through the sadness and fear, even as they continue to mourn the unimaginable losses in Connecticut.

“The care of the school community is what eventually restores balance,” says Newberry, who recommends following these tips from the National Association of School Psychologists.

Reassure children that they are safe.
Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.

Create time to listen and be available to talk.
Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient. Children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.

Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.

  • Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
  • Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
  • Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.

Review school safety procedures.
This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk.

Observe children’s emotional state.
Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time. However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of mental health professional right away if you are at all concerned.

Limit media exposure.
Limit television viewing and be aware if the television is on in common areas. Monitor what kids are viewing online and how they are consuming information about the event through social media. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure to vengeful, hateful, and angry comments that might be misunderstood.

Maintain a normal routine. Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.

A lot of these tips can also be applied to educators — to take proper care of their students, they must first take care of themselves.

“It’s OK to ask for support,” says Newberry. “Take a break if you need to get away. Take advantage of the Employee Assistance Program, if available, or district or community mental health counselors. Talk to your affiliate representative about your personal needs.”

For more information, please visit NEA HIN’s School Crisis Guide.