All of us at PSI have been distressed and saddened by the on-going national and world events involving terrorism and other mass killings. Our partner schools often come to us for advice on properly communicating with students about these tragic events. We are aware that you want to individualize your school’s response, but we thought the following information from the National Association of School Psychologists might be of help. Please let us know if we can guide you in any way as we all navigate these turbulent times. As always, we thank you for your continued support of PSI.
Talking to Students About Terrorism
Due to the recent incidents of terrorism in Paris, children may turn to educators with questions and need support. Our students may have known someone who has been affected by these recent incidents or other acts of violence. They may be worried about a loved one who lives in an area where a terrorist act or threat has been made. Our students may develop stress and anxiety due to media coverage of these incidents. Some of our students may even be unfairly stigmatized due to a perceived resemblance of perpetrators who have enacted violence.
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has provided to the public access to a variety of resources regarding school safety and violence. A recent article posted by NASP, entitled Helping Children Cope with Terrorism – Tips for Families and Educators, may be useful for you in your schools. Below is a summary of ways you can help support your students who are processing their thoughts and feelings regarding terrorism. Please note that it is important to discuss your involvement in addressing these sensitive issues with your school administrator in order to ensure that your service aligns with their school policies and best meets the needs of the students.
Tips for Families & Educators:
1) Be Conscious of Your Reactions – Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives. Avoid appearing anxious or overly frightened.
2) Reassure children they are safe – Point out evidence that support this.
3) Remind them that trustworthy people are in charge – Explain that emergency workers, police, firefighters, doctors, and the government are helping people who are hurt and are working to prevent this from happening in the future.
4) Let children know that it is okay to feel upset – Explain that all feelings are okay. Let children talk about their feelings in a safe and open environment.
5) Tell children the truth – Don’t try to pretend that the event has not occurred. Children will be worried if they think you are afraid to tell them what is happening. It is a good idea to discuss ways to deliver this message to students in a developmentally appropriate way with the school administrators.
6) Stick to the facts – Don’t embellish or speculate about what has happened or where another attack might occur.
7) Be careful not to stereotype people or countries that might be associated with the violence – Talk about tolerance and justice versus vengeance. Stop any bullying or teasing immediately.
8) Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate – Early elementary children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change. Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. They will be more committed to doing something to help the victims and affected community.
9) Maintain a “normal” routine – To the best extent possible, stick to a normal classroom routine, but don’t be inflexible. Children may have a hard time concentrating on schoolwork or falling asleep at night.
10) Monitor or restrict exposure – Monitor exposure to all forms of media, including social media. For older children, caution against accessing news coverage from only one source.
11) Observe children’s emotional state – Depending on their age, children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can also indicate a child’s level of grief, anxiety or discomfort. Children will express their emotions differently. There is no right or wrong way to feel or express fear or grief.
12) Be aware of children at greater risk – Children who have a connection to this particular event, 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.
13) Provide an outlet for students’ desire to help – Consider making get well cards or sending letters to the families and survivors of the tragedy, or writing thank you letters to doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals as well as emergency rescue workers, firefighters and police.
14) Keep lines of communication open between home and school – Schools are a good place for children to experience a sense of normalcy. Being with their friends and teachers is helpful. Schools should inform families about available resources, such as talking points or counseling, and plans for information sharing and discussions with students.
15) Monitor your own stress level – Don’t ignore your own feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger. Talking to friends, family members, religious leaders, and mental health counselors can help. It is okay to let your children know you are sad, but that you believe things will get better. You will be better able to support your children if you can express your own emotions in a productive manner. Get appropriate sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
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