This post was written after the terrible shootings in San Bernardino, California. Now, after the heartbreak in Orlando, Florida, we feel compelled to share it with educators everywhere. Our thoughts and hearts are with all the victims and their families.
It would be hard to miss the reports. We can hardly turn on the news or look at the Internet without reading of some new incident in which someone opened fire on a group of innocent people. These tragedies have taken place in locations where we once felt safe—schools, churches, movie theaters, and government offices. Growing up in my home state of California, my biggest concern at school was earthquakes… and we had numerous drills to help prepare us. Drop! Cover! Hold on!
Today, schools prepare for natural disasters and such emergencies, but they also prepare for active shooters and lockdowns. The threat seems to get more real with each passing year, yet I have always been able to rationalize that it happens elsewhere, but not in my neighborhood…. That was until last month when crisis hit San Bernardino, California. People I knew, worked with, and taught were inside the building, and I was on my way to teach a class just a block away from the shootings. Thankfully, everyone I knew was unharmed—physically at least. Fourteen other families were not so lucky.
The nearness of this tragedy made me realize in a way I hadn’t before that these crises can happen anywhere at any time. Moreover, as a mother and an educator, I saw how my children, their classmates, and school personnel were affected, even removed from the situation itself. I noted, too, the increase in anxiety in my adult students and clients in the college and at the counseling center where I work.
What can teachers do, then, for themselves and in the classroom, to help their students cope with the fear and anxiety that the reality of these tragedies have presented? Many children are deeply afraid that such terrors might affect their school. And so, schools everywhere are working to prepare students, teachers, and staff in every way they can. But in addition to these measures, I think it’s essential to deal with the related fear that students—and teachers—have. Some people believe that talking about the realities will stoke the fear. The truth is, though, that not talking about them does not make them any less real for kids. Now is the time not only to be prepared for disaster, but also to talk about how we can live our lives free from the constrictions of fear that disaster often presents.
Of course, as with all sensitive topics, it’s important to involve parents, letting them know what will be discussed in the classroom. There should be opportunity to opt out of discussions if they believe the topics are too much for their children to handle. However, assuming you have the go-ahead, there are plenty of ways for you to approach the topic in the classroom, depending on the age of your students.
Self-Care: On an airplane, we’re taught to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others. This rule is the same when it comes to dealing with fear and anxiety related to tragedies and disasters. To be the best help for students and to model for them how one deals with anxiety, teachers and all adults who work with children must learn to attend to their own emotional needs. Self-care is a must. Talking with loved ones and peers can help, as can staying active, eating well, and getting plenty of rest. It’s important to demonstrate for students how to take care of yourself. If you are stressed or anxious, your students will know, and they will be even more so.
Get Real: The reality is: scary things happen. But, the chance of them happening to each of us is quite rare. Although mass shootings have occurred, most of us return home each day safe and sound. Remind students that while there are people who do bad things, most of the world is a good place to be, filled with good, helpful people. Even so, it’s important to let your students talk about their fears. What have they seen and heard? What are their concerns? Can you ease their concerns by sharing the reality with them? While it is possible that something can happen close by, it may not be likely. Think through the fear with your students. If their worst fears came true, how could they handle it? Sometimes just having a plan can ease one’s fears.
You can let your students know that you, too, have concerns and fears, and that you are taking care of yourself by talking with others, staying active, and being prepared. Let them know what is working for you. It’s helpful for them to know it’s normal to feel what they are feeling.
Time for Talk: While you want to allow your students to express their fears and thoughts as necessary, you don’t want the discussions to interrupt the flow of your day. Routine is important, and scheduling time for discussion and other activities centered around their fears, anxiety, and even control is helpful. If one student needs extra time, you can allow for that when it is convenient for you. You can also recruit the help of school counselors and other professionals, as needed.
Self Confidence: It’s important for students to know they are safe and that some things are within their control. This is where it can be helpful to role play what they might do in certain situations. You can lead a discussion about times they have felt out of control or scared but were able to rise above and come out of the situation successfully and unharmed. Identify and praise them for times they’ve mastered difficult or scary situations.
Be of Service: Older kids, and even some younger kids, find comfort in providing service to others in times of trauma. They can brainstorm ways to help the community or those directly affected by traumatic events. Maybe they want to have a clothing and toy drive for a family who lost their home and all belongings following a fire. They might want to have a carwash or other fundraiser to help a family struggling to pay for a funeral or care of children after a parent’s death. Perhaps they would like to volunteer at a convalescent home or raise money for the training of a therapy dog. There are many things kids of all ages can do to feel proactive and in control of changing their world for the better.
Communicate Another Way: It can be difficult for some children to express their thoughts and feelings verbally. It’s helpful, then, to allow for other means of expression. They can write, draw, paint, sing, act, sculpt, and so on. Whatever media you have access to in the classroom can be used to express their feelings and thoughts. Some teachers have already incorporated journal writing into their classrooms. This is a great tool to allow students to share their thoughts and fears without saying them aloud. It’s important that teachers read these entries, keeping their minds open to the difficulty some students might be having, and responding as appropriate.
Be Active: Finally, just as you might have discovered that exercising helps you in times of stress, this is true of children as well. A recent article published by neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki highlights the value of exercise for many reasons, including combating stress and improving one’s ability to shift and focus attention (as well as improving memory, improving imaginative functioning, and lowering chances of cognitive decline). What teacher wouldn’t love all of that for students? So, how can you incorporate exercise into your classrooms? Certainly physical education classes and recesses should not be discounted. You can also offer opportunities for students to just be on the move, perhaps even signing on with 100-Mile Club (a national non-profit) and playing sports throughout the week.
Although scary things happen, and we must do all we can in schools to prepare and protect against them, we do not need to be paralyzed by the thought of them. As adults, we can help the kids in our lives—our students as well as our own children—deal with their fears by being open, talking with them, helping them be agents for change in their community and world, and providing them with means to handle the accompanying stress.
How are you prepared to help?
Diana Herweck holds a doctor of psychology degree and is a licensed marriage and family therapist, a licensed professional clinical counselor, and a national certified counselor. She has worked with children and families for the past 30 years, as a professional and through PTA, Scouts, and volunteering in elementary classrooms. She has been a college professor for the past 15 years, teaching at various universities, including the California State system, University of Phoenix, and University of Redlands. She is passionate about safe, nurturing environments for all students. Diana lives in Southern California with her husband and children.