Teaching Tough Topics

TFK asks an expert for tips on talking to students about upsetting events

Dec 17, 2012 | By Andrea Delbanco
GETTY IMAGES

 

Across the nation, people are talking about the terrible tragedy that took place in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14. In classrooms, this can be an especially difficult conversation to facilitate. To help teachers lead their students in the right direction in the coming days and weeks, TIME For Kids talked to Dr. Anne Santa, a psychologist at Bank Street School for Children in New York City. Here’s her advice.

Question:

Should I address this event in class?

Santa:

Many children in each class will know about it. But unless a significant number begin to talk about it, I would not recommend a group discussion. Instead, invite those children who bring it up to have a private, one-on-one discussion with a teacher.

Question:

How do I differentiate between students who don't know anything about the tragedy and those who already have background information?

Santa:

In our discussions, we didn’t allow the children who knew about it to add too much detail. It was a pretty tightly run discussion. Don’t say too much or try to explain why someone would do this. There is no explanation for that. It’s so horrific and so unusual. Don’t oversimplify it and say he was mentally ill. There are many mentally ill people in the world and I don’t want children to stereotype them as dangerous. You can say you don’t want to go into the details now and ask your students to talk to their parents after school.

Question:

How much time should I devote to this topic, if we do discuss it?

Santa:

We aren’t staying on this issue for very long. More is not better in this situation. In one class here, it was a 20 minute discussion. You can say you’ll come back to it, then take the temperature of the students and parents.

You might want to make sure it’s being talked about at home. We asked all of our teachers to send home an email about what they heard and saw in their classroom, to let parents know if their children did or did not discuss it.

Question:

Should I stick to the routine, or accept that this week is different from others?

Santa:

Routines are hugely important, so kids know what to expect. Familiar is good, routine is reassuring, and I think kids are hungry for that. Watch your students play. Watch their drawings. Take the cue from them. Some of the comfort is nonverbal at this age: give them a pat on the back or sit next to a student. Also, doing project-oriented things can distract them.

Question:

What can I do to make students feel more secure at school?

Santa:

Listen, reassure and comfort the kids. Explain the systems your school has in place to keep students safe. Reassure the students that all the adults work on this every day. Let your students know that millions of kids are going to school every day and have been safe and are safe. Say that this was one bad man and he is dead. Try to get it down to “It’s awful, but it isn’t everywhere.”

Question:

What should I do if a student seems especially upset?

Santa:

After 9/11, the thing that helped kids the most was having adults listen to them. You can’t explain it, but you can listen and answer their questions. This is a time when kids need extra comfort and extra nurturing. The school counselor, the head of school, teachers and parents all need to work together. Adults need to really take care of themselves, too.

 

Teacher Resources

Click here for an article written for students about what to do when a news story makes you sad.

Click here to read an article from TIME with advice for parents on talking to their kids about the Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy.