Talking to kids about unspeakable events

December 17th, 2012

In the wake of last week’s tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, all of us are struggling to find words to express our grief, horror, bewilderment, and outrage. Our friends at Responsive Classroom offer some practical tips for teachers and administrators looking for help on what to say—and what not to say—to a roomful of students:

Although you are dealing with your own grief and fears, when you are with students tomorrow and in the days to come, do your best to focus on the children and their needs. It’s daunting, but projecting an emotional front of calm and safety and not showing extreme grief, anger, or fear with students is one of the most effective things you can do to keep children from feeling anxious. Principals and other school leaders can support teachers and staff in this by checking in frequently, by providing space and time for counseling, and by supporting teachers’ efforts to take care of themselves and each other during this time.

Plan for a week of learning that emphasizes peace, inclusion, and community in a secure, predictable environment. Stick to familiar routines and schedules as much as you can. Set academic goals that will allow students to feel masterful and successful, safe and in control. Plan to do activities that you know your students enjoy. Read aloud books with kind and loving characters, whether fictional or real. Although nothing can undo Friday’s tragedy, we can help restore children’s belief in other humans by showing them the opposite—that people can be good, noble, and selfless.

If your class uses an arrival routine such as Morning Meeting, that familiar structure will be especially helpful now. Greeting each other, using an established, predictable format for sharing, doing a physical activity or singing together can all help affirm classroom community. Try to choose greetings and activities that foster a sense of peace and community, and consider using particular favorites of the children. Stick to the structure you’ve already established for meetings. As many educators did after 9/11, you might use Morning Meeting as a place to talk about the Sandy Hook tragedy with children, but don’t let discussion or sharing about it dominate or take over your meetings.

Make time at the end of the day to check in with the group. In classrooms, a routine such as Closing Circle gives teachers an opportunity to hear what the day has been like for students and to take a measure of what is on their minds. A brief check in for faculty and staff can also be helpful at times like this.

For more tips from the Responsive Classroom, visit their website.

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