Educators help students cope in the face of tragedy

In the wake of the shooting at Fort Hood Wednesday and other high profile tragedies in recent memory, many children and students are left wonder if something similar might happen to them. Local teachers and educators involved in helping children cope in the wake of these and other recent tragedies try to help relieve that lingering uncertainty.

Jeana Harris, a counselor at Mayes Elementary, said the key to helping children cope during these situations is to not ignore the situation, but to put the response in language that is fitting for the age.

“You wouldn’t answer a kindergartner in the same way you would a fifth grader,” said Harris.

Harris said when students would have questions she would give reassurance and acknowledge the child’s feelings, without giving absolutes. “You never say this cannot happen,” said Harris.

Following the explosion last year at the West Fertilizer Company, Harris said she had students ask if something similar could happen locally. Harris said many of the students felt helpless, like they had no control on what was going on.

Uncertainty also followed the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Harris said children repeatedly asked one question: “Why?”

“I wasn’t expecting to get any questions from first graders, but I had several who knew many details,” said Lacie Giasson, a first grade teacher at Mayes Elementary.

Giasson said she helped her students make plans in case something did happen. Giasson said she had one particular student who would panic during emergency drills at the school. She said she gave him the job of leading his fellow students to shelter as a way of keeping him focused on a task, rather than focusing on the worry.

In response to the tragedy in West, the students organized relief drives, sending supplies to assist the survivors. “They got behind it because they felt like they had some form of control,” said Harris, who said that, and an accompanied sense of duty, helped the students get past their fears.

Susan Simmons, a counselor at Crutchfield Elementary in Sherman, said teachers are always paying close attention to students, particularly in the wake of a tragedy. “Kids see a lot and hear a lot,” Simmons said. “They can hear about something going on all the way across the world and be affected by it.”

“If a child shows that they are anxious or upset, a teacher will refer them to a counselor for an individual session,” said Simmons. Those sessions can include anything from just talking about the child’s feelings to using art supplies and puppets to get the child to open up.

The most important thing, according to Simmons, is that both educators and parents make sure children know they are safe, protected and loved.

At school, children have access to professionals with years of training in talking to children. At home, however, this is not always the case. Many parents don’t know what to do when a tragedy occurs, said LaVerne Barber, a licensed professional counselor at the Child and Family Guidance Center of Texoma. Barber suggested parents and caregivers should not feel obligated to tell children about every national tragedy that occurs.

“Why would we want to give children more scary things to think about?” Barber asked. “We don’t need to traumatize kids. This kind of thing scares them. It makes them start thinking, ‘What if someone walks in my house and kills me?’”

This does not mean, Barber cautioned, parents should tell children anything but the truth if kids have questions. “If they do ask about something, you have to be open and honest.”

According to Barber, the best way a parent can help a child cope with a tragedy of any kind is to encourage the child to talk about how he or she feels. Listening, spending quiet time with the child, and reassuring them that they are loved should be a parent’s main goal.

“We all know our kids, as parents and as educators,” said Simmons. “We know what they are afraid of and when they are not OK. Just don’t give them more than they can handle.”


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