While the school year has been over for many of you, my last day is more than a week away. In the wake of the horrific events that have taken place in Orlando this past week, I am happy that our school is still in session. Most of my upper elementary students are aware and confused over what has taken place. Many have expressed fear that they or their families are at risk. Others are frightened because their family has future plans to travel to Disney.
Unfortunately this is not the first time I have had these types of discussions with students. Early into my career, Columbine occurred. The ugly list has gone on to include September 11, Newtown, Charleston–we can only pray that Orlando is the last. The climate of our time places a heavy responsibility on our shoulders to guide our students. As SLPs, it is our role to help students process the information, express their thoughts and regulate their emotions. Here’s some tips to help your students when talking about their fears:
- Ask them questions first. Sometimes we assume that our students, especially older, know more than we think. Questions such as “So, what do you know?” allows their knowledge to guide your discussion of the events.
- Make sure you are developmentally appropriate. Early elementary need brief, simple information, and reassurance that they are safe. Middle school students might have more questions, need more details, and have stronger opinions about violence in our society. Although I like to keep details of the actual event to a minimum, I find it reassuring to my students to share ideas about how to make schools and our society safer.
- Avoid abstract concepts. For example, several of my students asked me “Why did the man shoot and kill those people?” Rather than trying to answer such a complex question, I’ve kept my response to a simple “No one knows why he did what he did. We do know that his thinking was very confused.”
- Validate their feelings. Let your students know that all feelings are okay, especially when a tragedy happens. As Leah Kuypers, author of the Zones of Regulation points out: “there are no bad feelings/zones and it is completely normal for feelings/zones to change rapidly”. The important thing is not to dismiss their concerns. Children at this age are egocentric and believe that any bad thing that happens anywhere is heading their way.
- Don’t get upset if some students seem indifferent about the tragedies. Everyone processes information differently and reacts to horrific events in unique ways. Let your students know that it is normal to express things in their own unique way.
- Review safety plans at school and in public. Emphasize the importance of being aware of their environment (e.g., reporting strangers on school grounds or threats they may overhear to adults), and how to use their cell phones in case of an emergency.
- Teach tolerance. Avoid placing blame on a cultural group and help your students to take the perspective of ethnic groups that might be blamed.
- Empower your students. I always ask what they would like to do to help those affected by the tragedy. You might want to have students write thank-you cards to first responders, notes of sympathy to families, or make donations to Go Fund Me which benefits victims of the Pulse massacre.
- Seek out school resources. Collaborate with other educators including school counselors. Make these team members aware of feelings expressed by students so they can facilitate conversations as well.
- Make it safe to come to you for help with their feelings. Avoid saying things like “Don’t worry”, which represses feelings and fuels anxiety. While you may not be able to give all the answers or cure all concerns, students will be comforted in knowing they can express and process their thoughts and feelings in your speech room!
Have you helped your students talk about tragedies in your speech room? Post your experiences below!