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Connecticut Shootings: What’s the Best Way to Explain the Tragedy to Young Students?

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This past weekend, a gunman opened fired at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 26 students and adults. KSMU’s Rebekah Clark reports on the advice of local grief counselors when talking with young children about the tragedy.


According to Dr. Karen Scott, executive director of Lost and Found Grief Center in Springfield, making sense of the shootings that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday can be a difficult task for anyone, especially kids. Scott says since the shootings happened on Friday, that left three weekend days for kids to hear about the event and process for themselves. Scott says some might react with fear and feel uncomfortable in a school setting; others might just be confused with what happened.

“Children need to be shielded from so many of the horrific details that are being shared on television and in the news media, and they also need to be shielded from the constant coverage. It causes secondary traumatization for them. Children are not able to cope with a lot of that, and hearing it over and over makes it seem like its right next door and it’s happening over and over.”

She says the pain of hearing about the event can be multiplied exponentially for kids because they can’t always mentally process what took place.

“They need the safety and security of a normal school day. Now, if they watched a lot of it on the weekend, they very well may have questions about what happened, about being safe at school, that kind of thing. They need honest responses; they need to be reassured that this sort of thing is bizarre and unusual, this is not the norm.”  

Scott says teachers and guidance counselors should focus on presenting the topic in a clear and concise way, if it needs to be addressed at all.

“What they have to do is put aside their own emotions, and teachers do this often, on a daily basis. They put aside their own emotions to be that calm, assuring adult presence in front of their children. They should not get emotional when talking to children about it because for children, when the adult - who normally is the calm and cool one - cries and is very emotional, children are very sensitive to that, and then it heightens their fear.”

Rhonda Mammen is the coordinator of counseling services for Springfield Public Schools. She works directly with teachers and counselors on how to deal with tragic events within the classroom. On Monday morning, she was at one of the elementary schools in town meeting with that school’s counselor in a kindergarten classroom.

“There was nothing mentioned by any of the parents that came in or the children—it was kind of business as usual with them. I do know the likelihood of that being like that throughout the entire district is probably pretty slim. I’m sure there were pockets of conversations that were going on, depending on the age of the children, and of course, whether they’ve overheard parents or other adults talking about it.”

Mammen says she’s taken precautions. She’s already sent the district counselors reminders to share with their colleges about how to individually handle each student’s feelings.

Mammen has advised the teachers to try and keep things as normal as possible. If questions do come up, she says they will be answered in a respectful manner, either individually between teacher and student, or in a small group setting with a counselor. She says she’s also given local principles some resources to pass along to parents if they are struggling with how to talk to their kids about the shooting.

Mammen echoes Scott’s advice, asking parents and teachers to limit the exposure of the news coverage with their kids.

Monday, Lost and Found Grief Center joined Drury University to host a memorial service for the victims who lost their lives in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Anyone that wanted to was able to talk with representatives from the grief center about the event.

For KSMU News, I’m Rebekah Clark.    

ANCHOR TAG: Nixa Public Schools are providing links through their website that give tips on how to talk about the violence with students.