How To Help a Student Cope With Tragedy

Posted by Sydney Myers

September 26th, 2017

Recent natural disasters have reminded us of how quickly a person’s life can change. As a teacher or school professional, you might ask, ‘What can I do to help a student cope with tragedy?’

Teacher Guidelines for Crisis Response, published by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, explains that “teachers are on the ‘front lines’ during and following a crisis situation’ because of how much time they spend with students. “[They] often know them better than anyone in the school. Therefore, teachers are likely to be in a good position to provide early and ongoing intervention.”

Here are four tips from doctors and psychologists for what you can do to help a student cope with tragedy.

Offer a listening ear

Sometimes the best thing to say to a grieving person is nothing at all. The student needs to feel comfortable expressing his feelings.

Avoid pressuring the student to verbalize feelings

Set aside just a few minutes to ask how the student is doing. The guide Teacher Guidelines for Crisis Response emphasizes the need for students to know “that they have permission to verbalize what they are experiencing”.

A word of caution though, “Students who are hesitant to verbalize their feelings should be encouraged to do so but demands to verbalize should be avoided.”

Two of my high school teachers would open every class with a journal session. We could write whatever we wanted in our journal. We never had to share it with the class and it wasn’t graded. It was a simple way for everyone to express themselves.

If a crisis is experienced by a group of students or the entire school, the Teacher Guidelines resource explains, “It is imperative that students, as a group, be given the opportunity to discuss their feelings and reactions to the crisis situation. They need to be able to discuss these feelings and know that their fears and reactions are shared by others.”

When one of my high school classmates died in a car accident, one teacher set aside the entire class period to let everyone share their feelings. A few minutes in, we were all crying. My teacher didn’t say much, she just let us talk.

You can help students cope with tragedy by letting each one express their thoughts and feelings.

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Be patient and sympathetic

You won’t always understand how a grieving student feels. Maybe you’ve never experienced what they’re going through. Even if you have experienced something similar, not everyone handles pain or expresses grief in the same way.

“No two people respond to situations, including crisis situations, in exactly the same manner”

Teacher Guidelines for Crisis Response explains that “no two people respond to situations, including crisis situations, in exactly the same manner”, and that a person’s reaction to a crisis situation “is dependent upon a number of variables”.

The National Association of School Psychologists explains, “Grief is personal. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. How people grieve can be influenced by developmental level, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, mental health, disabilities, family, personal characteristics, and previous experiences.”

Being patient and allowing for a variety of emotional responses will go a long way towards helping the student recover.

Offer sympathetic and reassuring words

Knowing what to say to a grieving person can be challenging. You might feel like all of the pressure is on you to make them feel better.

It may be easier to write a simple note to the student or send a card or letter to the student’s parents that they can share if they choose to.

“Not everyone handles self-disclosure the same way.”

Perhaps there is a quote that you call to mind when facing tragedy. You may recall something someone said to you that brought you a measure of comfort.

Expressing your sympathy and sharing a short, encouraging message can reassure a person that people care about them.

In an interview with Vicki Davis, Dr. Steven Berkowitz, Director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery, says, “Be very honest about how everybody’s feeling, and what they’re concerned about.” He recommends reassuring the child of your support, letting them know that they’ll be taken care of.

The National Association of School Psychologists warns against “predicting a timeframe to complete the grieving process…over-identifying, (e.g., ‘I know how you feel’)…and too much self-disclosure (e.g., ‘I lost my mom to cancer’) as not everyone handles self-disclosure the same way and the focus should remain on the student’s grief.”

Just a few small words of comfort along with lots of listening will help a student cope with tragedy and feel a measure of security.

Remain sensitive to the healing process

When tragedy strikes, everyone is ready to provide comfort and encouragement. But remember that pain can last for years, perhaps never truly fading. Dr. Berkowitz explains, “When a family member passes, there’s so much support, and you’re busy, and you almost don’t have time to think about your feelings. And it’s really about a week or two weeks later, where it really hits.” It’s important to be mindful of occasions that might remind the student of the tragedy.

The National Association of School Psychologists explains, “Grieving does not have a timeline. Schools should be aware of anniversaries, birthdays, developmental milestones, and other factors that could affect students months or years after the loss.”

Teacher Guidelines for Crisis Response acknowledges that people heal at different rates and emphasizes the need for teachers to “remain sensitive to this fact and remain vigilant to reactions for some time after the crisis.”

You may choose to discuss a classroom activity with a student beforehand to give them an opportunity to express their thoughts.

The classroom can be a vital piece of the coping process. Students spend the majority of their day with their classmates and teachers. Being willing to listen to the student and his parents, offering small words of comfort when appropriate, and being mindful of their feelings can go a long way to helping the student manage their pain and cope with tragedy.

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