ABC and 123: A Learning Collaborative: Teaching with Ticia: Helping Kids with Tragedy

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Teaching with Ticia: Helping Kids with Tragedy

I had a whole post planned in my head that I was going to write, and then events happened that changed it.  I don't want to draw further attention to the perpetrator, so this won't be specifically about Sandy Hook.  Besides tragedy happens in all guises.  There were tragedies in Hurricane Sandy, and there are smaller personal tragedies every day.  If you want a response to this tragedy in particular, read some of the links from yesterday's post.

I have dealt with this as a teacher with 9-11 and the next year when a shuttle crashed as it returned home.  I have dealt with this as a parent talking when their uncle died and then a year later when their grandpa died.  Both require patience and thinking before you speak.

Dealing with tragedy on a big scale, 

that doesn't affect you personally

1.  Correct errors they've picked up.  Kids will talk about it between themselves.  You can't hush it up and hide it because they will overhear things.  When the space shuttle Columbia crashed, the next day I had students come in claiming they picked up pieces of the space ship from their backyard.  A few even said there were aliens involved.  Correct misconceptions without being judgmental.
2.  Don't endlessly keep the news on when the kids are present.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but another one of the teachers in my school kept the news on to get more information about 9-11.  The principal had to make an announcement for TVs to be turned off.
3.  Allow them to talk.  Kids need ways to process.  Last fall (2011) there were fires near our home.  The kids and I listened to short news updates to know where the fires were.  We talked a lot about what we would do if the fires came to our house.  What the firefighters did to put out the fires.
4. Let them draw it out or act it out.  If their actions become violent, obviously that needs redirecting, but kids need to be able to get their emotions out.  Do not condemn them over their emotions.
5.  Read books to help them think through it.  Some good books are "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" (I only recommend this for uppper elementary or if you preview it), it's a book of poetry written by children in concentration camps.  They are going through horrid things, but the directors there let the kids write and draw. Another good one for hope in hard situations is "Fly Away Home," by Eve Bunting.  A father and his son are homeless and living in the airport.  It helps the kids see there is hope in hard situations, because the boy in the book has hope.

Dealing with tragedy on a personal level

1.  Most of what I said above applies again, but even more so.  Your kids will need to talk about this, and draw about it, and write about it.  Let them do it, even if it hurts you and makes you want to cry.  After their uncle died my boys spent 6 months drawing gravestones on everything.  They didn't go to the funeral, but they drew gravestones and ghosts on everything.  They suddenly had "ghost friends."
2.  To follow that, let them see you cry.  They need to understand you are hurting too.  It's okay.  Children are resilient, and they will get better if you give them the chance.
3. Keep a normal routine as much as possible.  Children thrive on routine, and it helps them to have a routine and to know what to expect.
4.  If it's a death in the family, think long and hard about taking the kids to the funeral.  For our family and our situation, it would not have been good for our kids to go to the funeral, for the both funerals the kids were too young.  They stayed with loving friends and did not go, but some kids it may help them to process their grief.
5.  Remember to talk about the event later on, it helps them remember and process things that happened long ago.  It also will help you.  Things hidden fester in you, and make it harder to recover.

Finally, here are several picture books about death I'm going to separate them out into ones about death of a pet and death of a person.  This is a list I collected back when I was teaching, and I have used some of these books in classrooms and some with my own kids.

Books about the death of a family member or someone you know


Books about the death of a pet or an animal

Finally I want to add one last book, Tear Soup, this is the one I read over and over when my Dad died during my first year of teaching.  I have given this book to several people to help them deal with their grief.  It's a great book in that it can help both grown ups and adults.


  1. Thank you for this post. Dealing with tragedy is different for everyone, but I think you gave some very valid points in this post.

    1. Thanks! It's one I've unfortunately had a lot of time to think about over the past several years.