How should educators respond to tragic events that enter our classrooms and schools?

I was reading a blog post this morning that made me think about this question. The author, a 7th grade teacher in Boston, received emails from her students asking if they could change their ” current events research topic” assignment of the week to the Boston Marathon bombing. She wasn’t sure how to respond and had many mixed emotions.

For me, it brought up three important and interrelated questions. 

  • Should we address these now all too common events in our classrooms? 
  • If so, how can we do it in a way that is respectful and does not further frighten or traumatize our students?
  • Is it possible to talk about  these events with our students in a way that leads to positive change, healing, and hope? 

Many individuals and organizations have excellent resources, as provided by the American School Counselor Association:

On  September 11, 2001,  I was the school counselor in a Connecticut K-8 school, not that far from New York City. My administrators made the call on that tragic day—Turn off the TVs and do not talk about it with students today–let’s let the kids go home and speak with their parents first. Our crisis team talked about how to work with students the next day, and in the days and weeks thereafter.  It’s important as educators to share with each other our own reactions and best practices for working with students. 

On the day after 9/11, I learned that students will have different reactions, and some will not need to talk about the events at all.   I remember  that the first students who came to see me  that day were two fourth grade girls, who were crying uncontrollably.  I invited them in to my office, expecting to hear about the horrors of the day before. Instead, these sweet young girls came to express their grief because one of their cats had just died during the night.  I had to put aside my own thoughts nd listen closely to their feelings.   I had to use my empathy to be with them where they most needed to be. 

Here are SIX ways educators can use the power of  EQ  to talk with their students and help them deal with frightening and tragic events. 

1. CREATE a consistent time and space, such as a class meeting, for students to safely share with you and with each other their thoughts, feelings, and questions. Create time for regular check-ins where you can gauge students’ moods and  hear their needs. Once these classroom practices become routine, students will seek out these opportunities to share feelings and thoughts about both these deeply disturbing events and  the everyday joys and challenges of childhood. 

2. ENHANCE EMOTIONAL LITERACY-–Encourage developmentally appropriate sharing of complex and difficult feelings and reactions. Help students explore the intensity and duration of their feelings, the many words to express their reactions, and the fact that each of them may have both the same and different feelings. Help them to accept feelings without judgement. 

3. INCREASE EMPATHY —First we must put aside our own preconceptions and really listen to students’ feelings and thoughts, without forcing them to have a particular reaction or response, or expecting that they will. Encourage students to express empathy for the victims and families of a tragic events. Encourage them to have empathy for each others’ feelings. Have gratitude for their unique questions and contributions. 


4. USE NAVIGATE EMOTIONS—to help students to validate, explore, and transform their feelings. Many students will want to do something to help.   After 9/11, thousands of students sent  paper messages to Saint Paul’s Chapel, next door to the World Trade Center site. Last year, on a visit to the World Trade Center memorial,  I was fortunate to see these moving remembrances and examples of how students consciously wanted to use their emotions to contribute to the greater good.

5. INCREASE OPTIMISM–After the tragic shootings in Tucson, Arizona, in 2010, my graduate school counseling students here in Tucson, many of whom had connections to the shooting victims, discussed the importance of optimism in creating hope for the future. Educators can help students to remember, in the words of Mr. Rogers, in times of catastrophe, “always look for the helpers.” Encourage students to feel optimistic about the displays of heroism from ordinary individuals, such as those who ran towards the bombing to help others. Assist students to remember that however bleak, the adversity  is in some ways temporary–they will go back to feeling ok again; it’s isolated–they still have much of their lives intact and friends and family to share it with;  and effort is possible–even as children, they can work toward solutions. Christina memory

 6. PURSUE A NOBLE GOAL--Help students to feel empowered to take action to make a difference in this world. Events such as Newtown and the Boston Marathon bombings often inspire people, including children,  to feel even more connected to each other and to work on projects to weave a more peaceful and sustainable world. 



A friend of the teacher of  Martin Richard, the 8-year old boy killed in the Boston Marathon bombings said, “His message resonates powerfully today. My prayer is that we all live by Martin’s words, paying tribute to his too-brief, but immeasurably valuable life by following his example.” Encourage students to follow examples such as Martin’s and Pursue a Noble Goal, both individually and as a class. 


What are some other ways you have found to work with students after a tragedy has occurred? 















About the author - Dr. Susan Stillman

Director of Education, Six Seconds' Global Office: With years of experience as an educational leader, scholar-practitioner, K-12 school counselor, and higher ed faculty, Susan brings a diverse background and set of skills to bear on her mission to build and sustain the Six Seconds' educational programs and to support Six Seconds' team members around the world, working to develop EQ in children, educators, families, schools, and communities.

View more posts from Dr. Susan Stillman

Comments for this article (5)

  • Wow! Dr. Susan, it’s very thoughtful post, I liked all the ideas and first one which I feel the most prominent one because Right now, these days, Creating time and space has a lot of value, students need to create time and space to connect and express with that they can make their own support groups. Support is a basic need I feel and it is a need around the globe, Here in India, we just read a news of an actress who did a suicide, of course some pathology is behind that but also support…; makes a big difference.

  • Dr. Susan Stillman says:

    Thanks, Arati. You’re right. It’s pretty straightforward–and yet magical–to allow students the time and space to connect and share, to show empathy, to solve problems, to express feelings and learn to make better choices together, to create a caring and safe community.

  • Sarah Whyte says:

    This is an incredibly powerful article. As an educator, I always firmly believe that our job is not to protect children from the realities of the world in which we live, but to support them in an appropriate way to try and make sense of events. Of the competencies described in the article, I have drawn upon three in particular with success in the past: navigating emotions, empathy and optimism. Susan writes about how to support children with these competencies and this is so important. I would like to add that engaging your own sense of navigating emotions, empathy and optimism is also vital so that you can offer appropriate support without feeling overwhelmed yourself. This is particularly important when the news comes through of extremely violent and tragic events. Thank you Susan-this is food for thought.

  • Analia Penney says:

    Thank you for the article Susan. I believe that after a tragedy occurs we have a unique opportunity to make an impact on how a child will recall the events.
    My husband still recalls vividly being in school watching the Challenger go down. It could have been an event that scarred him for life or given him a negative outlook on space advancement and innovation but it didn’t. Although he was sadden for loss of human life, he was still inspired by the Astronauts that had given their lives to a bigger cause.
    I asked him what his teacher had done.
    He recalled that they were allowed to express how they felt. Some students cried, some remained quiet, some had questions, everyone reacted in different ways including the teacher. The main idea was that everyone was allowed to feel and there was no wrong or right. When I heard that it, I wanted to give that teacher a high five!
    What if we allowed emotions to flow more in the classroom and even in the workplace. Instead of rationalizing them or trying to keep them under control so much.
    This teacher allowed the student go from fear to openness.
    My husband mention that later they spoke about it but it all came natural.
    Unfortunately, the more we try to suppress our emotions and emotions of our students in an attempt to create a “peaceful” environment. The more intense the emotions will become in the room.
    As a parent I educate my children when tragedy happens. By me facilitating a conversation with my children it gives them a safe place to express themselves and ask questions that they may not want to ask in front of their peers. This depends on the age of your children and what they are going through at the specific time. You can adjust how much you share and you may even share a few days later if you see that your child fragile at the moment or share bite size bits to gauge what their reaction is.
    You will be amazed at how much your children may already know and how many assumptions that they have already made before you even talk to them.
    I understand as parents the first instinct is to shield them from all the bad news. We want them to remain innocent and not have unnecessary fears about the world around them.
    Unfortunately, when we are rocked with a major tragedy that hits the nation or world, you can bet that they will read the magazine next to the candy when you are checking out at the grocery store or hear whispers from other adults. Its just natural.
    Im not condoning sitting them down every time a shooting happens. What I am suggesting is allowing them to know when things that change our World or Nation happens. Allow them the opportunity to feel, talk, or take action.
    I know that when Sandy Hook happened I had so many mixed emotions. I felt outraged and fearful for my own children. I was mourning over all the innocent lives lost. I thought over and over. Do I tell them or do I keep it to myself. I did’t want them to be afraid of school. I had so many thoughts. I finally decided to allow them to know. No way is the way of doing things.
    When my children found out they wanted to take action. They asked for Christmas lights and begged for me to drive them to a local hobby shop to get a trifold paper stand.
    My daughter cut up ribbons for each of the lives lost and drew angels and wrote each of their names. My son cut holes behind each of the ribbons and put lights in the angels.
    They both finished and let out a sigh and said “Now Santa can find them for Christmas”.
    My daughter ran inside and the rest of the night went like a regular night but they had processed what had happened. It is amazing what you learn as an adult when you simply let your children be themselves and trust in what they are doing.
    (One thing that we do in my family is we have a “family bubble” and this is only a suggestion. I have told my children that everyone is different. Some families chose to talk about events like these and some don’t. I have told them to please not tell children that may not know or correct another child if they have a different version. They may have a little sister or brother and our role is not to tell them. We are there to be their friends.) *Discussions like these stay in the family bubble. :)

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