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? 















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.