Local educators offer advice for reassuring children after the Connecticut school shootings

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 17, 2012 

Friday's emailed bulletin from the Muscogee County School District alerted principals about the horrific news in Newtown, Conn., but Tonya Douglass reacted as a parent.

She read about the shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six adults, and her emotions flashed back to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

"My very first thought was to leave and find my child and hold my child," she said.

As principal of Downtown Elementary Magnet Academy, however, she didn't want to give her teachers reason to fret the same way.

"It was in the middle of the instructional day, and there was nothing we could do about it," she said. "I wanted to allow students to arrive home with their parents and discuss the tragedy in the way they elected."

Then she went proactive.

During the weekend and into Monday, Douglass emailed her staff about increased security measures and websites with information about how to reassure children after a crisis.

All of which led to a routine day at Downtown, where Douglass was busy interviewing paraprofessional candidates and celebrating the fifth-graders' collection of 2,886 cans of food for families in need.

And except for increased law enforcement patrols at schools, normalcy was the theme throughout the district.

"Today was an uneventful day," said school district communications director Valerie Fuller.

Local psychologists indicated Douglass handled the situation properly, striking the balance between not panicking at first and not being dismissive later.

Laurie Wylie, one of 18 psychologists serving the school district's more than 32,000 students in 62 schools and alternative centers, said she and her colleagues emailed helpful websites to schools and told principals they were available to counsel children, but no one seemed to need extra attention in wake of the Connecticut tragedy.

Still, that doesn't mean they won't.

"A lot of times, you tend to see more reactions after the hype is over with," Wylie said. "The kids now haven't even really had time to process it. They've seen it in the media, but it hasn't impacted their thought processing. … It's very important that parents and communities are there to talk to the kids when they need it and not when the adults think they need it."

Wylie and licensed professional counselor John Doheny suggested the following tips to help parents explain the unexplainable to their children:

• Limit exposure to graphic details in the mainstream media."Wait until the kids go to bed," Doheny said.

Be aware that older children tend to get their news through less reliable outlets in social media, Wylie said.

"They can get bombarded with information," she said. "Younger children don't always have a time perception, so seeing it over and over again can make them think it's happening again."

• Don't assume that children who aren't talking about it also aren't thinking about it.

In fact, Wylie said, any child already in school is old enough for a parent to bring up the subject in a gently probing way so the information the child receives doesn't come from rumors.

Parents can ask their children what they know about "the shooting in Connecuticut" and ask if they have any questions.

"Let kids talk, because it's their perception," Doheny said. "I don't think anything should be off limits."

• Fill in facts only as appropriate for the age and maturity level, the psychologists said. "Be open and honest, but don't embellish," Wylie said.

"Whatever the kids come up with, the parents should address it," Doheny said. Don't say, 'You shouldn't feel that way.'"

• Emphasize that children are safe at their school and in their home. Also note how rare such an incident is.

"Some are going to ask if that's going to happen at their school," Doheny said. "I'd encourage parents to say it's highly unlikely."

• Look for signs that your children might need counseling: a change in their normal behavior, such as eating and sleeping habits, losing interest in an activity they enjoy, or withdrawing from friends and family.

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