Education

Caring for Students in the Wake of a Traumatic News Event

As pro-Trump extremists stormed into the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, middle school teacher Shawn Griffith traded messages with her peers about how they would help their students process the unprecedented event.

“We are all like ‘Oh my gosh. What are we going to do tomorrow?’” said Griffith, who teaches 8th-grade English in Fairfax County, Va., about 20 miles from Capitol Hill who spoke after school had concluded for the day.

Protests turned to violence in the nation’s capital as rioters interrupted a joint session of Congress held to certify the presidential election.

The resulting news footage would likely trouble some children as much as it troubled the adults around them, educators said. And even students who don’t fully understand the events may feel a sense of instability as the adults in their lives react to current events.

How should teachers address those emotions so that students can continue learning, especially in a school environment already disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis?

Experts on social-emotional learning say it’s crucial for educators to help students identify their own feelings, to understand the effects adults have on students’ emotional stability, and to recognize teachable moments on tough news days.

“There are kids who are [going to be] legitimately coming in with different perspectives that are associated with different feelings,” said Marc Brackett, a psychologist and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “What’s important is not to tell people that they shouldn’t be angry or they can’t be fearful. There’s no judgment about the emotion … What you can try to unpack is the reasons for their feelings and the best way to manage those feelings.”

Investigate students’ emotions, without assumptions

Some school districts addressed the news Wednesday evening. Denver, for example, said it would make counseling services available to teachers and students.

It’s key for educators not to assume they know how their students are feeling and responding to events. Rather than interpreting behavior, like a student who seems distracted or agitated, teachers should “investigate feelings,” Brackett said. One student may look angry when they are actually scared, and a student may seem defiant and disengaged when they are actually overwhelmed.

The Yale Center developed a social-emotional learning program called RULER, which teaches students to do daily check-ins, identifying the energy level and pleasantness of their emotions on a color-coded “mood meter.”

Some teachers check in by allowing students to slap on various emojis posted outside of their doors as they walk into class, or by making eye contact and greeting students one-by-one to see how they respond. Teachers have also adapted check-in strategies for remote environments by asking students to share animated GIFs or key words or to use social-emotional learning apps.

Teachers who perform such check-ins regularly will have a ready tool to gauge how their students are responding to big events, like political unrest, natural disaster, or uncertainty in their own lives.

Provide students space to share

Griffith, the Virginia teacher, planned to give her students opportunities to share their responses to Wednesday’s events and how their own backgrounds and experiences may have shaped their perspectives.

“At my school, we have a lot of parents who work for the federal government,” she said. “I teach everything from honors English students who read the newspaper every day to students who are [newly arrived] English-language learners, who in fact may have recently come from a conflict zone. The thing I can do for them that will be most helpful is just to allow them to process what is happening.”

As a coronavirus precaution, Griffith has taught remotely this school year. While whole-class discussions are sometimes difficult in digital environments, writing offers a valuable tool for helping students share, she said.

Griffith plans to use writing prompts, like asking students to respond to a photo of events at the Capitol. She also uses technology that allows her students to share written responses to questions anonymously. Through a Padlet, for example, they can answer questions and share insights their peers might not have considered.

Another key strategy? Good old-fashioned patience, which Griffith has employed as students process the ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Some students are going to be on five minutes early. As soon as they know that I’m there, they’re going to send me a chat,” Griffith said. “But a lot of other ones are going to kind of sit on the perimeter and wait to engage.”

Giving students space for vulnerability helps them develop voice in their writing and makes them feel safer taking risks, which is key for learning, she said.

Recognize how adult behavior impacts children

Even children who haven’t followed the news or are too young to understand it may absorb the stress of their parents or teachers through a phenomenon called “emotional contagion,” Brackett said.

A child may feel stressed or distracted through observing and mimicking the behavior of an adult, but they may not realize the source of those emotions, he said.

In stressful times, teachers may want to take a moment to gather their own emotions before stepping into a classroom or logging into a remote-learning platform.

And adults should understand that how parents and family members are feeling about finances, the news, or the pandemic can spill over into their children’s lives, teachers said.

Sarah Plumitallo, who teaches English-language learners at an elementary school in Woodbridge, Va., said she is accustomed to discussing news events with her students, but she will use more caution this week because many of their parents work in Washington.

“It’s a different experience of teaching in-the-moment history because it’s personal,” she said.

Seize teachable moments in the wake of difficult events

Educators shouldn’t be afraid of difficult conversations that can follow big news events, said David Adams, director of strategy at The Urban Assembly, a group of public middle and high schools in New York City.

Adams helped develop the schools’ approach to social-emotional learning, which emphasizes “perspective taking” and helping students express and understand differing opinions.

Some students may be frustrated comparing the response of law enforcement at the Capitol to police actions during racial justice protests this summer, educators said. And some may be concerned about their role in improving national divisions as they grow into adulthood.

“The legacy that our forefathers left us was a system of government that emphasized cooperation,” Adams said. “The only way to make that system of government work is for people to have faith in each other.”

Social-emotional learning strategies, like exercises that help students talk through conflicts and academic assignments that help them unpack others’ viewpoints, can be helpful in times of stress or difficulty, he said.

“Our young people should feel empowered,” Adams said.