Beyond Newtown: Helping Teachers Help Our Nation’s Children Cope

desks in row in classroomThe enormity of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has barely begun to sink into the collective consciousness of our country. As a mother of an elementary school child, I was apprehensive as I dropped her off at school this week. I noticed the extra staff members in attendance in the car line, but also noticed their nervous smiles as they waved good morning to me and I bid my daughter goodbye.

It was hard not to think of those parents who said goodbye to their children the morning of December 14, totally unaware that their parting words would be forever. I am an emotional person, so I have found it very difficult to hear any mention of this massacre. I have purposefully avoided news channels blanketed with coverage of the grief and loss. I have focused on family, friends, and feeling the spirit of the season. I know too well that if I begin watching the events unfold in that quaint New England town, I will not be able to keep it together. But I am also aware that I must address this issue with my daughter. She will continue to hear about it from friends, classmates, and perhaps even staff members at her school. I struggle with how to broach this subject, how to answer her questions, how to make her feel safe. I fear I will fail miserably.

Millions of children’s lives will be forever changed as a result of this tragedy. And millions of our nation’s elementary school children will go about their daily routines today. They will see their classmates. They will see their friends. They will see their teachers. And their teachers, the majority of whom are probably also traumatized, will be charged with the awesome responsibility of helping our children feel secure, all while dealing with their own shock, grief, and fear. They will have to prepare our children for tests, homework, and even the holidays while calming and comforting them.

Given the immense task that lies ahead for this indispensable group of people, it is important that society recognizes the challenges teachers face so they can be supported in every way possible. Eva Alisic of the Psychotrauma Center for Children and Youth at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands recently led a study that examined the perceptions of teachers dealing with traumatized children.

She interviewed 21 teachers from 13 schools and evaluated their level of perceived competence, secondary stress, and posttraumatic stress. She asked them about the support they felt they had or lacked and how they thought they could best serve the needs of traumatized elementary school students. Alisic found that although most of the teachers felt comfortable helping traumatized children overcome challenges in the classroom, emotionally and academically, they also felt they were probably not giving the best support possible. “Even though teachers identified helpful factors such as support by colleagues, the main finding was that they struggled with providing support to children after traumatic exposure,” Alisic said.

In general, they were unsure that they were meeting the children’s needs and felt overburdened by the emotional task they faced. The teachers also expressed a desire to have more information and knowledge about trauma exposure, its effects, and how to handle those challenges. Although this study focused on children with various types of trauma exposure, it underscores the needs that the country’s teachers will face in the coming weeks and months. Teachers, staff members, and parents should be supported in every way possible and provided with every resource available to help our children cope with the devastating emotional blow that our country was dealt in Newtown, Connecticut.

Alisic, Eva. Teachers’ perspectives on providing support to children after trauma: A qualitative study. School Psychology Quarterly 27.1 (2012): 51-59. Print.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Francis

    December 19th, 2012 at 4:50 PM

    Teachers are not trained to handle this. They need to be given training on such things because children, even if not for this massacre, may have other issues that they face and have nobody to talk to. While a school counselor may be appropriate for high school, for little children, teacher would be the go-to person.

    Although the teachers in the study expressed not being satisfied with the support they provided, I think that is a good thing. It is an indication that they are willing to better their skills in the domain. We definitely should help teachers help kids – not only about something that everybody faces but also maybe individual issues that a child may have.

  • Lottie

    December 20th, 2012 at 4:12 AM

    The scary thing is that now people are talking about having armed guards and teachers in our schools?!? How is this supposed to be effective? Seems more detrimental to me.

  • ellen

    December 20th, 2012 at 5:03 AM

    being a teacher is not just about teaching a subject or assigning homework.its also about helping build a child’s outlook and addressing their fears in a classroom environment.there is no doubt that children would be scared after this recent barbaric it would be good if the teachers are able to address their fact,for this situation,teachers could be better than even parents.that’s because the incident occurred at a school,and also all kids in a classroom have a common fear so a teacher and the classroom setup will be much better at addressing their fears about this particular incident.

    on the other hand,teachers need to be given the right resources to help them help these children.they need the right tools and guidelines so they can be prepared.

  • Mac Hack

    December 20th, 2012 at 12:19 PM

    Teachers are already overworked almost all over. They have too much to look after already. Now pushing the responsibility of emotional support to children onto them is just too much. And it is especially true because they are not trained for it. Are we going to have teachers trained into helping children handle trauma now? They already have enough on their plates. Let the professionals do that and teachers continue with their already-overworked selves.

  • James Finley, Phd--retired psychologist

    December 27th, 2012 at 5:05 PM

    We want safe classrooms. We want school children to experience emotional stability. How do we accomplish this? Budgets are tight. Most teachers are trained in teaching, not counseling. Roving mental health counselors not permanently assigned to a school but available for an entire county, for instance, could be one partial answer.

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