This blog was created by Boston Children’s Hospital Neighborhood Partnerships through its partnership with the Boston Public Schools and made possible with support from the Patriots’ Day Project, a charitable Fund established by Fidelity Investments® employees in an effort to help our community heal.
With the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings approaching, it’s likely that the wave of media coverage recalling the tragedy could raise questions or concerns in children. Of course, parents will play a large role in helping answer these questions and letting children know they’re safe, but teachers also will be very important in reassuring children.
School should be a safe haven for children—a place to talk to peers and trusted adults about what they are seeing and hearing—which helps them process the world around them. When that world seems frightening or overwhelming, educators know that they need to do everything in their power to support students.
Sometimes it helps to bring the entire school body together to discuss large topics, but when it comes to discussing tragedy, familiar and natural forming groups like students’ homerooms or classrooms are more appropriate. Smaller groups, with easily recognizable faces, offer a sense of safety and can invite more discussion.
To help facilitate a positive, supportive environment where students and teachers can talk about the events that took place at last year’s marathon, Boston Children’s Hospital’s Neighborhood Partnerships Program (CHNP) has collected the following tips teachers can use when discussing the anniversary with students.
- Be prepared for questions or comments. “Why did this happen?” and “Will it happen again?” are common questions from students following a tragedy. Talk with colleagues about how to best answer these questions with the age group of your students.
- Allow conversations to begin with what students already know. Ask students if they’ve heard anyone talking about the Boston Marathon, and if yes, what did they hear? Teachers should invite students’ comments and questions, allowing them to guide the pace and direction of conversation. If you start the conversation with what you know, it could frame the talk around your own thoughts and not the children’s.
- Keep conversations age appropriate. If you plan on talking about a tragic event with very young children, the conversation should focus on who will keep them safe and how. Elementary school students should be told little information about the event (avoid too many details). This age group will benefit from conversations about how adults will keep them safe. (In the case of the Boston Marathon, focusing conversations on the many heroes that emerged that day could be appropriate.) Middle and high school students will likely have more complex questions. These older students also can talk more about what they can do to keep themselves and others safe at school and in the community.
- It’s OK if you don’t know how to answer a student’s question. Some questions don’t have good answers. That’s OK. When it happens, be honest and say, “I don’t know the answer to that.”
- Be mindful of what you share about your own feelings. Though it is fine for teachers to show emotion, you should remain calm and composed, as this will help students be calm. Try expressing general feelings like, “I feel sad when I think about the people who were hurt that day,” or “I feel proud when I think about all the people in our city that helped others. What are some feelings you have?”
- Emphasize safety. Students of any age will benefit from being told that incidents like the Boston Marathon bombing are extremely rare. Adults, such as police, firefighters and government workers, are going to do everything they can to keep people at the Boston Marathon safe this year.
- Share that there are no right or wrong ways to feel. It’s likely that in a classroom full of students there will be a wide range of reactions to the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, ranging from sadness to anger to fear to disinterest. All of these feelings are OK, and teachers need to let students know that.
- Empower students. Letting students know they can support others still having difficulty dealing with the bombings can help them cope with any anxiety they may be feeling themselves. Consider having students make Boston Strong posters, find a fund raiser to contribute to as a class, or write cards of appreciation to Boston police officers or firefighters who will be working hard to keep the city safe at the 2014 Boston Marathon.
- Let administrators know what you need—information, another adult in the classroom, a break, someone to check in with a student you are concerned about. It’s important that teachers get the support they need both before and after talking with students about a tragedy. In order to take care of your students, you need to feel taken care of.
- Seek out school counselors, social workers or psychologists if you’re worried about a student. Disconcerting behavior can include changes in eating or sleeping habits, withdrawal from activities and/or friends, decline in academic performance, or an increase in disruptive behaviors. Talk with professionals about reaching out to the student’s parent about concerns or about limiting the student’s exposure to media if it appears that changes in the student’s behavior are connected to what they are hearing or seeing about the Boston Marathon.
- Take care of yourself. Find healthy ways to nurture your emotional and physical health. Debriefing with other teachers or school staff is a healthy way of relieving any stress you may experience from managing the feelings of your students around the Boston Marathon.
For more information on talking to children about the marathon bombings, please visit this website, which has further advice for teachers, school administrators and parents.